The charming Alfred Pennyworth has been a beloved member of the Batman family for over 70 years. Although the Batman’s gentlemen did not appear in the comics until 1943, most modern incarnations of the character place him as a surrogate father-figure, raising Bruce following the death of his parents. It is strange, therefore that very few comics have opted to focus on the man he was before dawning the finely-pressed butler’s tuxedo. Thankfully, this is a gap that the self-contained arcs of Scott Synder’s All-Star Batman are quite suited to filling.
If the first arc of All-Star Batman taught us anything, it’s that Scott Synder loves an old-fashioned chase scene, and rightfully so. On the surface, they represent the pinnacle and excitement of in media res story-telling. As our heroes attempt to catch up with their antagonists, so too does the reader with events unseen. Yet aside from their pure efficacy from a device perspective, Synder and Albuquerque recognise their potential to paint powerful images of our characters’ mental states. It is in those high-intensity, adrenaline-fueled moments that a character’s rawest emotions become crystallised. For Alfred, it is his connection to Bruce, his “son,” and admitting that his worries as a parent haven’t eased throughout Batman’s existence. Moreover, he doesn’t want them to. It is Bruce’s willingness to put himself in this danger that further endears him to Alfred, a part of himself that he recognises in “young Master Wayne”. This is expertly done through two paralleling chases. One sees Bruce and Alfred engage Hush in modern times, while the second serves as a flashback, showing a masked-youth fleeing police over the rooftops of London.
The tale sets itself up as the mystery of one’s parents. Inside all of us is that desire to know more about those formative figures who shaped us into the people we are today. If Alfred is partially responsible for molding Bruce into the man he is today, then to what extent are elements of the butler’s thrill-jockey past found in Bruce? What makes one man reject life and the other run towards. It is perhaps fitting that the pair are pursuing Hush given the villain’s link to Bruce. By having Alfred chase Bruce’s splitting image, it can be interpreted as symbolic of how he feels towards his adopted son as if Bruce’s nighttime activities prevent them from ever truly being able to understand each other. They both may feel a rush when playing themselves in danger, but Bruce runs towards it in a way the Alfred never can or will. It doesn’t diminish their relationship, but it certainly informs it.
What can be said about Rafael Albuquerque that hasn’t been repeated to death? Through the use of minimalist backgrounds, Albuquerque ensures that the characters pop in each panel. There is a cinematic focus to his work that draws the reader in and leaves no question as to where we should be looking. In that he is very suited to the Batman-style of detective narratives, employing subtle slight of hand to leave clues earlier in the issue but obscure them enough to maintain the illusion. It’s only later that these hints are brought to the foreground as the magician reveals his trick for the delight of all. The highlight of the issue from an art perspective is unquestionably the Batmobile. Many a great artist can falter when faced with the prospect of drawing vehicles, especially if they are one of the most visually recognisable and culturally significant cars of all time. There are distinctive echoes of Batman: the Animated Series’ visual aesthetic from a design perspective, but Albuquerque succeeds in retaining its own flare. It’s a Batmobile that feels both nostalgic and fresh. Cowls must also be tipped to colourist Jordie Bellaire, whose work sublimely frames the issue’s two featured time-periods. Bellaire also helps in presenting the odd visual quirks of technology in a way that penciling alone can’t. She is a rare talent that is stunningly exemplified mid-way through the comic that sees Bruce and Alfred overlook Miami as the sun begins to rise. It’s not often that a comic landscape eclipses the beauty of the city its based on, but Albuquerque and Bellaire have a moment of symbiotic inspiration that is just screaming out to be framed.
As always with All-Star Batman, we are treated to a back-up feature. Albuquerque takes up writing duties alongside Rafael Scavone with Sebastián Fiumára providing the pretty pictures. Seeking to remind us of Batman’s almost supernatural ability to disguise himself as anyone, Bruce goes undercover in the Russian mafia as a low-level thug ready to become a made-man. It’s a typical set-up for a story and an interesting one at that. It reminds us that Batman is a detective first and a superhero second. I am intrigued to see where this one goes. The problem with going undercover the risk of being subsumed into the role you assume. It’s a balancing act that Batman has had difficulties off-setting in the past and it gives us a chance to see his inherent vulnerability. It is, after all, that humanity which makes the character so compelling. If nothing else, it will provide a refreshing slice of low-tech Batman without the frills.
Unlike some of Synder’s past work on Batman, the central mystery of “The First Ally” is one that is large in scale, but small in scope. It has meaning because we understands it connects with our protagonists in a personal way. Whatever past insight we’ve been given into Alfred’s past, it’s clear that Synder and Albuquerque are ready to rock the foundations of the character. All-Star Batman is what all superhero comics should aspire to be, energetic romps underpinned by engaging character work and stunning interiors.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.