What makes a good spy? If you ask the world of Hollywood, I think you’d get a significantly different answer than if you asked someone who really worked in a secret service.
Movies such as the James Bond franchise might have you believe being a secret agent is all about sneaking through exotic locales in high-stakes adventures, bedding beautiful women and blowing stuff up before walking away in a car you’ll never be able to afford with a working-class salary. I have to imagine it’s a little more subtle, though. Surely being a spy is less about the action and more about the subterfuge: following people who don’t even know you’re there, and getting what you want out of them when they least expect it.
I bring this up because Pennyworth #1 is a fascinating mix of the two. On its surface, it’s a very high-octane romp with a lot of spectacle going for it, to the extent that you’d see why it’s a comic instead of something you’d see on a screen. Underneath it, though, it’s a litttle more subtle… in that it snuck up right on me and shocked me with how spectacularly good it is, right when I least expected it.
For context, Pennyworth is a followup to the spectacularly strange live-action show about a young Alfred Pennyworth, decades before he went to serve Bruce Wayne across the seas in Gotham City. We have plenty of articles on the website about the show itself, but among the comic review team, I’m the only one who’s seen this show – and am currently making my way through season two. That show is a bombastic display of some of the weirdest stuff you’ll ever see from a DC show, including Alfred becoming the king of prison, a Jack-the-Ripper type becoming his jogging buddy, Thomas and Martha Wayne meeting the Devil, and Alfred having sex with the Queen of England. So, if that doesn’t convince you, I dunno what to tell you.
Not that it really matters, because you can absolutely read Pennyworth without having seen the show. Despite a few connections like mentioning certain moments and a reocurring character or two, the content itself definitely feels like it could just as easily fit in mainline continuity, which is probably exactly what the creators intended. It’s kind of nice to imagine the Alfred in the TV show being the same Alfred who’s shown up in the books we know and love for so many years. It’s also very fun reading the book in Alfred’s voice. It’s heavily narrated, and imagining the dialogue spoken in actor Jack Bannon’s Michael Caine-esque mannerisms is really, really, really entertaining. But maybe that’s only because I can do an okay Michael Caine impression.
God, there’s so much to talk about in these four panels alone! I don’t often say this, because I tend to prefer showing over telling – but here, the dialogue smattered all over the page feels like it really works. It’s a joy to read, because when I look at something like this, I see a creative team working in perfect sync. Let me break down how I think it works.
First off, the writing. I really feel like Scott Bryan Wilson has a great voice for Alfred, and it’s very easy to imagine this as a continuation of the television show, with a lead that is as charming as you’d expect Batman’s butler to be at this point. More than that, though, the dialogue is telling a different story to that of the art. While Alfred breaks down the exposition you need to get to the next scene, the art takes Pennyworth across the streets of Paris – all the while assisted by fun little dialogue boxes explaining the intricacies of spycraft he’s exhibiting through seemingly inoccuous moments. Props to the letterer, Aw’s DC Hopkins, for doing a great job of differentiating the dialogue boxes with different colours, shapes and fonts. That may seem basic, but it’s key to making this a very effective and charming form of comic book storytelling.
There’s also a very charming motif sprinkled throughout the book, which is the prevalence of morse code at the beginning of every new scene. The codes are nothing special for the most part, merely translations of what the text is saying about each location and time. I translated each of the codes before writing this review (you’re actually looking at the one instance where they got the morse code wrong!), and while that holds true for most scenes, there is one case of morse code without an immediate translation. When I figured out what the code said, I got a ridiculous grin on my face, so maybe think about giving it a go and deciphering it yourself.
What’s great about this book is that I almost have too much to say about it, which makes me want to say less on account of a desire to not ruin the reading experience for you. To clarify, the story isn’t mind-blowing: frankly, the plot is pretty generic so far, and seems to have three plotlines going on simultaneously that reminds me of The Prestige in how much it jumps around. The ending is rather abrupt too, which is a little annoying after the book spent so much time earning up good will with me. Watching a live-action show like Pennyworth and then seeing a strange, cartoonish Soviet monster with guns for hands in the comic doesn’t really sit well with me either – so I can’t pretend the book is perfect, in case I’ve set your expectations ridiculously high all of a sudden.
But then those criticisms start to collapse when I think about the art… because dear lord, look at that sweet art! I think that Juan Gedeon and John Rauch have created some of the best artwork I’ve reviewed in a DC comic all year, and I’ve reviewed some comics with really good artists. These two work perfectly together in striking an aesthetic that balances style and ease of reading, one that seamlessly changes mood depending on if Alfred’s in frozen arctic shores, hunting in the British countryside or locked in a Gotham warehouse. From cross-hatching to the weight of the action, from the poses to the glow on each character’s skin, the art speaks for itself. You don’t need me to tell you it’s fantastic – it is, and it’s probably the best part of a book that has completely floored me with its quality.
- You have seen Pennyworth.
- You haven’t seen Pennyworth.
- Look, do you miss Alfred? If the answer is yes, then check this out. Simple as that, I think.
Okay, DC. This is not the kind of book I expected to read when I heard about a Pennyworth comic – but when I finished the first issue, it felt like I was an idiot to be skeptical. This creative team has come right out of the blue to deliver a book that’s surprising in all the right ways, and you have me excited to review what happens next!
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this movie for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch