Alfred Pennyworth. He’s the trusted confidante, the father figure we all look up to, and the dear and loving friend that Batman needs. It almost comes as a shock when you remember that Alfred hasn’t been part of the Batman story from the very beginning, debuting a full four years after Batman, but it’s near impossible to imagine Bruce’s story working without him. He’s a necessary component, a man who symbolizes everything that Bruce wants and needs: loyalty, duty, family, and love.
As an integral part of the Batman mythos, Alfred should be handled with care: make him too passive and he comes off as weak, whereas too much snark and he can be seen as aggressive. A balance needs to be struck with Alfred Pennyworth, so as to blend the subservient butler with the quick-witted father figure. With “The First Ally,” Scott Snyder looks game to try. It’s too early to tell just what effect, if any, this story will have on Alfred’s character, but it’s a ripping yarn nonetheless and well worth the entertainment.
The story is told in two parts: there’s a flashback to London, with constables chasing after a young ruffian, and a story in the present that sees Batman and Alfred foil Hush’s latest plans. It’s the flashbacks that carry most of the weight of the story, planting seeds for plot points that will no doubt be revealed in upcoming issues, but the modern day scenes are the most entertaining.
The action kicks off with a chase between the Batmobile and a renegade helicopter. It goes through the streets of Miami before winding up at a football stadium, as Batman and Alfred pursue Tommy Elliot in hopes of gathering some intel on a gangland bidding war. The item in question? “The Genesis Engine,” an ill-defined but kind of awesome sounding Russian weapon. With a name like that, you just know it has to be serious, so Bruce wants to learn all he can about it. Luckily for him, Tommy had already set up a meeting with the sellers under the guise of Bruce Wayne, so after incapacitating Hush Bruce can simply go to the meet in his stead.
It… makes more sense when you read it.
Now, I’m not a big fan of Hush, but I do think his plastic surgery to make himself look like Bruce can open some interesting storytelling possibilities. In fact, my favorite story with Hush is on the tail-end of “Heart of Hush” where he takes advantage of Bruce being “dead” so he can drain the Wayne fortune and seduce an elderly socialite. It’s such a scumbag thing to do, and I thought it was a great use of the character.
Especially when Catwoman, Nightwing, and Robin find him in Vietnam and punch him in his smug face or whatever. Good times.
So anyway, Bruce meets with the dealers on an old naval fort. It… quickly goes south, with the dealers hilariously thinking Bruce is actually Tommy. Their one rule in this deal was “no Gotham criminals,” and they saw through Elliot’s ruse pretty much immediately. It’s one of several twists in the plot, and Snyder plays it up like the best kind of popcorn entertainment.
Truly, from beginning to end, this issue is just an absolute blast. It’s a really quick read in the best way, with excellent pacing and some solid action scenes. Rafael Albuquerque’s visual style lends itself well to the bombastic explosions of the Batmobile chase and the close-quarters gunfight during the arms deal. It’s in the quieter, intimate moments that he works best, though. Whether using heavier inks and oily brushwork to make the interrogation of Hush as unsettling as it should be or imitating the neon glow of the city to illuminate a chat between old friends, Albuquerque’s unique style lends itself well to the story Snyder is telling.
Above all, though, it’s Snyder’s dialogue that sells this. There are a few moments that he’s a little too telly and wordy, but by and large the repartee between Bruce and Alfred is stellar. Alfred, as I said, is equal parts friend, partner, and patriarch to Bruce, so he needs to have a quick wit while still wearing his heart on his sleeve. There were lines where I genuinely laughed out loud they were so funny, and even the expository dialogue felt conversational.
It’s a strong start to a new arc, and I loved pretty much every second of it. While it may not reach the highs of the Mr. Freeze issue, the best All-Star installment so far for my money, it’s more consistent. It’s that rare type of popcorn entertainment that thrills you every second while still having a solid emotional core. If you’re going to focus on Alfred, that’s exactly what you need.
An all new backup feature begins this month as well, this time written by Rafael Albuquerque and Rafael Scavone. It follows Alexey Nokaut, a mob heavy who goes by the name “Knockout.” When he receives a personal invitation to join “the family” from “the Papa,” the head of said crime family himself, he just knows he’s made it. He’s a big deal now, a tough guy who has a long, fruitful career in front of him.
Until the Batman knocks him senseless in an airport bathroom and steals his identity to go undercover. Oh well, you tried, Alexey.
I actually quite enjoyed this little feature. Thinking it’s going to follow some criminal before, no, it’s actually a set-up for Batman to go undercover is pretty fun, and I like seeing Bruce use his theatrical and deductive skills for a change. The plot is pretty basic: “arms shipment from Russia is scheduled to make it to Gotham’s shores soon, so Batman needs to fine out when and where before a gang war erupts on his turf.” Sebastián Fiumára’s visual style works really well with this kind of story too, from the visceral brutality of the fights to the lived-in, dilapidated look of the environments. It feels dirty and grungy, as it should.
The last line is a bit too cute and on the nose, I must admit, but I’m invested enough to give it a pass. I am curious to see if this ties in with the main story, but I don’t think it really needs to. So long as it’s a solid yarn, that’s all that matters.
- You want a fun, entertaining comic.
- You love Alfred and Bruce playing off each other’s wits.
- You like Hush.
- Or you don’t. Whatever. Either way you might be happy.
Overall: A grand, swachbuckling adventure with a strong emotional core, you couldn’t ask for a better beginning to a new arc. There are elements of spy fiction, summer blockbuster action movies, heists, and even a bit of horror present here, but everything works together to tell a massively entertaining yarn. The main story has strong dialogue from Snyder and gorgeous, haunting visuals from Albuquerque, and the backup is a tough and gritty while still maintaining a sense of levity. Like Bruce said, it’s a pirate adventure; let’s have some fun. The rum is optional.