REVIEW: Demon Knights #1

One of the things I like most about DC’s relaunch is the attempt to reach out to a wider audience beyond the superhero genre.  Now, I love superheroes as much as the next guy, but variety is the spice of life.  Amongst the New 52, there is a western comic, war comics, and most notably, an expansion of the horror genre (or, at the least, an injection of horror elements into superhero narratives) under the DC Dark banner.  But one of the exercises in genre diversification that most captured my interest was Demon Knights, DC’s foray into fantasy.

Up until recently, fantasy was not a genre that I was particularly engaged by.  Of course, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, the books and the films, but beyond the world of swords and sorcery just didn’t appeal to me.  But recently, some notable works in the genre have worked to change that.  There was Tears of the Dragon, the quality webcomic from Tyler James and Koko Ambaro, a tale that channels the spirit of The Princess Bride but incorporates a darker, tragic element.  And then I was blown away by Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels.  All of a sudden, fantasy seemed more exciting.  So, when news emerged that Paul Cornell – one of my favourite writers – would be tackling the genre with a tale of Jack Kirby’s Etrigan The Demon leading a band of outcast warriors in the Dark Ages, it seemed like a natural fit, and so Demon Knights very quickly found itself on my list of must-buy comics.

With the respective marketing of each title, I actually found myself holding a higher anticipation for Stormwatch, Cornell’s other series.  But I read Stormwatch #1, and while it was a perfectly enjoyable first issue, I think it was overshadowed by some of the other New 52 titles of last week, and didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations I had in my head.  Demon Knights does.  In fact, it surpasses them.  Demon Knights #1 is a comic laced with the wit, invention, and British charm I’ve come to love from  Cornell’s work in titles such as Knight & Squire, and it would seem Cornell has carried over an important narrative lesson  from Knight & Squire #1: there is perhaps no better setting to launch a series and introduce a cast of characters than a good ol’ English pub.

It’s a magnificently constructed set-piece, as our cast of characters – some familiar faces, some brand new – steadily congregate in a little village inn called The Victory in Rome, all while he know a fearsome horde of marauding killers is on an inevitable collision course with the sleepy rural community.  It’s an environment where people go to sit and talk, and so it allows for our ensemble to be introduced in quick, economic succession.  But Cornell skilfully gives each character their own distinct voice and personality, and very quickly seeing how these personalites will interact and clash becomes a point of intrigue.  Even though in some cases they only have a few panels to make an impression, each of our “magnificent seven” brings something to the narrative, as I hope to demonstrate:

I really am full of love for humans at this point.

One small touch that I appreciate, and an example that perhaps more writers could have followed in these supposedly new-reader-friendly #1s, is that in the opening sequence of the comic, Paul Cornell gives us a quick recap of our eponymous Demon’s origin, set against the dramatic backdrop of the fall of Camelot.  Etrigan is a character who I’ve enjoyed when he’s popped up in supporting roles in other books, but even I wasn’t familiar with his backstory beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia.  This reads very well as an introductory comic for someone who has never read an Etrigan comic before, following the story of how Merlin’s servant Jason Blood was mystically bonded with the demon Etrigan by letting us frst spent time getting acquainted with the pragmatic Jason Blood before his monstrous other half is unleashed in the issue’s climactic moments.  This lets Etrigan be built up as the heaviest hitter in a pub full of hard-as-nails badasses, but it also provides a nice twist, as while much of the setup seems to be about Jason Blood as a Bruce Banner figure trying to contain the savage beast within, when he does make the transformation, Etrigan is introduced as an eloquent figure with his own distinct personality, and his own human attachments.

Just one quiet pint.  That’s all I ask.

Though the comic is called Demon Knights, and though it is presented as a team book, judging by this first issue, it will be a series with two leading roles, the second one being filled by Madame Xanadu.  In the wake of this relaunch, Xanadu might be the character that gets one of the biggest boosts in status.  This week alone, she appears in two different titles, and is also slated to be on the roster for Justice League Dark, making her something of a lynchpin figure linking the various titles under the “Dark” banner.  While my limited knowledge of Xanadu always had her as a wise, enigmatic figure, here Cornell has fun giving us a younger version of the immortal sorceress, only a few hundred years old, seeming more human with her less sage, more ill-tempered demeanour.  I think we’re going to have a really interesting dynamic running through this series, a twist on the “unconventional love triangle” of Superman, Clark and Lois, in that Xanadu seems to be telling both Jason Blood and Etrigan that she loves them, and would rather they not change into their other form.  There’s a note of ambiguity as to which one she’s lying to… or maybe she has feelings for them both?

I have almost no ethics myself, you understand… but I like them in others.

Vandal Savage is a prolific DC villain that has shown up in a wide range of titles I’ve read, and while plenty of these have been great stories, Savage has never really stood out as a favourite of mine.  This, however, might mark one of my favourite appearances by the immortal (notice a trend here?) rogue, adding the wrinkle that, when you get over the fact that he’s pure evil, Vandal Savage is actually a jolly, personable kind of fellow who’s good to have a drink with.

The celts have odd ways.  Nod and smile.

Perhaps best known for her appearance in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, Shining Knight is a girl who has adopted the male guise of “Sir Ystin”.  We get a brief but telling glimpse of her personality here, as she makes a big show of being a man, overcompensating for everything – the showy armor, the massive sword, the giant pitcher of ale, and the manly boasts – but still looking totally ladylike with the way she’s sitting (a nice touch by Diogenes Neves, more on him later).  One particularly effective beat is that we see all the other characters immediately cotton on to the fact that this is a woman pretending to be a man, but politely play along with her ruse.  Nice to see such an enlightened view of the transgendered in medeival times!

Listen, I am Al Jabr.  I bring mechanisms that can make you rich.

Sadly, we see in the treatment of Al Jabr that in other ways, we share many of the same prejudices that some of us still have today.  Coming across as a suave, Middle-Eastern prototype for Tony Stark, we learn most about Al Jabr by how the barkeep treats him, regarding him with distrust and suspicion because of his ethnicity.  It’s a small beat, but it’s a nice bit of social commentary thrown in by Cornell, demonstrating the era where such unenlightened attitudes should have remained.

I come from an island where men are castrated… and women are pleased.

Enrichening the mythology of Wonder Woman before her new #1 is even released, Exoristos is a nice way of showing that Diana wasn’t the first Amazon to have the idea of walking among men, and not all of them are going to be as friendly and compassionate as her.  But despite her violent, aggressive nature, Exoristos’ abuse of the barkeep is in defense of Al Jabr, so in that way, it could be suggested that heroism seems to be naturally ingrained in the race.

But please, whoever you are… take this news to the village… disaster approaches!

Of our seven characters, the one we see the least of is the mysterious, horsebound archer we only get a single glimpse of, obscured against the glare of the sun.  But with the ease with which she takes out three of the horde, she seems to be a formidable combatant, and one I’m interested in seeing more of in the future.  I’ll take this moment to note that the majority of the central ensemble are women, and none feels like a “token woman”: each is given their own rounded personality, and they’re arguably the most interesting characters.  This is the kind of book the Batgirl of San Diego criticised DC Comics for not having enough of, so I really hope she gets a chance to read Demon Knights #1 – I think she’ll like it.

We find the source of the problem… and we throw dragons at it.

As our heroes gather, our villains plot in the distance, giving everything that’s going on at the inn an air of impending doom.  This strand of the narrative is deftly executed, with Mordru and the Questing Queen posing a threat whose scope is not quite yet clear.  There’s also a moment of unspeakable evil involving a baby I had to actually reread to be sure I was actually seeing what I thought I’d seen.  Yes, I did.

All this is not to say that, amidst all the characterisatio, nothing happens.  This is a meticulously plotted comic, making the very most of its 20 pages by ensuring something important happens, or someone interesting is introduced, on every page.  This is a very dense, plot-driven book, packing a lot of story into a single issue, but importantly, it never feels dense.

A big part of what makes Demon Knights such an easy read is the beautiful artwork of Diogenes Neves, whose large, open panels give everything an expansive, epic feel.  The colors of Marcelo Maiolo aid in establishing a warm, vibrant atmosphere within the pages, giving the art a classic, painted vibe.  Of particular note in the art department is the excellence with which Neves renders Etrigan.  Bolstered by a well-judged update of his costume, Neves’ massive Demon is one of the finest depictions of the character I’ve seen, even better than the also-impressive rendition provided by Tony Daniel for the cover.  Though I also have a soft spot for Jimmy Broxton, I’d venture to say that Diogenes Neves is arguably the finest artest Paul Cornell has worked with.

Overall, Demon Knights #1 is a towering success, easily the best of the new DC offerings this week, and up there with Swamp Thing and Animal Man among the best of the New 52 overall thus far.  The fact that all three of these are DC Dark titles further cements my opinion that this is the corner of the DCU to be most excited about.  I read this whole comic with a big, goofy grin on my face.  The biggest compliment I can give to Demon Knights is that when reading it, I quickly got the impression that this could be a spritual successor to Secret Six.  It shares quite a few traits in common with Gail Simone’s consistently excellent supervillain team book: an ensemble of bad, bad people who are actually quite nice when you get to know them, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a sense that, even when the protagonists are in the most dire of straits, this is a comic with its tongue ever so gently prodding its cheek.

I just hope that, like Secret Six, Demon Knights can avoid cancellation, and is given time to build up the cult audience it is surely good enough to attract.  Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves have crafted something really special here, and if you like diversity, if you’re up for trying something a bit different from the norm, give Demon Knights #1 a try.  I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.

REVIEW: Stormwatch #1

Much fuss was made of Justice League #1, the comic by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee that launched DC’s New 52 last week.  But another team book came along this week to less fanfare, nestled amidst some higher-profile new releases, and might just have trumped Justice League.  Say hello to Stormwatch.

Stormwatch #1, by writer Paul Cornell and artist Miguel Sepulveda, is one of the DC relaunch titles I’ve been most looking forward to.  I’ve never read an issue of The Authority or the original Stormwatch in my life, so my interest was based primarily around the presence of writer Paul Cornell.  His name alone was enough to sell both this and next week’s Demon Knights for me.  But with the more I heard about Stormwatch, the more I began to suspect this comic might be the dark horse of the whole bunch, the one to emerge and steal the show from all the others.  It is more a testament to the incredible quality of DC’s output this week than any real detriment to this particular comic that Stormwatch #1 wasn’t among my favorites, as in most other weeks this would have been a standout.

One of my issues with Justice League #1 was how little actually happened here.  In this first chapter of Stormwatch, we have a superpowered smackdown on the streets of Moscow, a quest to the Himalayas where a giant, monstrous creature is discovered, and a battle with the moon, which has become sentient and turned against Earth.  Yes, you read that right.  Any one of these plot strands could sustain Justice League for several issues at the pace its currently going.  Furthermore, whereas in Justice League we only got to meet a few team members, here we get a whirlwind introduction to the whole Stormwatch roster, with a glimpse at their powers and personalities.  This was my first time reading a comic with a lot of these characters, so this exposition was appreciated.

If there’s any shortcoming, I’d probably single out the ending.  I’m aware of the relationship between Midnighter and Apollo, and for a longtime Authority fan the arrival of Midnighter might be a big moment.  But for a newbie like me, the conclusion lacked the jawdropping impact of some of the other cliffhangers the DC #1s have provided thus far.  Sure, not every comic needs a big shocking cliffhanger at its end, but in the case of this week, with so many comics starting with a screaming bang, beginning with a polite introduction puts you at risk of being overshadowed.

I’ve seen some criticism of Sepulveda’s artwork, which I don’t think is entirely fair.  His character designs might not leap off the page, but when you see his rendition of some of the crazier, epic stuff on display, you get a real taste of where Sepulveda’s strengths lie.  The giant eye that opens in the core of the moon, the creature in the Himalayas, the menacing forms Martian Manhunter shapeshifts into, even the Stormwatch HQ hurtling though hyperspace… this is a book that owes just as much to heady, high-concept sci-fi as it does superheroics, and that shows in the visual presentation.

Comparing this to Cornell’s other work, I wouldn’t say Stormwatch hooked me as fastly and as strongly as Knight & Squire (which, by a few pages into the first issue, had me wanting to just put the book down and scream, “I LOVE THIS BOOOOOOOOK!”), but there are big, inventive ideas here, and plenty of potential for this series to be a real grower.  Like most of Cornell’s work, it’s instantly likeable, and shows a skillful balance of the wildly inventive and the relatably clever and witty.  A promising start.

REVIEW: Tears of the Dragon, Volume 1

I’ve not always been the biggest fan of fantasy.  Sure, earlier in the decade I got caught up in Lord of the Rings fever with much of the rest of the world, but aside from that it’s not a genre I’ve generally immersed myself in.  I’ve found that to be changing in recent months.  It began with my rediscovery of The Princess Bride, watching it on DVD after not seeing it for many years, and falling in love with it all over again.  Then it was taken to the next level by Game of Thrones, HBO’s brilliant adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novel.  Most recently, amongst the barrage of news regarding DC Comics’ big September relaunch, one of the new titles I’m most looking forward to is Paul Cornell’s sword-and-sorcery themed Demon Knights.  Fantasy has suddenly became a genre of much interest to me.

Another major part in my own personal fantasy revival has been Tears of the Dragon, the excellent webcomic from writer Tyler James and artist Koko Ambaro.  For those of you who don’t follow webcomics, fear not: the series thus far has been collected in this gorgeous graphic novel edition, presented in a landscape format to preserve the layouts as originally presented online.  Something as simple as this – the fact that it’s shaped differently from  other graphic novels – is another small way the book stands out.  It reminded me of Daniel Clowes’ Mister Wonderful, which is rather nice company to be keeping.

But I’m not here to talk about how Tears of the Dragon will look on your coffee table, but rather about the story inside.  It is a story of two quite distinct halves.  The first, “To Become a King”, reads much like standard swashbuckling fantasy fare.  We open with a grandparent telling his children a story of long ago, a bookend which instantly put me in mind of the aforementioned The Princess Bride – something Tyler James himself acknowledges as a major inspiration.  Like that film, the story at this stage is injected with a certain relish for the genre.  Koko Ambaro throws himself into the epic widescreen panoramas with gusto, as we watch prospective king Torvuld do battle with a dragon.  It is in his rendition of the dragons that Ambaro really gets to strut his stuff.  Under his pen, their sheer size makes them intimidating, but they are brought to life with a fluidity that suggests grace as well as power.

The coloring of Paul Little in the first 10 pages gives the story a nostalgic glow – it’s story-time for the kids, and the aesthetic almost feels like a children’s storybook.  But when the talented Miguel Marques takes over from page 12, he brings an earthier tone to the colors, which in turn seems to herald a deeper complexity in the story.  After Torvuld is victorious and is crowned as king, we return to the dragon Sythic, and see him crying over his lost love, slain dragon Mettai.  This dragon is not just another monster, but rather a complex character in his own right, who as this chapter comes to a close we get the sense we’ve not seen the last of.  Then again, as the narrative continues, we learn this is not just another fairy tale either.

It is with the longer second chapter that makes up the bulk of this first volume, “Torvuld’s Plight”, that we get a stronger sense of the tale Tyler James is crafting, and that Tears of the Dragon truly comes into its own.  We still get a fare share of dynamic action and classic fantasy tropes (take a bow, tomboy daughter who wants to be a warrior like the boys), but its laced with poignant human drama, and some really powerful, dark moments.  “I don’t think I like this story, grandfather,” says the little girl as decidedly modern story beats we’re not used to seeing in a fantasy tale start to infect the narrative.

Tyler strikes an effective balance with the voices of his characters, making them feel authentically of a fantasy time and setting, while still feeling striaghtforward and relatable rather than overblown and stilted.  But his true strength comes in his plotting and structure.  You get a sense that this first volume is but the tip of the iceberg for where this story is going, but that every plot development and character established here is done so precisely and deliberately, set to play a bigger role in the future.  Indeed, this volume’s front cover shows us characters we haven’t met yet, and others who look much different to the way they look at this early stage in the narrative.  Clearly, Tyler has meticulously planned well ahead.  But with the way it’s all paced, we never feel like we’re getting an info dump, as the story thunders along and there’s always a more present drama or conflict to occupy our attention.

If there’s any complaint to be had, it’s that it’s over all too quickly.  In the closing pages, we get a twist on that bookend with the grandfather telling the children a story that seems to up  the stakes, while the story of Torvuld and his children takes a tragic turn.  But just as both plot threads seem set to become really compelling, volume 1 is over!  Have no fear, though, because the webcomic resumes in August.  There should be just enough time for you to buy this book and get all caught up.

Tears of the Dragon is a great showcase for all involved.  Tyler James, who already impressed me with his work on Over, shows here an increase in scope and ambition that suggests he is continuing to evolve as a writer.  Koko Ambaro’s simple yet dynamic art is the perfect fit for the story, and is perfectly showcased in this widescreen format, allowing for lush, at times even poetic page layouts.  The colors of both Paul Little and Miguel Marques work to set the tone, with the increasing darkness in the pallette reflecting the direction of the narrative.  Top notch work from all involved.  If you’re a fan of fantasy, this is a comic you need to add to your collection.  With the diversity of its respective plot threads, Tears of the Dragon deserves a place alongside both The Princess Bride and Game of Thrones.

Tears of the Dragon, Volume 1 is now available to buy from Amazon.

Comics Storytelling 101: Paul Cornell

A big part of comics storytelling is the very mechanics of plotting out an issue.  Your typical monthly comic follows a pretty regimented structure, though inside its confines there are a lot of directions you can take.  What kind of story can you tell in 22 pages?  Let’s take a recent comic as an example.  Here’s my breakdown of this month’s “Knight and Squire #3″, written by Paul Cornell:

KNIGHT AND SQUIRE #3

In which a resurrected King Richard III plots to conquer Britain through the use of social networking. No, really.

– Scientist Professor Merryweather uses cloning technology to resurrect Richard III – one of the most hated monarchs in British history – hoping to restore what she feels is his unfairly damaged reputation. He is charming to the public, but once they are gone King Richard III gives an aside to the audience(much like one would in a Shakespeare play) telling us of his true wicked intentions. (5 pages)

This scene has the job of integrating the historical figure of Richard III into the fictional realm of the DCU, as well as setting up the issue’s main plot.

– We are shown Knight and Squire talking about their reaction to Richard’s return. During their conversation, we also touch on Squire’s love interest (introduced in issue #1) and Knight’s upcoming date with Cerys Tweed, which will be a plot point later in the issue. (1 page)

This is a brief beat that is more about building character dynamics between Knight and Squire, and reminding us of some subplots from previous issues – adding to the sense of continuity within the series.

– We see Professor Merryweather educating Richard III on the history of Britain – particularly of its royal family – since his death. Richard continues to plot in an aside to the audience, until Professor Merryweather asks why he’s muttering to himself and he has to stop. (1 page)

Another small beat, which serves to tell us a little about Richard’s character, and foreshadow his evil plan.

– Knight – in his civilian alias of Cyril Sheldrake – goes on a date with Cherys Tweed. She instantly figures out he’s actually Knight, as his disguise is rubbish, then warns Cyril that Richard is up to something rotten, telling him that Richard has built up a popular following amongst the people of Britain through his use of social networking site Twunter. (1 page)

This page to me seems to be a bit of an exposition dump, telling us about how Richard has gone through the process of becoming a monarch of the people without having to show it in tedious detail. It also introduces what could be a recurring supporting character in Cerys Tweed.

– One week later, Richard engages in a heated public debate with a representative of the royal family over the issue of him being Britain’s rightful king. They bring out a large book called “Unwritten Constitutional Law” and argue over what it states. (1 page)

This is quite a series of 1 page scenes. I didn’t realise there were so many short scenes in this single issue until I started doing this page count. I think all these short scenes serve the purpose of groundwork and giving us the Cliff Notes version of Richard’s rise in influence, with this scene establishing his designs on the throne of England.

– Richard III murders Professor Merryweather, then uses her technology to created a superpowered clones of the most rubbish kings in English history. He plans to use them as an army to usurp the current monarchy and parliament and become Britain’s new ruler. (3 pages)

This slightly longer scene, taking us through the halfway point of the issue, marks the end of the setup and launch of the main action of the issue.

– The climactic battle begins, with news footage showing us the various superpowered kings attacking different regions of the United Kingdom, and a later news report showing Britain’s superheroes rising to stop them. Knight, meanwhile, launches into battle with Richard’s henchmen. (4 pages)

Here, we get to the main action of the book, with lots of fighting and action shots. Cornell also takes the chance to introduce both the rogues gallery of evil former kings and a selection of oddball British superheroes.

– Elsewhere, Squire discovers that the British public is divided between supporting Knight and the heroes, and Richard and his king club. Richard and the other kings still have more Twunter followers than Knight. So, she turns the tide of public opinion against the other cloned kings by posting incriminating videos of them engaging in wicked deeds (Edward’s “a bit homophobic”, apparently) on video upload site OohTube. (2 pages)

This little scene gives Squire a role in the story, as well as reminding readers of our superpower of interfacing with communications systems.

– Squire joins the main battle, finally exposing Richard for the crook that he is by recording on camera one of his scheming asides (“My hunch paid off… unlike yours!). Desperate, Richard attacks Knight, and the two engage in a motorcycle joust, which Knight wins. (3 pages)

This sequence wraps up the main plot of the story, giving both Knight and Squire a role in its conclusion.

– Squire meets up with her boyfriend – reformed supervillain The Shrike – and Knight invites them to come round to his castle to have dinner together next week. (1 page)

This wraps up the issue by returning to the character dynamics, as well as setting up the apparent basis for next issue’s story.

So to sum up the issue as a whole, it follows the trend Knight and Squire as a whole has had thus far of telling largely self-contained, done-in-one stories, with only fleeting references to ongoing subplots that connect the issues. The first half was dominated by brief snippets of scenes that gave a real sense of jumping all over the place, though this was done largely to unload a barrel of information that set the stage for the wild, nonsensical and very fun battle that dominated the comic’s second half.

I think this was admirably plotted by Cornell, as in the age of decompression and multi-part epics catered to trade-waiters, this is a story with its own beginning, middle and end, introducing several new characters and giving us enough information and narrative to make this single comic a complete, satisfying reading experience in its own right.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Poker

“Christmas?  Bah humbug!  And I’ll have a bah hamburger, please.”

Jarvis Poker, the British Joker, grinned politely at the bemused waitress as she absently scribbled down his order.  Bemusement was an appropriate response one might have to Mr. Poker, alongside bafflement, bewilderedness or, indeed, befuddlement.  For this portly, rather camp middle-aged gentleman never seemed to leave the house without a liberal dose of purple dye in his hair and generous lashings of white greasepaint on his face, and had a wardrobe that made him look like a particularly dapper expatriate from the set of LazyTown.  Jarvis Poker was what many kindly called a “tribute act” (and what a few unkind souls called a “rip-off”) of Gotham’s most feared supervillain, The Joker.  Fortunately for our bemused, table-waiting heroine, Mr. Poker lacked the homicidal tendencies of his American muse, and was not really viewed as a criminal by most people.  Instead, Jarvis Poker was a singularly British cultural oddity: an unknown obscurity to the wider world, but beloved and cherished by anyone with a soul and a song in their heart on the shores of his native island.  A bit like Take That, then.

“And I shall have the Caesar salad, thank you very much… Amy.”

Amy – for truly that was her name – giggled like a schoolgirl as she turned to face the handsome man at the other side of the table.  At the very least, she supposed he was handsome, based on his square jaw and smiling mouth.  The rest of his face was hidden behind a steel visor.  This man’s attire was perhaps even more eccentric than his friend’s – a mix of armour and spandex, with a cape that he was currently sitting on – but this did not seem to register with bemused, besotted Amy.  He knew her name!  Someone as important as him had talked to her, and smiled at her, and asked her for a Caesar salad, and he even cared enough to find out her name!  Actually, he had read her nametag.

“Coming right up, Knight!”

And so Amy skipped off into the kitchen and out of our story, allowing us to return to our key players.  The Knight was one of the most popular, celebrated superheroes of the United Kingdom.  Ostensibly, he was the Batman of Britain, but his approach to crime-fighting and the way he was received by the general public made him an entity quite distinct from the grim, shadowy figure that inspired first his father, then him, to don his heroic mantle.  For example, unlike the Batman of Gotham City, Knight had never been much good at maintaining a secret identity.  The residents of Great Worden, Wordenshire were all aware that he was really Cyril Sheldrake – the rather posh young man that lived in the big castle overlooking the village – and that his sidekick Squire was well-liked local girl Beryl Hutchinson, but they all kept up the pretence of not knowing this out of good manners and fondness for the pair.  Knight’s difference in demeanour might also have helped to explain why at this moment he was in a quiet cafe in Great Worden, drinking tea with his supposed arch-nemesis.

“Surely you can’t hate Christmas, Jarvis,” Knight said in belated reply to Mr. Poker’s earlier remark, “A chance for us all to forget about our problems and troubles, to give to others and show our appreciation for people we care about.  And you get to eat too much and watch the Doctor Who special on the telly.”

Mr. Poker let out a tut-tut while sipping down a mouthful of tea, and let it be known that doing both simultaneously takes some skill.

“I must say I’m disappointed, my dear Knight,” Jarvis huffed, “I thought you an intelligent fellow, yet you too have been sucked into the marketing machine.  Christmas is about emptying our wallets.  It’s all a big con, predicated on us buying into this illusion of giving and… togetherness.  When really all it does is remind us of how alone and miserable we are on the rest of the year, and make us wonder what makes this day more special than the rest of them.”

“Goodness gracious,” replied Knight, “For a clown you really are a grumpy sod, aren’t you?  Sounds to me like your problem is everyone else enjoying Christmas more than you.”

“Oh, so I take it you’ve got your big, exciting Crimbo plans all lined up then?”

Knight shrugged and nodded, taking a careful sip of tea.  Mr. Poker sat anxiously, tapping his fingers on the table, waiting for his heroic foe to take the hint.

“Well if that’s the case,” added Jarvis, pressing the matter further, “Why don’t you invite me your big castle soiree this year?  Show me what supposed fun I’m missing.”

“Eh…”

“Eh!?” exclaimed Jarvis, “What is this eh of which you speak!?”

“Well, um, you see,” Knight muttered, apparently to his teacup, “Squire has invited me to her home for Christmas this year, and it would be rude of me to just bring someone else along to her home without asking her…”

“Well why don’t you ask her?” suggested Jarvis, trying too hard to sound casual, “I can think of worse ways to spend a day than antagonising your little friend.”

And now Knight was staring so intently at the brown liquid in his cup that he risked chipping the china on the edge of his visor.

“Ah…b-but her house is, well… it’s ruh-really too small to ah… accommodate any more guests,” he sputtered, “And my superhero code of ethics forbids me from officially revealing Beryl’s secret identity to you, so letting you into her home just isn’t practical, you see.  I’m very sorry.”

Jarvis Poker smiled politely in resignation.

“It’s alright,” he said, “I’m not fussed, really, it was just a suggestion…”

“Oh, it was a good suggestion,” Knight interceded, “If it was up to me, of course I’d have you round for Christmas, but… you know…sorry…”

“Really, you don’t need to apologise,” said Jarvis, patting Knight on the arm, “I’ve got plenty of invitations to go to all manner of swanky dos.  If I really feel like a night out I can just R.S.V.P. to one of those.  If I can be bothered.”

“Well that’s good.”

Then Jarvis Poker and the Knight sat in silence for a few awkward moments, Knight yearning for the return of What’s-Her-Name with the Caesar salad to break the ice.

“Christmas, who needs it?” Jarvis sighed, “What a waste of time.”

The following morning, Jarvis Poker embarked on the early morning walk that had become part of his daily routine.  He always went the same route: through the streets, cutting through the park, perhaps stopping at the local shop for a morning paper and a packet of Rolos.  He said he liked to do it for the fresh air and the exercise, but in truth he liked it for the attention.  Being a costumed criminal who did not partake in any actual crime, walking around in costume for people to point and stare at largely amounted to the peak of his duties.

But today was slightly different than the norm, in that the pavements and roads were lined in a white sheet of snow, making his surroundings feel serene and barren in equal measure.  Most of the old ladies he enjoyed passing and saying hello to when they crossed paths daily had wisely decided to remain indoors, and it felt like he alone had been stupid enough to venture out into the cold.

“Oh well,” Jarvis muttered to himself, “When life gives you lemons…”

Mr. Poker halted long enough to build a large, totem-like snowpenis in the street, then headed home to his spacious London home: shockingly, not always an oxymoron.

He was playing the part of the Christmas-hating cynic, so someone like Knight might have been surprised to see that Mr. Poker’s home was filled with a spectacular range of Christmas decorations, with tinsel and fairy lights lining the walls and a massive tree as the centrepiece in his living room.  But still it felt cold and empty to him, because now he was alone in this house.  His beloved mother – Agnes Poker, a British smoker – had died of lung cancer in the summer.  Christmas had always been a family occasion for Jarvis, and he loved having his mother round to stay for the holiday season, which the two always spent together.  Her sad departure had most inconvenienced him, in that now he – such a creature of routine – now found himself grasping to make alternative Christmas arrangements.

“One cannot spend Christmas by himself!  What a depressing thought!”

Mr. Poker regularly talked to himself when alone.  As a supervillain, he felt it his duty to keep well-versed in his monologue prowess whenever he had a quiet moment.

“No, this will not do!  I simply need to get inventive.  I know plenty of interesting people.  Surely if can get their attention, one of them will think to invite me over for Christmas!  When sending out their Christmas cards, they will remember the name of…. Jarvis Poker!  BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

A lot of people assumed that The Milkman only used his familiar white uniform as a costumed identity while fighting crime.  But in fact, he was actually a milkman, and simply used his work clothes while moonlighting as a local superhero.  He had been a milkman long before he had become an active superhero, and remained one even now in his twilight years, when he’d slowed down on the whole world-saving business.  Having finished his morning rounds, he returned home, where his faithful wife Sue had prepared a full English breakfast for him.

“Mornin’ Sue, me love,” he said cheerfully, hanging up his coat and hat and giving her a kiss, “It’s right cold out there I tell thee.”

“Did you bring the milk, Ernie?”

Smiling, The Milkman produced a glass bottle from the pocket of the hanging coat.

“Fresh off the cart, me love.”

“Oh good,” his wife replied, “There are glasses on the table, me dear.  Pour us out some milk to have with our brekkers.”

“Right-ho.”

The Milkman poured out a glass each, one for himself and one for Sue, then popped what remained of the bottle into the fridge.  He sat himself down just as Sue placed a plate piled with fried egg, bacon, sausages, black pudding and fried pancakes in front of him.

“Mmmmm, that’s the stuff,” The Milkman purred.

Sue sat down at the small two-person table across from him, armed with a plate of her own.  Both tucked in.

“Nothin’ like a good fry-up to warm the blood I say,” Sue chirped.

“Mmm, mfff dfffnly,” answered The Milkman, “Dlllsh ath evrr.”

His mouth was full.

“Christmas is right around the corner,” Sue added, “I think we’ve got all our presents sorted out, just need to get them to people before the day comes.”

“I’m meeting Salt of the Earth for a game of bowls on Friday,” The Milkman answered, his mouth now clear, “I’ll get his gifts from us to him then.”

“How’s Salty keeping these days anyway?” Sue asked, “Haven’t seen him since that little health scare.”

“Oh he’s fine,” replied The Milkman, taking his glass of milk, “Doctors just said he needs to lower his salt intake.  Believe that’s what they call i-ron-ee…”

The Milkman took a large mouthful of milk, then promptly spat it all out over his wife’s face.

“Ernie!”

“I’m sorry, Sue, but that…. that milk’s semi-skimmed, that is!  I’m sure of it!”

“Crikey!  Well now I understand why you spat it out!”

“If there’s one thing I know, me love,” sputtered The Milkman, wiping his mouth, “It’s milk.  I know semi-skimmed when I taste it, I do!  But I know, for a fact, that this came from the full-fat milk batch!  Where’s this mix-up comin’ from, eh?”

As if on cue, the phone rang.

“I’ll get it!” exclaimed Sue, jumping out of her chair and leaving a dribbling trail of milk in her wake as she jogged over to the phone.

“Hello… yes… yes, he’s right here… one moment.”

Pressing the receiver against her chest, SUe turned to her husband.

“It’s fat Miss Pratt from Batt Street, Ernie,” she whispered, “Says she wants to talk to you.”

“Wants to talk to me now, does she?” asked The Milkman as he stood up and approached the phone, “Wonder what it could be.  She switched to semi-skimmed milk a while back to try and cut down on fat.  A lost cause, I say.”

The Milkman took the phone from his wife, holding it to his ear.

“Hello Miss Pratt… yes, it’s The Milkman… I see…I see… I see…. well I’ll be sure to fix that… g’day.”

Hanging up the phone, The Milkman looked at Sue with a concerned expression on his face.

“That was fat Miss Pratt from Batt Street,” he said.

“I know.”

“She said that she just had full-fat milk in her cereal.  And when she got a taste of that thick, creamy full-fat goodness on her lips, she couldn’t stop guzzling it until she’d emptied the bottle and the cat’s saucer.”

“That poor woman.”

“Somebody has switched my bottles!  They put all the full-fat milk in my delivery route into semi-skimmed bottles, and all the semi-skimmed milk into full-fat bottles.”

“That’s awful!” Sue cried, “Who would do such a thing!?”

“Who would make a community doubt their own milkman?  What kind of a fiend would come up with such a nefarious – yet largely benign – scheme?”

“JARVIS POKER!”

The Milkman had uncovered Jarvis Poker’s New Secret Lair (at least that’s what the big sign outside said) and now found the white-faced rogue lounging in an armchair, dunking Oreos in a glass of milk.

“Yes?”

“I know what you’ve been up to,” The Milkman grumbled, “What other villain would take the time to tamper with my milk supply, but not bother poisoning it or doing anything really horrible?”

“I was thinking of spiking every bottle with salt or vinegar, but that would have been too nasty.”

“Well, you’ve got my attention,” The Milkman said, folding his arms, “What do you want?”

Mr. Poker grinned, scoffing the rest of his Oreo and downing the milk.

“Aaah.  It’s simple, Milkman.  I want… an invite to your house for Christmas.”

“What?”

“Yes, as simple as that,” Jarvis cackled, “Keep me under house-arrest on Christmas Day, and you know I won’t be causing mischief for anyone else on that special day of the year.”

“Afraid I can’t help you,” The Milkman replied, shaking his head, “I’m takin’ the missus to Spain for Christmas this year.  Just the two of us, real romantic like.”

“Oh, I see,” stammered Jarvis, slumping back in his seat, “Well… never mind then.”

“Stay out of trouble, Jarvis.”

With a tip of his hat, The Milkman headed back out of Jarvis Poker’s New Secret Lair, ready to spread his milk of human kindness elsewhere.

It was now just a few days until Christmas, and Jarvis Poker was still without a Christmas invite.  He’d worked his way through the various heroes he knew – Salt of the Earth, Coalface, even the Professional Scotsman (and really, who wants to spend Christmas in Scotland!?) – and they all had excuses.  He then tried to get in touch with the fellow tame trickster villains he was social with – like John, Paul, George and Richard from the First Eleven – but they had all decided to stay in Australia for the holidays after heading out there for the Ashes.  And now Mr. Poker found himself at the bottom of his contact list, preparing to meet up with a genuinely evil, dangerous supervillain.

“Do dinosaurs even celebrate Christmas?”

The entrance to the hideout seemed innocuous enough: a boarded-up door on a seemingly vacant building, in a seedy part of Camden Town.  Jarvis Poker gave the secret knock on the boarded-up door, and a few moments later a hidden panel in the ground beside him slid open, revealing a stairway into the darkness underground.  Hesitantly, Mr. Poker made his way down it, and the panel slid shut above him.

The hideout looked like a subterranean sewer chamber given a home makeover by Colin and Justin off the telly.  The walls and floor were made of ominous old stone, but the gloomy surroundings were spruced up by fluffy shagpile rugs and lava lamps.  And in the centre of it all, lounging in an oversized beanbag chair, was the evil, the terrifying, the dastardly, the monstrous, the cannibalistic, the murderous, the one and only… Death Dinosaur!

“What ho, pip pip!  Why it’s my old mucker, Jarvis Poker!  Spiffing!”

Death Dinosaur was, as ever, dapperly dressed in a slick tuxedo.  He held his trusty cigarette holder between his pointed teeth, a cigarette delicately placed on its end.  Perhaps now, in case there is still any ambiguity left over in spite of his name, it should be made clear that Death Dinosaur is indeed a 7-foot tall green dinosaur.

“Didn’t expect to see you here, old chap,” chuckled Death Dinosaur, “Aren’t you usually busy feeding the poor and donating puppies to orphanages, wot wot wot?”

Jarvis Poker pretended to laugh.  It was important for one’s well-being while in the presence of Death Dinosaur to treat him as if he were a wit.

“Oh ho, not today I’m afraid!” Jarvis laughed, “I was actually here to propose a team-up.”

Death Dinosaur made a dramatic show of standing up, arms stretched outward in an elaborate shrug.

“You, team up with me?  You are but a toothless tribute act to a true criminal mastermind, wot wot wot.  I am a Maracabavarian evil genius!  If Knight is Holmes and Squire is Watson, I am most unequibbly their Morrissey!”

Jarvis Poker didn’t know where to begin.

“Oh, absolutely!” he opted with, “You are Death Dinosaur, that most… toyetic of supervillains!  There is no way I would ever presume to be on your level.  But I merely hoped that, through associating with you, I could perhaps learn a thing or two.”

Death Dinosaur stroked his scaly chin, purring thoughtfully to himself and puffing on his cigarette.

“Hurm… this is true,” he finally replied, “I do suppose it is my duty, as an inspiration to all England’s evil-doers, to pass on my fiendish knowledge like brave Polonius, delivering fire from the gods, wot wot wot.  And in fact, you are most conveniently placed to aid in my nefarious deeds, given your standing in a position of good grace with our mutual Aunt Agathist.”

“Hmmm….yes,” stammered Jarvis, “We should discuss our wicked plans in more detail over Christmas.  I could come over here on Christmas Day, we can share a turkey, exchange some gifts, and plot Knight’s downfall against the backdrop of the annual Uncle Buck re-run on ITV…”

“Ixnay on that…. deainay, old bean,” chortled Death Dinosaur, “I have much better things to be doing on Christmas than hanging around with a total Snoozosaurus like you.  The thought of you as my sole Christmas companion makes me want to be extincted by a falling meteor all over again.”

“Ouch,” Jarvis pouted, “That was a bit harsh.”

“What part of the name ‘Death Dinosaur’ made you think I’d be hesitant to hurt your feelings?”

“…Dinosaur.”

Death Dinosaur tilted his head suspiciously, cigarette smoke puffing through his nostrils and into Mr. Poker’s face.

“Wait a second,” Death Dinosaur hissed nastily, “I know what this is about.  You’re not turning a bad leaf at all, are you?  You’re just such a sad and lonely little man that you’ve resorted to scheming with the likes of me because you’re so afraid of being alone on that magical time of year.  I don’t know what’s more pathetic… your fear of soldertude or this pathetic rouge.”

“Ruse.”

“What?”

Ruse!” snapped Jarvis, “A pathetic ruse!  As opposed to a fear of solitude!  And while we’re talking about pathetic ruses, I just have to tell you that it’s an utterly ridiculous concept for the likes of you to be talking in a posh Etonian accent.”

“Wot wot wot?  Whatever do you mean?”

“Everyone knows you were born and raised in Manchester!”

“Oy!  Shut your mouth, you slag!” growled Death Dinosaur, his crisp, aristocratic tones dropped like a bad habit, “Remember who you’re talking to, sunshine!  Now get out of my sight, or I’ll ‘ave you!”

“Okay!  I’m going, I’m going!”

His hands held up apologetically in the air, Jarvis Poker backed out of the lair, walking back up the stairway and out of the hatch as it opened.  The bad news was that he still had no plans set for Christmas.  But the good news was that he wouldn’t be Death Dinosaur’s Christmas dinner.

Christmas Eve had arrived, and Jarvis Poker was getting desperate.  He had exhausted every contact and poked every so-called friend on Facebook, all to no avail.  Still he was faced with the gloomy prospect of spending Christmas alone.  Drastic action had to be taken!  And so he had set this last-ditch plan into motion, made the necessary calls, and now just had to wait for the door-bell to ring…

Ding-dong!

“Co-miiiiing!”

Mr. Poker skipped (yes, skipped) to the front door of his home, and swung it open.

“Why hello, Squire!”

There she stood, a perky girl in her late teens, grinning cheerfully at Mr. Poker.  There were many superheroes in the world, and many sidekicks too, but few of either camp seemed to take quite as much enjoyment out of what they did as this latest Squire.  Indeed, Jarvis believed it was her relentless optimism that had coaxed Cyril Sheldrake out of that gloomy period in his life, and helped shape him into the Knight he was today.  If Cyril was an even better Knight than his father – and Mr. Poker was beginning to suspect he might be – it was because Beryl Hutchinson was the perfect Squire.

“Alright, Jarvis!  How you doing?  Got a bird yet?”

“I’m grand, Squire.  And no.”

“Got a bloke?”

“Afraid not.”

“Aw, you’re not trying then, are you?”

She playfully elbowed her archenemy in the ribs as she skipped into his hallway and looked around in a kind of exaggerated, open-mouthed awe.

“Aw, Christmas!” she exclaimed, as if discovering the word for the first time, “Look at all the decorations!  Knight told me you thought Christmas was rubbish.  Telling porkies?”

“Yes,” scoffed Jarvis, ushering her further inside and closing the door behind them, “But don’t tell anyone.”

Squire did a little twirl on the spot and turned to face Mr. Poker, clapping her hands together dramatically.

“SO!  What did you ask me down here for, Jarvy-Jarv?  You said it was urgent.”

Clearing his throat and shifting on the spot uncomfortably, Jarvis produced a pair of handcuffs.

“Yes, about that,” he said apologetically, “Could you turn around please?”

Squire looked down at the cuffs and, apparently unfazed, her grin never faltered.

“Oooh, saucy!”

“Very funny, turn around please.”

“Do you use those handcuffs to tie young men to your bedpost?”

“If you could just turn around…”

“But are those your naughty sexy-time handcuffs, though?”

“Squire, turn around!”

“Alright, alright, keep your purple hair on!”

Giggling to herself, Squire turned around and stretched out her hands behind her back.  Mr. Poker reluctantly cuffed her hands together.

“Sorry about this,” he muttered.

“So what are we doing then?” Squire asked chirpily.

“I’m kidnapping you.”

“Oh, right.  Nice!”

Guiding the handcuffed Squire into the living room, Mr. Poker sat her down in an armchair by the fire.  He grabbed some shackles.

“Now, I’m going to tie your legs up,” he explained, “Would it be more comfortable if I took your shoes off first?”

Squire through her head back and let out a booming laugh.

“Hahaha!  You make me laugh!  Sure, why not?”

Mr. Poker took off Squire’s shoes, then shackled her legs together by the ankles.

“Really, I am very sorry for the inconvenience…”

When he was done, he stood up, brushing off his hands.

“Right,” he said, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

While Jarvis Poker was off making tea, Squire could have very easily escaped her restraints, but that would have hurt her host’s feelings, so she remained tied up until Mr. Poker returned with the tea.  Then there was a bit of a kerfuffle with him belatedly realising she couldn’t drink with her hands tied behind her back, so he had uncuffed her (only until she had finished her tea, mind!) after she promised not to try to escape.

“Okay, you’ve kidnapped me,” said Squire, “So what happens now, you nutter?”

Mr. Poker sat down his cup and saucer on the table so he could clasp his hands villainously in front of his face.

“Now?  Now I keep you trapped in my villainous clutches over Christmas, possibly into Boxing Day.”

“Pfffffffffffffffft!”

Squire burst out laughing, slapping her thigh.

“What are you like?” she guffawed, “I can’t be kidnapped over Christmas!  Christmas is a time for family for me, so I have to spend the day with her!”

Mr. Poker smiled, but the comment seemed to make him sad.

“I can understand that,” he replied, “I always spent Christmas with my mother.  Every year…”

He trailed off, leaving things on an uncomfortably downbeat note.  So, he got back into character, steering the conversation in another direction.

“It seems we have a conundrum,” he mused, stroking his chin, “What are we going to do?”

“How about you kidnap my mum too?” Squire helpfully suggested.

Ding-dong!

“I’ll get it,” Jarvis said, jumping to his feet and pausing only to refasten Squire’s handcuffs – this time in front of her rather than behind her back, “So sorry.”

Mr. Poker strode through his hall and swung open his front door.  Knight stood waiting at the entrance, his hands placed impatiently on his hips.

“Why, Knight!” declared Jarvis, “What a surprise!”

“Hello Jarvis,” Knight replied, “Is Squire here?”

“Why yes, I’ve kidnapped her.  You’d best come in.”

Jarvis Poker led Knight into the living room, and presented to him his tied-up sidekick.

“Alright, Knight?  Me and Jarvis were just having a cup of tea…”

Mr. Poker glared at her.

“I mean… help!  Help me, Knight!  Oh, the terror!”

Knight folded his arms, clearly unimpressed.

“Really, I’ve not got time for this, Poker,” he said flatly, “We’re supposed to be putting presents under the tree.”

“If you want your little pal returned in one piece, you have to meet my demands!” Jarvis cackled, following the script in his head, “If you invite me over for Christmas, I shall bring Squire with me, and on Boxing Day, I will release her and make my escape!”

“No,” answered Knight.

“Oh,” stammered Jarvis, knocked off his script already, “Well… I shall release her on Christmas night…”

“No.”

“After Christmas dinner?”

“No, Poker!” snapped Knight, “You just don’t get it!  I tried to be polite, I tried to spare your feelings… but obviously you just can’t take a hint, can you?”

Knight looked down at the floor, apparently regretting his words as soon as he had said them.  He shifted uncomfortably on the spot, as Mr. Poker stared intently at him.

“No, I guess I can’t,” Jarvis replied coldly, “Perhaps you’d best make it clear for me.”

“You’re a villain, Jarvis,” sighed Knight, finding it hard to look his foe in the eye, “Squire and I… we’re heroes.  We’re civil to each other on the first Thursday of the month, because that’s the way it’s always been.  But beyond that… we’re not friends.  I have friends.  They’re who I’ll be spending Christmas with.  I’m sorry.”

For several tense seconds, nothing was said.  Jarvis Poker stood in front of Knight, rigid with anger.  But then he seemed to deflate and crumple, and in a shambling motion, produced a key from his pocket.  Wordlessly, he released Squire from her restraints.  She looked up at the sad old clown sympathetically, then padded across the room to stand by her partner’s side.

“Okay,” Jarvis finally said, “You can leave now.”

Knight paused, as if considering saying something.  He opened his mouth, closed it again, cleared his throat, then walked out of the room, Squire following him.  When he heard the sound of the front door slamming shut, Mr. Poker let out a deep, sorrowful sigh, slumping himself down on the armchair Squire had vacated.  He gazed into the fire, pondering at last the sad reality of spending Christmas alone, and more than that, what that meant.  He was a man, it seemed, who merely existed, an acquaintance to many, but a friend to none.  When it got down to it, there was nobody left that really cared for Jarvis Poker…

“Jarvis?”

Mr. Poker spun around hopefully.  Squire stood in the doorway of the living room, smiling at him.

“Oh, Squire, my dear!” he exclaimed, rushing towards her and wrapping her up in a hug, “You’ve decided to spend Christmas with me after all!  How wonderful!  I promise you won’t regret it!  I’ve got crackers, and the biggest turkey you’ve ever seen…”

“Ummm…. no,” she interjected, “I forgot my shoes.”

Mr. Poker released his embrace and stood back awkwardly.

“Ah,” he mumbled, “Of course.  I was…. just kidding.  A joke, the British Joker, ha ha!”

Squire just smiled and nodded sympathetically.  She put her shoes on, and headed back towards the door.  Before leaving, she looked over her shoulder at him.

“It’s not so bad,” she said, “Sleep on it.  Things might look better in the morning.”

And then she was gone, and Jarvis Poker was all alone all over again.

“Merry Christmas to me.”

Christmas Day.  That most wonderful time of year.  But for Jarvis Poker, it was now just a lonesome day like any other, and so he kept his daily routine with his morning walk.  It had always struck Jarvis as rather funny, that all through the build-up to Christmas, there was noise and spectacle and Christmas songs playing everywhere you went, but step outside on Christmas Day itself, and everything was oddly silent.  That silence was all the more prevalent on this bitter-cold, snowy morning, and he thought about how it was because nobody felt any need to be outside.  Everyone else was indoors, around a tree, spending time with the ones they loved.

Mr. Poker returned home, opening his front door and shambling through his hallway.  He’d bought a few presents for himself.  He decided he might as well open them now.  With a sigh, he pushed open the door, and stepped into his living room…

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!”

Jarvis was stunned.  When he had left for his walk, this room had been empty.  Half an hour later, and it was jam-packed full.  Under what had been a bare-looking Christmas tree was a stack of presents, and a makeshift bar with snacks and drinks had been hastily put together.  And every square inch of the large room was teeming with guests.  The Milkman stood arm-in-arm with his wife, both of them grinning and waving at him.  Nearby were several of the other old-school British superheroes, Salt of the Earth already splitting crackers with Coalface.  Even the villains had a respectable turn-out, with a few of the Pirate Astronomers having a spirited discussion over eggnog with, surprisingly enough, Death Dinosaur.  As Mr. Poker momentarily made eye contact with the debonair prehistoric being, Death Dinosaur gave a small nod in his direction.  And standing front and centre, arms outstretched, were Knight and Squire.

“Oh my!” gasped Jarvis, “I… I don’t know how… I thought…”

“Lost for words for once?” laughed Knight, “Let me speak first, then.  I need to start by saying I’m sorry for the way I talked to you yesterday…”

“It’s quite alright…”

“No, it’s not,” continued Knight, “It was hurtful.  But it was an extreme measure.  You kept on making it very hard for us all to throw a surprise party for you.  Villain or not, you’re my friend, Jarvis, and I wanted to make sure this Christmas was a happy one for you.”

“Before we let Knight hog all the credit,” interceded Squire, “I should add that it’s not just us.  Take a look around at all the people who are here for you.  Mingle!  Say hello!  This is your party!”

Still struggling with his words, Jarvis hugged them both, then took Squire’s advice.  As he began greeting guests, two of the first he ran into were the villainous twins, Double Entendre.

“Double Entendre!” exclaimed Jarvis, “I’m so glad you were both able to come.”

“We’re always happy to come,” one of them said, and they always seemed to take turns speaking, “Besides, we didn’t much fancy the prospect of blowing you off.”

The other one ooooohed and eeeeerred.

Mr. Poker circled the room, shaking hands and giving out many a cuddle and a peck on the cheek, until finally he felt a hand on his shoulder.  He turned around to face a grinning Knight.

“Jarvis, I arranged a very special Christmas present for you.  When I told this guy our plans for this party, he couldn’t wait to come all the way from Gotham to meet you at last…”

“Oh em gee, Batman is here!?”

“Ummm….no, he was busy I’m afraid,” replied Knight, “But I went one better.  He’s the guy you’ve always wanted to meet…”

And then, jumping out from behind Knight, dressed in a woolly reindeer-patterned sweater and a santa hat, was The Joker!

“Jarvis Poker, we meet at last!” boomed The Joker, “I must say, you’re a man of good taste!  HA HA!”

“Wow, you brought The Joker over to the UK!” exclaimed Jarvis in surprise, “That’s… actually quite reckless and irresponsible.”

“Oh don’t worry, pal,” replied The Joker in a stage whisper, wrapping an arm around his shoulder, “Honestly, I only really resort to mass murder across the pond because Americans don’t appreciate the subtlety of satire like you Brits do.  While I’m in jolly England I’m on my best behaviour.  Scout’s honour!”

“AHEM!  AHEM!”

The meeting of the two Jokers was interrupted by Squire, standing on a table, tapping a glass of fruit juice overhead.

“I propose a toast!  To Jarvis Poker… for reminding us all, hero and villain alike, that beyond the moral responsibilities, the personal traumas and the plans for world domination… we all do what we do because it’s BLOODY GOOD FUN!”

Then everyone raised their glass in unison.

“TO JARVIS POKER!”

Squire cleared her throat, and let out a belter of a first line of the familiar song.

Foooooooooooooooooor….. he’s a jolly good fellow!

And quickly, everyone else in the room joined in.  As he found himself stood at the heart of a room full of song and laughter, Jarvis Poker felt that old Christmas spirit stirring up within him.  Giving and togetherness didn’t need to be an illusion.  They were real, he felt it, and even if it was only for a day… it made that day a very special day indeed.

“For he’s a jolly good fellow,                                                                                                           For he’s a jolly good fellooooooooooooooooow,                                                                        Which nobody can deny!”