Today, from the “How-Can-This-Be-Good?” file, we have Marvel’s 2007 miniseries Penance: Relentless. It spins out of the repulsively executed Civil War storyline, and stars former New Warriors mascot Robbie Baldwin. Surprisingly, despite the Clive Barker costume made of leather straps and spikes, Baldwin fascinates in this darker persona (though writer Paul Jenkins and artist Paul Gulacy should get the credit).
Sigh. Where did it all go wrong? Let’s first revisit the early 90s (an awkward comfort zone for me, I know), and witness the teen New Warriors fight street level crime–with major ‘tude! Among badasses like Night Thrasher and Nova, there was Speedball, a bright and shiny goof who could manipulate kinetic energy and bounce around.
By the mid-2000s, all of the New Warriors had been demoted to court jesters for the Marvel Universe (their 2005 miniseries lacks the dignity of the worst Teen Titans Go! episode). Until, that is, they blew up a chunk of Connecticut while filming their reality show. This resulted in Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Captain American (as well as everyone else) going to war over the passage of a Superhero Registration act, which forced all costumed heroes to either work for the government or go to jail.
Speedball, while tussling with the combustible villain Nitro, directly caused the explosion in Stamford, CN, which killed 612 civilians. Now, as Penance, Baldwin nurtures his monstrous sense of guilt in a costume that cuts the wearer while he stands, walks–and yes–engages in superhuman battle.
During this pre-Disney era, the Marvel Universe built to a gloriously evil crescendo; Norman Osborn (Spider-Man nemesis the Green Goblin) ended up in charge of world police agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and all its technological wonders. But at this point in the mega-story, Osborn is merely in charge of the Thunderbolts program, which keeps murderous psychos like Venom and the Swordsman on short leashes.
Relentless finds Penance as a reluctant, moody member of the Thunderbolts, routinely subject to psychological evaluations and skirmishes with unregistered vigilantes. Jenkins, who demystified Wolverine’s earliest years in Origin, helps Penance track Nitro for a cathartic throw-down. His dialogue, especially for the despicable Osborn, is stellar: “If Penance and his schoolyard pals hadn’t been so hungry for attention we’d still have six hundred extra breeders feeding the economy.” Later encounters with Dr. Doom, Tony Stark and Wolverine feature equally spot-on characterizations that make you wish Jenkins got more regular work at Marvel.
Gulacy, meanwhile, illustrates this high-tension tale with a superb sense of dread. Working since the 70s (primarily on kung-fu titles and Batman), he’s got an unconventional style that places slanted, Frankenstein-looking figures in gorgeously detailed surroundings. He follows artist Mike Deodato in drawing Osborn as Tommy Lee Jones, and likewise presents Baldwin, Susan Richards (of the Fantastic Four), and Tony Stark in occasionally brilliant portraits.
His drafting feats similarly outshine the on-paper sketch of what to expect from this series. When Penance confronts Dr. Doom about handing over the imprisoned Nitro, the courtyard battle in wintry Latveria is astonishing. Colorist Rain Beredo adds welcome texture to mountains, bricks, and of course our cast’s sweaty faces, stippled in shadow when close-up.
The trade paperback for this series, devoid of the billions of ads Marvel crammed into the comic issues, is ten bucks well spent. It also, word for word, puts Civil War itself to shame.