There are many AUs (alternate universes) that fandoms love indulging in, but fantasy AUs are arguably the biggest. And who can blame them? Seeing modern or futuristic characters looking like they belong in Dungeons & Dragons is always fun to see. The Big Two comics have slowly been getting in on this territory: Marvel attempted it with teenage Champions back in 2018, and now DC’s taking a stab at it with Dark Knights Of Steel, complete with variant covers styled after character sheets.
Currently writing Superman: Son Of Kal-El and Nightwing, Tom Taylor came to fame primarily through Injustice and DCeased. Those books also gave alternate takes on DC characters, and Steel makes its biggest change right at the start, as Jor-El and a pregnant Lara escape Krypton’s end. After crash landing in medieval Europe just as Kal is born, the story jumps ahead about 20 years and into the story proper. With Kal as the wide-eyed young prince of the Kingdom Of El, eager to explore the lands outside his castle, Batman serves as his bodyguard—a bastard knight sworn to protect the Els alongside a troupe of Robins who serve as a strike force.
As far as setups go for an AU, it’s not a bad place to start. Taylor continues to excel at writing DC’s A- and B-tier characters, and there’s something fun in watching medieval versions of the Robins, Green Arrow, and Black Canary strutting around. (Even if, in this first issue, there’s no real reason for someone like Harley or Constantine to be here other than to remind you he likes these characters.) Yasmine Putri, who specializes in variant covers for DC, perfectly blends reality and fantasy in her art. Scenes of Black Canary exploding a tavern with her Canary Cry or Black Lightning as a king contain a different sense of awe than how we’ve seen them in the present day.
If only the story could match the visuals. Where Injustice and DCeased had their own absurd energies that were relatively clear from the jump, Steel feels lifeless in comparison. Not that it needs to be as bloodthirsty as Taylor’s other AUs or those of fellow fantasy contemporaries (or full of self aware quips, for that matter), it does need to have something beyond just simply inserting these characters into medieval times. It could do far more with its setting—though it does at least try to offer something new by way of Batman, who learns that he’s Jor-El’s son.
That reveal is decent on its own, but then an arrow fired from Oliver Queen (and souped up with Lantern energy) gets Jor right in the eye and kills him. It’s completely absurd, and has shades of Injustice’s occasional cruelty. If the issue had more of that energy, it would be a delightful start to a new AU. As is, it feels like a mixed performance roll: convincing enough, but you know it can do better.