October 24, 2014 | 9:36am EST
Superman was the first superhero ever created and possesses enormous cultural value for the genre. He is also the most boring superhero of all time, a result of his uninspired powers and a near perfect character. The unshakable resolve and moral system of this god-like alien is perceived by those around him in the world he inhabits as inspiring. The “S” on his chest means hope in his home world’s language and he absorbs the power of the sun, literally the biggest beacon of light known to man. Symbolism is perhaps the most overdone motif in the superhero genera, hope specifically being the most overdone of all. Furthermore, hope is always codified from the helpless civilian’s point of view, as in “I hope [superhero] will save me.” This is what superheroes do, they save and protect the vulnerable humans. Some books, like Marvels, have deconstructed the notion of the helpless citizen constantly relying on the superhero to save them. Other graphic novels have even gone so far as depicting the depressed superhero hoping for forgiveness for a mistake in his or her past (Kingdom Come shows white-bearded Superman in such a state: retired in self-imposed exile). Yet, no graphic novel has gone to the lengths Penance: Relentless does to defile the superhero genre hope motif, one that Superman is the prime example of.
In coming up with the character Penance, Paul Jenkins and Paul Gulacy created the perfect anti-hero to Superman. Penance is a character who is damaged goods in every sense of the world. A brief version of his backstory follows, you can skip the rest of this paragraph if you are familiar with Speedball’s role in the Civil War timeline: Robbie Baldwin became Speedball after a botched experiment granted him cosmic powers in the form of the manipulation of kinetic energy. If he was touched at all he could use that energy, however small, to propel himself in a certain direction or create a force field around himself. Robbie joined a C-list superhero team called the New Warriors and they eventually created a reality TV show about their crime fighting escapades. During the shooting of an episode in which they were battling a supervillain called Nitro, Nitro used his power to its fullest degree and created an atomic bomb-level explosion that decimated an entire town and killed the New Warriors. Only Robbie survived and as a result was publicly humiliated for his part in the tragedy, scapegoated by the entire country, and eventually shot in the back by a father of a girl who was killed in the explosion. The Stamford tragedy, named for the town which was destroyed, triggered the Civil War timeline. The US government passes a highly contested law within the superhero community that requires superheroes to publicly register their identities, causing the whole Marvel lineup to pick sides in the debate. Robbie is imprisoned without trial shortly after and blackmailed into hunting down unregistered superheroes for the government.
After the incident, Robbie’s powers changed slightly, instead of being able to absorb kinetic energy through simple contact, his powers following the tragedy are only activated by physical pain he experiences. As a way to trigger his powers and express his regret for his role in the Stamford tragedy, Robbie creates a sadistic metal and leather bondage suit that causes him constant pain. One of the most intense scenes in the book, thanks to Gulacy’s relentlessly graphic artwork, shows Robbie screaming in pain as he puts on the new suit. The suit is covered in metal spikes and it is not until this scene that we realize the spikes are all double sided, designed to cause him as much pain as they inflict on the enemy. And so Penance is born. His form of penance is not an expression of a hope for forgiveness, but simply a manifestation of his desire to cause himself as much pain as possible as a constant reminder of his role in the Stamford tragedy.
Penance: Relentless opens with Robbie going to a coffee shop where he writes down a list of seemingly random numbers for a couple hours, unknowingly under multiple-man surveillance. He returns to the prison-like underground base of the Thunderbolts, the team with whom he hunts down unregistered superheroes. The team and everyone at the base thinks he is insane as a result of extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, and for good reason; Robbie has scars all over his body from the suit, tons of piercings, recites numbers to himself all day, and has macabre books all over his little cell. Jenkins and Gulacy paint a picture for the reader that slightly contradicts the team’s view of him: a young man tortured but not lost, not completely mentally stable but not insane, and, most importantly, in his own world but not directionless.
Viewed as probably insane but definitely one of the most dangerous and powerful people on the planet by the people responsible for him, Penance causes quite a stir when he escapes from imprisonment at the Thunderbolts’ HQ with nuclear launch codes. The majority of the plot then centers on the Thunderbolts’ massive manhunt for Robbie, chasing him around the country and eventually the globe. Penance is anything but predictable and so is Jenkins. He brings in a host of guest appearances including Wolverine and Iron Man, providing massively entertaining and visceral slugfests that show just how unstoppable a superhero powered by pain really is. As the story progresses, Penance’s exact whereabouts become a secondary concern compared to what his motivation is for stealing the launch codes and breaking everyone he can who has information about where Nitro (the supervillain who he was fighting when Nitro caused the atomic explosion) is being held. His perceived motivation for all this is Penance is going to detonate a nuclear bomb on the prison where Nitro is being held, probably causing WWIII in the process for the hell of it. The reality is much, much worse and ties the numbers, the nuclear codes, and his whole backstory all together in a jaw dropping finale of penance, lost hope, and lots of emotional and physical pain all around. If I haven’t convinced you yet to forget about Superman right now and go read Penance: Relentless, here’s one last reason: Superman doesn’t curb stomp supervillains then strap them into an excruciatingly painful bondage suit, Penance does.