I have mixed feelings about Alfred’s death. I think it allows for some interesting storytelling opportunities, but on the other hand I know that, at the end of the day, it’s all just a marketing trick. With this annual centering around Alfred’s absence, I was a bit skeptical going in. Is this a comic worth buying and reading, or is it just a cash grab? Let’s have a look.
I wouldn’t rank this story among Tomasi’s best, but it’s still an entertaining read. What I especially appreciate is that this is not a tearjerker akin to, for example, Tomasi and Gleason’s “Requiem for Damian.” While that arc—which ran through Batman and Robin #18-23—is a fine read in itself, I have to say that I’m sick and tired of seeing Bruce acting out his frustrations, anger and grief, because, essentially, it’s the same theme over and over again, or at least similar enough that I think it’s high time we moved on to new stuff. So I’m glad that this story is actually a rather positive one. To me, it’s not so much about the loss of Alfred, as it is about the fact that life goes on and you have to find a way to deal with that. Tomasi integrates this idea into the story in an interesting way, but the execution isn’t flawless.
The story opens with a flashback in which we see a young Alfred as an MI6 agent. This flashback sets up the conflict in the present day story and introduces a few supporting characters, including Alfred’s former spy partners. While the adventure aspect is entertaining enough, the dialogue during the flashback leaves much to be desired, because the characters don’t talk like real people. Take for example the following lines: “H, my love, I’m an ex-actor trying to escape an artificial American city built for training soviet spies, carrying a pile of informational contraband that four of my fellow officers died locating.”
While you could argue that this is just Alfred being sarcastic, I think that this is merely the kind of exposition that’s crammed into a word balloon to bring readers up to speed, rather than it being information that’s organically exchanged between two characters. First of all, Agent H ought to know all of this already because Agent H is Alfred’s supervisor on this mission. Secondly, Alfred is in the middle of escaping and should focus on that instead of wasting all this time talking. But, while these two complaints still stand, this is not my main gripe with the dialogue.
The dialogue continues beyond the lines that I shared above, and this is where it gets weird. Alfred starts his little speech while he’s in his car in a city, and ends his speech while still in the car in the country. The speech is too long for a chase scene because it gets in the way of the fast pace that such a scene requires, and yet it is too short because there’s no way Alfred can say all of this in one connected speech while going from one location to a completely different location. Like it or not, but this sets a precedent for the rest of the comic. While the dialogue throughout mostly works out okay, there is still a reliance on conveying information to the reader in somewhat awkward ways—like the main villain toward the end typically confessing his crimes, or KGB agents revealing their identities to Alfred in strangely manufactured broken English that’s meant to be a translation of their “Native Russian.”
Other issues I have with this story have to do with the villain. First of all, while I like that this is a villain with a personal connection to Alfred, that connection’s never explored in full, or at least not even to a point that it actually adds something significant to Alfred’s character. As it stands, it’s rather bare-bones, and as a result the character comes off as a generic spy villain rather than a personal threat to Bruce, Alfred or Alfred’s legacy. Secondly, the villain is also no match at all for Batman. The villain even has the NKVDemon working for him (a knockoff of the KGBeast), but Batman defeats the Demon so easily that I wonder why that character was included in the first place, aside from the fact that the Demon is utilized as a plot device to get Batman to where he needs to be to resolve the conflict.
Yet, despite these complaints, there are also praiseworthy things in this annual. For one thing, Bruce is very likeable to a point that he’s completely unrecognizable if you compare him to, for example, King’s version of the character, and this continues to be refreshing. We see Batman rescuing a boy and his mother and being especially friendly to the boy, which is a nice touch seeing as Bruce has always cared about the wellbeing of children. Bruce is also very composed and confident while facing his opponents but still firm and intimidating when he needs to be. Furthermore, even though the conflict is resolved a little too easily, I like how Bruce tricks the Demon into capturing him and how Bruce manages to escape the chains that he’s put in so easily. The villain and the Demon might be utterly unconvincing as antagonists to me, but the fact that Bruce plays them like fools and escapes his chains off-panel is just badass. I don’t need to see how he does this, because I know he’s an escape artist, and he’s Batman, and I believe.
My favorite part of the issue is the conclusion of the main story. Even though the story is flawed, Tomasi still manages to have the plot beats as well as the themes come together in a way that creates a positive change in Bruce. At the start of the issue the cave and the manor are a mess, chores are neglected, and Bruce, though he doesn’t lose himself to grief and anger, is clearly not in his right mind now that Alfred’s gone. There is even a moment during Bruce’s mission where he gets distracted and finds himself thinking of a trip he and Alfred went on that has, on the surface, nothing at all to do with the mission at hand. But at the end of the story Bruce pulls himself together, and the resolution motivates him to clean up the cave, his house, take out the trash and clear his mind. It’s a mature way of dealing with loss, and Tomasi writes that really well.
The art is created by Sumit Kumar (pencils/inks) and Romulo Fajardo Jr. (colors), and the artists do a good job. The art is stylish and fairly consistent in the way that characters are rendered, although there are a few panels here and there where, for example, Batman’s head looks a bit wonky, or where his anatomy is slightly off. There are also a lot of panels that lack backgrounds, which is a shame, because when Kumar does draw backgrounds they tend to establish the scene and atmosphere pretty well. Had there been more emphasis on this, the world inside this comic would’ve been more detailed and therefore more interesting to look at. As it stands, it can be a little bit bland at times. However, the way that Kumar’s inks blend with Fajardo’s colors more than makes up for the aforementioned shortcomings: together these artists create a solid, consistent aesthetic that’s easy on the eye and also very layered and intricate, from the subtle shadows on characters’ faces to the extensive palette that Fajardo uses.
The comic doesn’t end there, though. I was actually surprised to see that there’s a backup story. It’s written by Tomasi and entirely illustrated (including colors) by Eduardo Risso. Although it’s a nice read and I like Risso’s art, there isn’t anything particularly noteworthy here. It’s similar to Batman Annual #4, which I think is superior to this backup, but I also think that this backup presents stuff that we’ve already seen a bunch of times in other stories, so it all feels unnecessary and doesn’t add that much to this issue.
- You are a fan of Alfred Pennyworth (I mean, what Batman reader isn’t?).
- You like spy fiction.
- You want to see Batman being a badass tactician and escape artist.
- You like Batman stories that end on a positive note, even when the premise of the story is rather tragic.
Overall: This is a fun comic, but it’s not flawless. There are issues with dialogue and pacing, and the villain and NKVDemon aren’t very convincing. But this annual ends on a nice, positive note that ties everything together and motivates Bruce to work on becoming a better person. If you have some extra cash and time, pick this one up. It’s not great, but it’s entertaining for sure!
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.