Writer: Scott Bryan Wilson
Artist: Juan Gedeon
DC Comics, October 2021
Pennyworth, featuring long-time comic book butler and aide-de-camp to Batman, Alfred Pennyworth, is a limited series currently being published by DC Comics.
A cynic might say that the timing of this comic book’s release is intended to coincide with the latest, long-delayed James Bond franchise motion picture, No Time To Die. The title character appears on the front cover, looking uncannily like Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. Pennyworth is an insight into Alfred Pennyworth’s life as a young man. He is a spy for MI5, the British counter-intelligence service, during the Cold War. (The Cold War entered its endgame in the 1980s. That makes Pennyworth around the same age as your reviewer, and we wonder how on earth we could become the contemporary of the elderly sidekick of the Bat-family.)
Pennyworth’s major function in the very many Batman titles is as a foil, the Dr Watson to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes, to whom Batman can explain in the privacy of the Batcave how clever he is. In more recent times, Pennyworth has been depicted as a father figure to Batman, rather than a mere servant. This makes sense, given the character raised both two orphans from young ages, being Batman and Batman’s crimefighting former protege, Nightwing.
Over the decades, it has repeatedly been hinted that Alfred Pennyworth was more than just merely the man who washed Batman’s blood-soaked costume and served him meals which went cold during a flurry of detective work. In Detective Comics #501 (1981), Pennyworth was depicted as a World War 2 resistance fighter (and a father to a daughter, who sadly dropped out of Batman continuity). That history needed rework because of the nature of American comic book publishers’ time-suspending continuity: if this backstory was retained, then Alfred would not be in his 50s or 60s, but instead around 100 years old, and no longer capable of assisting Batman in his adventures. This new storyline updates Pennyworth’s history.
We have reviewed a number of James Bond franchised stories (see https://www.worldcomicbookreview.com/category/espionage/, published under license by Dark Horse Comics. With one notable exception, we have enjoyed the premise of a spy dealing with almost insurmountable odds, relying upon impeccable skills, some tricky gadgets, and a wide splash of good fortune. The formula is well-known and easy to execute upon, and any leftfield concept in the mix perhaps disproportionately stands out as clever.
There are strong hints of that here. Pennyworth and his peers exercise formidable patience and spend months to build up personas for one specific and often short-lived purpose, and then quickly discard them once the task is done. Pennyworth’s nom de plume of Alexandre Rivette is necessary only to extract information from a Frenchman named Claudio about the location of a Soviet weapon. Once that information is obtained, the six months of work in setting up the character is set aside: “Alexandre Rivette was officially dead the moment I was out of Claudio’s sight,’ ruminates Pennyworth as he works down a Parisian street lined with cafes.
Here we see how Pennyworth uses his spycraft to walk back from his mission, in a series of panels which surely have as their source the 2001 movie Spy Game. They are a nice touch. The colour of the panels and the lettering describing Pennyworth’s behaviours are in contrast to the character’s active monologue. It suggests that Pennyworth does not operate merely on one level, but that his deep training triggers subconscious survival and reconnaissance behaviours.
Artist Juan Gedeon’s work on the title favourably reminds us of the art of Javier Pulido in Vertigo Comics’ Human Target (2003-2005). On the first page, Mr Gedeon pays homage to Frank Miller’s famous scene from The Dark Knight Returns, but with Claudio improbably hanging from the Eiffel Tower, instead of Gotham Towers – a comparison is below:
The inner monologue on this first page is top notch. It is philosophical. Liars think everyone lies, and that truth can only be certain when the lies are cracked open.
But here our positive comments end. The deception in getting aboard a Soviet military icebreaker, and charade in avoiding detection, is laughable. The Soviet threat is a weird fleshy human/machine hybrid, which reminds us that we are not reading a relatively sophisticated espionage comic, but instead a superhero comic offshoot, inevitably replete with the genre’s ridiculous suspensions of belief. If the idea is to tie the title back into mainstream continuity, why not feature some old and more believable Soviet villains from DC Comics’ catalogue of characters, such as KGBeast or Steelwolf? And we exaggerate only a little when we say there are more flashbacks in this issue than in Casablanca. They are irritating jammed in together: today’s Pennyworth bound and injured, Pennyworth in the 80s fighting Soviets, and Pennyworth as a child playing with his chum, and much later lover and fellow spy, Shirley. For a series which much promise, defects in fundamental elements of the process of storytelling lead it to fall over.