Forget Superman, Read Penance: Relentless
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.
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.