Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Pennyworth, Battling the Soviets

At this point, Alfred Pennyworth is probably the world’s most famous fictional gentleman’s gentleman, eclipsing even Jeeves. Unlike the superheroes he served, the villains Pennyworth fought during his MI6 service were definitely based in reality. Conceived as a sequel to the TV show, all seven volumes of Scott Bryan Wilson’s limited series (with art by Juan Gedeon and colors by John Rauch) are now collected in Pennyworth (Vol. 1), which goes on-sale today.

In the HBO Max/Epix series Pennyworth battled an Oswald Mosley style fascist, who tried to stage a coup to overthrow the British government. In Wilson’s comic, he is fighting Soviet agents who are pretty believable, if you don’t count their comic book-worthy experimental technology. Pennyworth thought he and his partner, childhood friend Shirley Penrose, would be snooping around a Siberian nuclear facility. It turns out they are actually working on a super-soldier-like project, but the results are far more monstrous.

Unfortunately, we know the assignment went down badly, because modern day Pennyworth suspects it might be the cause of his recent kidnapping. He has crossed paths with super-villains before, but this feels different—more personal. To survive, he will flashback in his mind’s eye to his arctic misadventure and the lessons his butler father taught him, which turned out to apply equally well to work in the secret service as they did to a career in service. In fact, that was his father’s whole point.

Wilson manages his three primary timelines quite skillfully, clearly establishing their relevance to each other. He also tells a largely stand-alone Bond-style Cold War narrative, while including sufficient ties to the Batman mythos to satisfy fans. Master Bruce never appears, but he is certainly referenced. Eventually, Pennyworth must also face one of Batman’s old nemeses, whose presence makes logical sense in this context.

Frankly, Wilson’s
Pennyworth does not seem entirely consistent with the early episodes of the first TV season, but the liberties he might have taken are all great improvements. Pennyworth’s relationships with his father and Penrose particularly deepen and enrich the story. It also has the virtue of making Communists the bad guys, in a way that is consistent with the Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt scandals.

Gedeon’s clean, muscular art and Rauch’s vibrant colors make the action easy to follow, which is good, since there is a lot of it. Wilson also adds a surprising degree of humor with his snarky omniscient observations. It all looks cool and reads quickly.

It is too bad the DC and Marvel Universes do not have more adventures like this. You would not exactly call
Pennyworth grounded, but its lead character and the historical circumstances are far more relatable than an endless parade of giant space deities. Highly recommended, Pennyworth is now on-sale wherever graphic novels are sold.