Pathos can be an effective tool for a writer. When used in the context of a comedy, it can punctuate an otherwise amusing and light-hearted atmosphere with a moment of raw human drama, switching gears suddenly in a way that throws the audience off-balance and makes the moment even more affecting than it might have been in a more serious context. However, it isn’t an easy thing for a writer to accomplish, requiring a delicate touch and a careful judgement of how a scene will play with the eventual reader.
It’s a credit to the skill of Paul Cornell, then, that he manages to pull off an effective example of this technique not once, not twice, but three times in this issue.
The first example comes within the opening few pages, in which we learn that Jarvis Poker – the ‘British Joker’ – is suffering from terminal prostate cancer and has only weeks to live. It’s a moment that’s rendered all the more heartbreaking by Jarvis’s weak attempts at making jokes throughout his examination, and his feeble ‘getaway’ at the close of the scene. Artist Jimmy Broxton also adds to the contrast by giving Poker absurd polka-dot pantaloons on one page, only to perfectly capture a brief moment of solemn, mortal contemplation in the very next panel that’s played absolutely straight.
The second moment of pathos comes after Poker has embarked on one last ineffectual and light-hearted crime spree (inadvertently provoked by real-life British TV personality Jonathan Ross, no less). Rather than attempting to prevent Poker’s ‘crimes’, the Knight and the Squire deduce his condition and help Poker to regain his dignity by treating his silly shenanigans — which unfathomably revolve around British novelty chart hits — with the utmost seriousness. It’s a moment of genuine warmth and humanity that you could never imagine happening between Batman and the Joker, and it shows just how many new storytelling possibilities could be offered to the wider DC universe by the more sanitised superhero environment of Paul Cornell’s Britian.
This brings us on to the final example of pathos, which comes towards the end of the issue. Revealing either of the two major developments of the issue’s final scene would constitute severe spoilage, so I’ll refrain from describing them explicitly. Suffice it to say that the scene provides an abrupt gear-change that sees an element of the US-based Batman mythos come crashing into the book, intruding upon the quaint and peaceful atmosphere created by Cornell’s work on the series up to this point, with irreversible and highly damaging consequences. (And never have the words “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” felt more chilling).
Indeed, against the backdrop of the previous four issues of Knight and Squire, these examples of pathos are even more effective. In retrospect, it’s possible to see how the series has been leading up to this point, with Cornell ramping up the silliness to prepare us for a real sucker-punch at the close of this issue (just as he did at the close of his Wisdom miniseries for Marvel). There’s even a brief flashback to a scene from issue #1 that reveals just how carefully the writer has planned these developments from the start of the miniseries, should anyone doubt that the whole thing has been carefully choreographed.
In amongst all this cleverness and seriousness, there are all sorts of other fun little touches that make the book satisfying to read. There’s a great double-page spread in which Broxton imitates the style of old-fashioned British comics, there are some fun yet gentle parodies of current British TV shows, and there are plenty of accurate representations of British landmarks and society (which is something that will be notable for British readers who are used to US-oriented fiction offering precious few realistic depictions of the UK).
However, it’s those three examples of pathos that really make the story effective and involving, and which have me incredibly keen to see how things play out in the book’s concluding chapter next issue.