Retcons, Reboots And Resurrections #18: Actor, Butler, Soldier, Father
by Scott Redmond
They say the only three certain things in life are birth, death, and change. When it comes to comic books those things are also certain as they come in the form of retcons, reboots, and resurrections.
For our purposes retcons are elements that are retroactively added into a character’s history after the fact, reboots are either big full change revivals of a character/title or are extensive changes to their canon, and resurrections are characters making the return from death or character limbo.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
Thanks to the comics themselves and tons of adaptations, everyone knows the story now. The story of the Waynes who are murdered in Crime Alley while their son Bruce watches on. The now orphaned young man who has to find his way in the world, and the long-serving butler who steps in and becomes a father figure, friend, and confidant to this young man. Who he stands by through thick and thin as the young man grows up to become the crime-fighting force known as the Batman.
Alfred and Bruce, a well-known and well-repeated story.
Except, that wasn’t always how the story went.
What Was It?
It would shock many to learn that Alfred’s origins came at a point well after Batman had begun his crime-fighting journey and already was working with Robin and fought many of his famous rogues. In 1943’s Batman #16 Bruce and Dick are introduced to the overweight bumbling and dimwitted man known as Alfred who has shown up to be their new butler. Turns out he is the son of Jarvis who was the butler to Bruce’s parents long in the past and when Jarvis passed away Alfred promised to “mend his ways” (he chose to be an actor instead of a butler which was a sin of some sort) and go to the U.S. to be the butler for Bruce Wayne.
This Alfred was at times known as Alfred Beagle because he was an amateur, albeit not quite good, detective. He didn’t even know that Bruce and Dick were Batman and Robin for a little while.
This version of Alfred, albeit one that eventually learned who his employers actually were, lasted about a year before he made a big change. Shortly after the character debuted in comics Batman film serials had begun to air and in them, the character was played by the veteran actor William Austin who had the lean frame and moustache that we see when we visualize Alfred these days. In 1944’s Detective Comics #83 DC Comics decided to make the comics match the serials (adapting comics to match other mediums isn’t just a modern-day thing), leading to Alfred going on vacation to a health spa where he managed to utterly transform himself thanks to exercising and other treatments.
While Beagle was used from time to time, most of those early years just saw the character referred to as plain old Alfred. It would take over two decades for the character to gain the moniker we know him best under. In Batman #216 during a scene with Dick Grayson, the butler reveals that his family name is Pennyworth and of course that has stuck ever since.
In 1980 DC Comics released the three-part series Untold Legend of Batman which began to fill in a lot of gaps about Bruce’s early life and journey to becoming Batman. Here it was revealed that it was his father’s brother Philip Wayne that became his guardian after their murder. Philip traveled a lot so he left Bruce in the care of his housekeeper Mrs. Chilton, who actually was the mother of Joe Chill, the murderer of the Waynes! Mrs. Chilton learned what her son did much later but never told Bruce, she lost her other son Max when he took on Batman, and even knew that Bruce was Batman.
All of this changed when the multiversal event Crisis on Infinite Earths shook up DC’s publishing and they began to merge their worlds and altered continuity. Some reports state that it was Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns in 1986 that first did the “Alfred was always the Wayne’s butler and raised Bruce” change, others point to the Crisis itself and aftermath. Either way, the change was made.
Alfred’s origins have shifted at times but some of the old Alfred did make it through in most regards. The man who used to be an actor but promised his father he would come back to do the family job when his father was passing away has fit into a number of adaptation versions of Alfred.
Overall the main thing that is seen across the various comics and other media adaptations is the Alfred who was there to raise Bruce and was his friend and confidant and father figure all the way through to his crime-fighting days. Always ready with a sarcastic quip and a trained hand to take care of the wounds while helping raise and tend to the various wards that make up the extended bat-family.
Was It Good?
Hands down, very much so.
There is a reason that this version of the duo’s relationship has persisted both in comic books and other media formats. The father-son relationship adds so much to the mythos and gives Bruce that sounding board and person that he cares for so deeply (besides his various young proteges that he cares for very much) because they’ve been through so much. Others came into Bruce’s world after Batman existed, but Alfred was there from the beginning. Alfred is his last connection to the life that he lost so long ago.
This change not only brought so much emotional heart to the world of Batman, but it catapulted Alfred into a far more iconic character. So much so that a lot of people (myself included) surely were never aware that there used to be a bumbling dim version or just a version that had no connection to Bruce other than as an employee.
It would be hard to imagine the comics without that change, let alone imagining what Batman (1989) or Nolan’s Batman films or Batman: The Animated Series or Gotham would look like without this relationship. If one were to point to what is the heart of the Batman books, it’s certain many would not hesitate to point at Alfred Pennyworth.
Next Week: The Many Lives Of Resurrected Retcons