Monday, December 31, 2012

366 Days with Alfred Pennyworth, Day 366

If you've been reading Comics Oughta Be Fun! for any time now, you know that I'm a diehard Marvel Fanbull. I've pretty much read everything Marvel has ever published (and I'm working my way through Atlas and Timely). My first DC comics were issues of The New Adventures of Superboy and Adventure Comics featuring "Dial H for Hero," and I wasn't, to put it gently, impressed. It took The New Teen Titans to get me on board the DC Bullet Train, and although I never sampled as broad a range of comics from DC at that time, there was still plenty I became fast-fascinated by: Batman and the Outsiders, Camelot 3000, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Saga of the Swamp Thing, Batman: The Dark Knight...

Oh yes. The Dark Knight, Frank Miller's now-infamous, endlessly influential uber-Batman, a grand opera on the printed page.

What I remember most about the lead-up to Batman: The Dark Knight is perhaps not what we've taken from it (the gritty grim apocalyptic tone, the movement to new glossy paper and thicker formatted comic books, the seemingly interminable waiting between issues), but an anticipatory write-up in an Amazing Heroes Preview Special (remember those?), the second of those wonderful bi-annual Fantagraphics productions showcasing pretty nearly every comic book coming out in the next year. In the days before the internet (gosh, did those ever exist?), the Amazing Heroes Preview Special was the single best source for finding out the scoop on upcoming issues and new series. (And occasionally, like the infamous Thriller Special, some books that would never, ever come out at all). It had the below amazing cover, scanned from my own personal collection. (Yes, I've kept them all—they make dandy nostalgic and fun reading. One day I will do a feature on some of the great write-ups within 'em.)

Cover of Amazing Heroes Preview Special #2 (January 1, 1985), cover art by Jaime Hernandez

And here, from when it was just titled "BATMAN Special Project" (catchy, huh?) is the preview for what became That Big Thing That Changed Comics and Especially Batman Forever™:

from Amazing Heroes Preview Special #2 (January 1, 1985), written by A. G. James

You may have suspected that the pertinent paragraph I'm pointing you precipitously po...I mean

Why, I thought this was brilliant. Altho' I didn't know it at the time, Alfred had been treated with a comedy touch before, but more in the manner of Nigel Bruce's Doctor Watson from the Sherlock Holmes film series. Alfred Pennyworth was never boring (okay, the Outsider storyline strained credibility), but he'd lost his luster and sparkle from the Golden Age, and here was a brilliant new take on the faithful retainer. I think sometimes we forget how much we owe Frank Miller credit for the modern-day portrayal of Alfred: not only quick with a bandage and a sandwich, but with an exceedingly dry quip indeed.

And altho' I hadn't read the vast majority of his appearances until this past year, I came to consider Alfred Pennyworth one of my favorite comic book characters. Except for the "Alfred is dead!" era and give or take a few leaves-of-absence with annoyance at Master Bruce during events like Knightfall, he's been a pretty constant figure in the Batcave and both Batman and Detective Comics...and indeed, any comic that regularly features Batman, like The Brave and the Bold, World's Finest Comics, Batman and the Outsiders, and, as Gilligan's Island would put it, "the rest."

Pin-up from Batman Annual #2 (Winter 1961)

It took me only a little while, thanks to the wonder of reprints, that Alfred had once been quite a different character. Golden Age Alfred Beagle: he wobbled but he won't fall down.

Panels from "Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson" in Batman #20 (December 1943-January 1944), script by Bill Finger, pencils by Bob Kane, inks by Jerry Robinson, letters by George Roussos

Rotund, bumbling Alfred soon gave way to a slimmed-down Alfred who desperately wanted to be a detective—and often succeeded, sometimes even without the knowledge of the Dynamic Duo:

Panels from "Alfred, Private Detective" in Detective Comics #96 (February 1945); script by Don Cameron; pencils, inks, and letters by Dick Sprang

There's no letter columns in the Golden Age DC comics, but it certainly looks like the character of Alfred was a hit. He begins to receive his own (comedic) back-up stories in Batman...

Title panel from "Recipe for Revenge!" in Batman #26 (December 1944-January 1945), script by Jack Schiff, pencils and inks by Jerry Robinson, letters by George Roussos

...and he's probably one of the first non-hero regular supporting characters to appear with frequency on the cover of comic books.

Cover of Detective Comics #101 (July 1945), pencils and inks by Dick Sprang

At some point (and despite all my Batman-reading this year, I still haven't determined the exact comic or range of issues in which the change takes place), Alfred's backstory changes. He goes from being the butler who arrived at Wayne Manor after Bruce and Dick became Batman and Robin, to the Wayne family's faithful servant (following in the steps of his father Jarvis). He was present...and ever-so-influential...while Bruce was growing up:

Pages from "Of Mice and Men" in The Batman Chronicles #5 (Summer 1996), script by Alan Grant, pencils by Scott McDaniel, inks by Ray McCarthy, colors by Roberta Tewes, letters by John Costanza

It's Alfred, not an orphanage or a Wayne relative (Golden Age Bruce had tons of 'em) who raises Bruce Wayne. Yes, Bruce has always, will always love and revere his parents, but it is Alfred...surnamed Pennyworth once this story switch begins...who raises the boy, to the man, to the Batman.

Page from "Gazing Back: The Secret Origin of the Batman" in Batman Secret Files one-shot (October 1997), script by Devin K. Grayson, layouts by Staz Johnson, finishes by James A. Hodgkins, colors by Gloria Vasquez, color separations by Digital Chameleon, letters by Bill Oakley

In the post-Dark Knight world Alfred becomes even more important to the Bat-Family. he takes on a role of mentor to the young Tim Drake when the first-ever solo Robin series begins:

Panels from Robin II: The Joker's Wild! #4 (December 1991), script by Chuck Dixon, pencils by Tom Lyle, inks by Bob Smith, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Tim Harkins

We see that Alfred is not just a dandy butler but an efficient and accomplished espionage agent, as suits his new backstory as World War II British agent. All of Batman's proteges from Jason Todd to Cassandra Cain benefit from his knowledge and skill, and he becomes one of the most respected persons in the DC Universe. Who else in the DCU do such varying personalities as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Booster Gold look up to with respect and admiration?

Panel from Robin #27 (March 1996), script by Chuck Dixon, pencils by Mike Wieringo, inks by Stan Woch, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Tim Harkins

He's also been a television and movie star. I think it's a credit that regardless of the quality of the Batman stars or script, an Alfred on the screen is always a treat, from Eric Wilton in the Batman serials to Academy Award-winning Greatest Actor in the World™ Michael Caine, and my personal favorite Alfred or all, the unflappable Alan Napier from the Batman '66 TV series. Even the much-ridiculed Batman and Robin movie contains a touching and effective series of scenes between Alfred and Bruce. And Alfred gets the last word in that movie.

I think it's pretty clear to all that I love Alfred Pennyworth. It's a credit to Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson's creation, shaped by so many Batman writers and artists, that he never seems out of character or out of place, no matter the story or style.

Panel from Tiny Titans #3 (June 2008); script by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani; pencils, inks, colors and letters by Art Baltazar

The testament to the timelessness of the character is best expressed, I think, in the Zero Hour story in which plump, detective-wannabe Alfred Beagle crosses over from another dimension to aid Batman and Robin. He's bumbling, yes, but once again he helps save the day. He's gone again within an issue, and never have I so sorely missed an Earth-2 character than reading that story.

Page from Batman: Shadow of the Bat #31 (September 1994), script by Alan Grant, pencils and inks by Bret Blevins, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Todd Klein

So, let's raise a glass of the Wayne family port from the very-well-kept wine cellar in a toast to Alfred Thaddeus Pennyworth. He's not just a fine gentleman's gentleman, he not even also a fine gentleman...he is a fine man. Where ever Batman's adventures take him into the future, I hope that Alfred will be right there, darning Bruce's costume, bringing him tea, and giving him the care of a friend and a father.

Vivat Alfred!

Panels from "Fourth Face: The Man: Perspectives!" in Batman Annual #9 (July 1985), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils and inks by Paul Smith, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by John Costanza


-- MrJM said...

Huzzah, good sir.


-- MrJM

Taylor said...

Another fantastic year. Well done.

Kate said...

Man. I'm gonna miss the Alfred-ness. Thank you, Bully!

Medraut said...

Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" is where Alfred being the Wayne Family Butler during Bruce's childhood is first introduced. Brian Cronin talks about it in one of his Abandoned an' Forsaked articles.

Medraut said...

Huh, reading the comments on the article above, it looks like the concept first appeared in "The Dark Knight Returns", which came out before "Batman: Year One". In any case, it was Frank Miller who came up with it.

Blam said...

Bravo, Master Bully.

I am more of a die-hard DC fanbu— um, fanboy, although I've loved lots of Marvel and I started reading comics from both publishers literally as far back as I can remember. You certainly did Alfred justice.

The entire comics world was so exciting in 1985, and I remember those Amazing Heroes Preview Specials with terrible fondness.

Someone needs to quote "Batman is not a psychotic" back at Frank Miller.

Alan Napier is my favorite cinematic Alfred Pennyworth, too, although Efram Zimbalist Jr. voiced him perfectly in the Dini/Timm/et al. animated series, where his dry wit was scripted so well.

Pink-fringed bubbles!

Michael Jones said...

It's been a good year. Cheerio!
I can't wait for a year of Jarvis now...