Well, this has to start with a spoiler, there’s no two ways about it. Batman’s faithful butler, Alfred, was murdered by Bane in this week’s issue of Batman. It was a shocking development, although it has to be said that this was not the first time Alfred has been killed off.
So it strikes me that it’s a good time to look back, not only at that earlier story, and how Alfred came to return, but also at the long history of comicdom’s most famous manservant.
Alfred made his debut in a story by Don Cameron and Bob Kane, arriving at the door of Wayne Manor, to the great surprise of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in Batman 16 (April 1943). Alfred had fled England, and this took place back in the halcyon days when the US welcomed refugees fleeing war torn nations, rather than throwing them into concentration camps.
Alfred explains to the two men that, as his father had been the butler for Thomas Wayne years before, he has come to take up a similar position with his son. This was not Alfred’s main goal, he had desired to become an actor. But the war scuppered those plans, so he made the best of the situation. Bruce and Dick did not want this guy anywhere around, but also weren’t inclined to kick him out onto the streets. Alfred winds up accidentally discovering the Batcave, and quickly becomes a helper to the two heroes.
At the start, Alfred was quite a different character than the one we came to know and love. His last name was Beagle, for a start. The last name wasn’t used very often over the years, but the Pennyworth name didn’t get attached to him until the early 70s. Alfred’s appearance was also notably different, as he was a short, fat, clean shaven but balding man.
The early Alfred fancied himself an amateur detective, and longed to accompany Batman and Robin on their cases. He did so on a few occasions, but any help he provided was accidental at best.
This situation changed with Detective Comics 83 (January 1944). Alfred goes off on vacation, and winds up not only losing weight, but gaining a few inches in height, and additional hair on his head and face. He also becomes mildly more competent as an assistant to the dynamic duo.
This change was prompted by the first Batman movie serial. Watching it, it is blatantly obvious that the new look for Alfred matches the appearance of William Austin, the first actor to take on the role. Austin’s performance is one of the better elements of the serial, and this likely influenced the increasing number of appearances the character made in the comics.
In fact, Alfred even gained his own back-up series, The Adventures of Alfred, which ran from Batman 22 (April/May 1944) to 36 (Aug/Sept 46), skipping issue 35. These stories, though a tad repetitive, were a delight. Alfred winds up stumbling into crimes and solving them mostly by accident, but usually claiming to have made impressive deductions to solve them. My favourite tale from this run appears in Batman 27. Alfred spots a shady looking man at a diner, who finds a pearl in his oyster. A bidding war opens for it among the other customers. Alfred notices that the man picked up Alfred’s bill by mistake, and rushes out to correct this. He stumbles into a mugging, and winds up stopping the whole criminal escapade. The arresting officer credits Alfred with knowing that the pearl could not have been just found, as it was all shiny, meaning its outer layers had already been removed, and of course, Alfred goes along with this, accepting all the credit.
In Batman 110 (Sept 57) Alfred is given a different backstory. This would come to be considered the Earth-1 version, with the earlier version relegated to Earth-2. In this version, Alfred simply came to apply for the butler’s job with Bruce Wayne, and though his father had been a butler, no connection to Thomas Wayne is given. As well, Alfred does not stumble across the identities of Batman and Robin, they actively call for his help one evening, after Batman had been injured.
One cannot help but notice that, in neither of these versions was Alfred responsible for raising young Bruce Wayne following the deaths of his parents. That was an alteration made only in the post-Crisis universe.
In the mid 60s a reboot was done on the Batman series, the “New Look Batman,” giving the hero a new Batmobile and a circle around his chest symbol. Robin was aged a few years, becoming a teenager, and a more serious tone was given to the book. Part of the changes involved getting rid of Alfred, which was done in Detective 328 (June 1964). Alfred sacrificed his life to save Batman. Aunt Harriet would debut, moving in with Bruce and Dick, at the end of the same issue. This was, apparently, done to make the situation appear less gay.
Bruce would create the Alfred Foundation, a charitable organization, in memory of his longtime helper. Later, once Alfred was restored to life, the name became the Wayne Foundation. Because, yes, Alfred’s death was undone only a few years afterwards.
The success of the New Look Batman prompted the launch of the 1966 Batman tv series. It’s somewhat ironic, since the tv series completely disregarded the more serious tone of the stories. Aunt Harriet was a major player on the show, but so was Alfred, now played by Alan Napier.
So the decision was made to bring Alfred back in the comics as well. Part of the New Look stories had been a mysterious villain, the Outsider, who knew an awful lot about the Batman. The Outsider manipulated other villains, such as the Grasshopper and Blockbuster, against Batman, and even used Zatanna against the hero in one tale. Eventually, in Detective 356 (Oct 66) the Outsider was seen for the first time, and revealed to be a revived Alfred, transformed into a villainous form with telekinetic powers by a well meaning scientist. Alfred was cured of his Outsider persona at the end of the story, but would revert to it a couple of times down the road, once in Batman Family, where he faced Batgirl, Robin, and Man-Bat, and later in DC Comics Presents, where he took on Superman and the Outsiders.
In a two part story, beginning in Detective 501 (April 1981), Alfred was given a military background for the first time, as we learned that he had worked as a spy with the French underground during World War 2. Not only that, but Alfred had even fathered a child, Julia Pennyworth, with Mademoiselle Marie, a character from DC’s war comics. Julia’s existence would come and go over the years, but Alfred’s military background would remain an important facet of the character.
Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, Alfred assumed a more important position in the backstory of Bruce Wayne, becoming the person who raised him after the murders of his parents, effectively a second father. He also developed a more acerbic tongue, and his commentary on Batman’s lack of proper diet and disdain for playing the role of Bruce Wayne became one of the more endearing traits of the character in the last few decades.
Alfred’s pseudo-parent nature would also get developed in his relationships with the various Bat-kids, including Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Damien Wayne, Stephanie Brown, and Cassandra Cain. It’s not surprising that Julia Pennyworth disappeared from the comics for a couple of decades when Alfred had so many other children to raise.
Alfred remained at Batman’s side even after the hero’s back was broken by Bane, accompanying him to England when Bruce Wayne went in search of his doctor’s kidnappers. But Bruce’s refusal to accept Alfred’s advice on the perilous state of his health would drive a wedge between them, and Alfred quit, leaving Bruce to fend for himself. Again, this would not last for long, with Dick Grayson hunting him down and persuading Alfred to return.
A few other actors took on the role of Alfred during these years. Michael Gough emphasized the sardonic tone of the character in his appearances in Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman and Robin. Michael Caine played up the fatherly elements of the character in the the Christopher Nolan Batman films. Jeremy Irons went back to the more ironic tones for his performances in Batman vs Superman and Justice League.
But more than any of these other actors, Sean Pertwee excelled in the role during his years on the tv series Gotham. This Alfred was raising the young Bruce Wayne, so we got to see his fatherly side in action. He also trained Bruce, putting his military background to use, and worked alongside the Gotham police in a number of storylines. Not only that, this Alfred would even wind up getting murdered, while Bruce Wayne was under the spell of Ra’s Al Ghul, although this was rapidly resolved thanks to a dip in the Lazarus Pit.
Currently, Jack Bannon has taken on the role in the new tv series Pennyworth, which explores Alfred’s life after he left the army, but before he became a servant to the Waynes.
And in the comics? Well, as I said at the top of this piece, Alfred is dead once again, a brutal murder at the hands of Bane, dispensing with the butler after acquiring Damien Wayne as a hostage.
Will Alfred return one day? Of course he will. We are discussing comic books, after all. But for the moment, Alfred is dead, and deserves a moment of reflection.