All-In For Alfred
After decades of loyal service, Alfred Pennyworth is finally getting some time in the spotlight.
“Pennyworth,” a spy TV show about the early years of Batman’s longtime butler, premiered on Epix this past Sunday.
For Batman fans, it’s a bit frustrating that DC Comics insists on making Caped Crusader shows without the Caped Crusader. But for Alfred fans, it’s a most satisfying moment–proof that steadfast service can finally pay off. It took 76 years, but Alfred grew from a foppish comic relief background character to an emotional core of perhaps the world’s most famous superhero franchise.
How Alfred evolved from Bruce Wayne’s foil to his conscience is a fascinating look into how pop culture mythology evolves, organically covering gaps and healing its missteps with characters that develop minds of their own. But that evolution doesn’t happen in a vacuum–in the Darwinian, publish-or-die world of monthly comics production the changes that stick almost always reflect something about the cultural psyche. Alfred didn’t just survive, he was chosen.
With characteristic British efficiency, Alfred cuts to the core themes that draw people to Batman–wealth, loss, and family.
Butlers and superheroes are two literary archetypes that say a lot about America’s conflicted fascination with wealth and social status.
Buttling is a tradition that goes back nearly 1,000 years in England–and while the United States was ostensibly founded in rejection of the British social hierarchy, British butlers remain a signifier of status here to this day. When Alfred debuted in 1943, the butler was an instantly recognizable character, an easy frame of reference as Americans devoured potboilers and screwball comedies about the foibles of the ruling class. The phrase “the butler did it?” It was coined in 1930 by Pittsburgh’s Mary Roberts Rinehart, known as the American Agatha Christie. (Her play “The Bat,” about a masked criminal, was one of Batman’s many inspirations.)
We all want butlers, but we also want to laugh at the people who need butlers–the comic irony with P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves (actually a valet, not a butler) is how the lowly servant asserts his dominance over the helpless Wooster.
Not all superheroes are metaphors on wealth–but an awful lot of them are. Being wealthy, strong, and righteous is the ultimate power fantasy. It’s certainly, obviously true for Batman, whose ancestors include The Shadow‘s Lamont Cranston, Zorro‘s Don Diego de la Vega, and the Scarlet Pimpernel‘s Sir Percy Blakeney. All aristocrats, who like Batman’s Bruce Wayne keep a secret identity. That Wayne is a rich playboy is the first fact established about him in the first Batman comic–a reader would learn that before he’d even learn there is a Batman.
But make no mistake, these comics were a populist medium. The Batman of that time often rescued his wealthy friends’ diamond jewelry, but just as often he battled corrupt mob bosses or wealthy businessmen swindling the common man. (Check him out here, literally lecturing an exploitative coal mine owner.) These were cartoons printed on cheap pulp, sold for pennies at magazine stands during the tail end of the Great Depression, after all. Why Americans wanted to spend their dwindling dollars reading about the exploits of the rich is a bit of a mystery. (“This is how the rich should be,” is the vibe I get reading them.) But they did.
As a comic character, Alfred was produced by this tension–a way to mock Bruce Wayne’s status and social class, without mocking him directly.
The Bumbling Butler
Alfred debuted in Batman #16, published in 1943. But most Bat-storians trace him to the 15 Batman serials produced that same year, which also had a mustachioed manservant. Throughout the franchise’s history, the comics were often used to backfill characters introduced without explanation in the TV or movie versions. As first introduced, Alfred was a former actor and amateur sleuth, who arrived at Bruce Wayne’s doorstep after being lost at sea for two years.(As always, it’s complicated.) His father, Jarvis, also served Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne.
One mystery that Alfred had no trouble solving was the identity of Batman and Robin, after he stumbled onto the Batcave entrance. This made him the first character to know the secret, an important precedent that would later become key to the development of the Batman family, the team comprising Batwoman, Batgirl and assorted other allies.
Shortly after, Alfred even got his own brief series within the Batman comics, “The Adventures of Alfred,” in which the hapless would-be shamus inadvertently solves crimes. His hijinks included breaking a leg after posing as a football player, saving the life of a man he incorrectly believed to be a pickpocket, solving a crime while hypnotized, immobilizing two criminals while trying to figure out how to use handcuffs, and crashing a gang of crooks’ getaway truck by falling onto the steering wheel, tied to a chair and disguised as a sailor.
Originally portly, the writers even tailored his look to match William Austin, the actor from the serials. He slimmed down and grew some facial hair after taking a vacation.
The character was a hit, but he stayed mostly in the background. He didn’t interfere too much in the main characters’ lives, just as a butler shouldn’t. As the comics pushed into the 50s, his role slowly began to grow. Batman became a bit sillier in the Silver Age–a goofy butler didn’t seem out of place in the main plotlines.
To spin more fantastic stories about time travel, alien planets, and whatnot, the writers were always desperate for “it was all a dream”-type narrative tropes. Alfred picked up a habit of writing short stories about the Dynamic Duo, a useful narrative device.
Death and Resurrection
He soon became a ubiquitous part of Batman–but he came close to never appearing in it again. The character sacrificed himself to save Batman and Robin in 1964, as part of editor Julian Schwarz’s plan to thin Batman’s herd and return him to seriousness. (As well as the never-ending quest to make Batman seem less gay.)
But, luckily for the old chap, a few years later Adam West’s Batman TV show debuted, and the producers wanted him back. To maintain continuity between the comics and television, the writers orchestrated a cockamamie resurrection which placed poor Alfred as the secret identity of The Outsider, a pre-existing, telepathic brute supervillain. (He soon came to his senses and returned as the butler.)
Reborn, Alfred’s tone changed. After all, a man who placed himself in front of a boulder to save the Dynamic Duo seemed like an unfair butt for jokes.
The Era of Espionage
But it was also around this time that our own, real-life Bruce Wayne, President John F. Kennedy, introduced Americans to the novels of Ian Fleming. James Bond fever swept the nation. Spy novels began to replace comics, and the suave, worldly British secret agent slowly overtook the brash American hero as the epitome of coolness.
Comics, largely born out of World War II, had to adapt to the Cold War era. In 1968, DC Comics gave Wonder Woman a makeover inspired by Emma Peel of “The Avengers” (the spy TV show, not the Marvel characters), which Gloria Steinem eventually forced them to change back. Under the guidance of artist Neal Adams and editor Denny O’Neil, Batman began to globetrot, romance, and occasionally lose his shirt. They introduced a new archvillain, the Blofeld-like Ra’s Al Ghul, a Middle Eastern warlord with aims of world domination and little connection to Gotham.
Of course, DC Comics had their own James Bond in Alfred to work with. His background, previously only in theater and amateur detecting, was expanded to include a mix of military and intelligence service. (MI6 hired him for spycraft due to his acting ability, it was later explained.) At some point he also became a medic. He started to leave Wayne Manor with greater frequency. Travels took him to Paris and Montreal to reconcile with his long-lost daughter, who accused him of killing her mother, a French Resistance fighter in World War II. (As always, it’s complicated.) With these skills at his disposal, Alfred became better-equipped to help Batman with more than just the dishes.
The Lost Connection
As the Batman franchise became more serious, Robin started to fall out of favor. Infamously (but temporarily) in 1988 he was killed off altogether. As the teenaged sidekick disappeared, Alfred stepped in to replace the Watson role.
But above all else, the most important factor to Alfred’s transformation was when the franchise turned inward, and placed a new, obsessive focus on Batman’s motivation–the murder of his parents, at the hands of mugger Joe Chill.
Believe it or not, this element wasn’t all that important to the character in the decades before. It gave him a reason for fighting criminals, and the comics returned to it now and then. But it wasn’t something you thought about much while he was off fighting aliens or robots. The Adam West show barely mentioned it at all.
But in the 70s and 80s the franchise took a sharp existential turn towards noir, channeling Raymond Chandler as much as Arthur Conan Doyle. Batman was no longer just a do-gooder, he was a troubled soul lashing out at the world to cover his own deep wounds.
Frank Miller’s iconic and iconoclastic “Batman: Year One” established that Alfred wasn’t just Bruce Wayne’s butler–he had been Thomas and Martha Wayne’s as well. Thus, he became a living link to Bruce Wayne’s childhood, a constant reminder of the idyllic world his crusade hopelessly aims to restore.
Writers wanted to emphasize the poignance of the Batman story, and what’s more poignant than the stalwart servant and protector gently tending to his exhausted surrogate son, after yet another night of brutal warfare? A begrudging and slightly disapproving enabler who can never quite figure out if he’s helping Bruce live, or helping him die. Alfred became the perfect prism to view the moral ambiguity at the heart of the Batman legend.
Alfred evolved from Batman’s foil to his conscience, whispering advice into his ear and acting as a consigliere and grounding for the always-in-flux hero. (He’s literally Batman’s batman.) A capable crimefighter of his own, he helps run the operation and has even hops into the suit from time to time. After Bane broke Batman’s back in the “Knightfall” saga, Alfred helped nurse him back to health. When a cataclysmic earthquake rendered Batman MIA for weeks in “No Man’s Land,” Alfred helped hold the city together. In Grant Morrison’s more recent conception of Batman as a team, rather than a lonely weirdo, Alfred has become a quiet, essential underboss. His paternal role doesn’t stop with Bruce, either–he was crucial in bringing in the Robins (the original Dick Grayson in the re-written origin story and the later Tim Drake) into household.
But really, it’s his advice that makes Alfred invaluable.
As Bruce Wayne works his way through Gotham’s treacherous underbelly, Alfred is an ever-present sounding board. Sometimes he can help Bruce crack the case while barely saying a word. But he’s also never afraid to speak up when it’s necessary, warning Bruce about his destructive spiral after the death of Jason Todd. Like other fictional observers–Dr. Melfi from “The Sopranos” comes to mind–he’s both a mirror for the troubled protagonist and an outlet for the audience.
(And as the franchise grew darker and more ponderous, his wry Anglo wit became all the more important as a rarer moment of levity and a way to cut through the self-serious hero’s defenses.)
He even uses his acting background to help with the theatrical aspects of being Batman. A visible butler helps Bruce keep up the appearance of an aimless playboy–in “Year One” he serves him ginger ale in a champagne bottle as part of a facade of drunkenness.
Indeed, both of them can get so lost in their roles they lose track of when they’re pretending.
“There’s no shame in being a butler, to serve someone you care for,” he once said, to himself. “I will even act as if your nocturnal excursions don’t bother me, that my heart does not cry with each wound.”
Sidekicks are essential to superhero stories, or really any heroic fiction. But Alfred provides something a bit different, not just advice and feedback but a condition which Batman needs to go on. At this point, it’s safe to say that without Alfred, Batman isn’t Batman.
Played by Michael Caine, Alfred is secretly the emotional core of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, delivering many of the series’ most memorable lines. (“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)
More recently, Alfred has almost shed the role of butler altogether.
In 2012’s “Batman: Earth One,” an alternate universe take, he is a grizzled, shotgun-wielding veteran and friend of Thomas Wayne, who helps train Bruce for his eventual role. He only tells Bruce he’s a butler to explain his presence to the grief-stricken boy, after becoming his legal guardian. In the criminally underrated 2013 animated show “Beware the Batman,” he’s also a trainer, subjecting Bruce to Cato-like attacks around the manor to hone his instincts. The show’s producers said they based him on yet another Sean Connery character, Irish beat cop Jimmy Malone in “The Untouchables”–a world-weary and world-wise sage introducing a dark underworld to the idealistic hero.
In 2016’s “Batman v. Superman,” the character–played by Jeremy Irons–seems more like an accomplice than a butler, spending as much time running Batman’s command center as serving meals. And he prefers stylish sport coats to tuxedos.
This makes sense–while Americans still love to watch servants in period dramas such as “Downton Abbey,” the butler is a rare figure in contemporary pop culture.
“You really scared me,” Alfred tells young Bruce in the recent TV show “Gotham.” “If you had died…who employs butlers anymore?”
As it turns out, plenty of people do.
While butlers may seem anachronistic, today it’s actually a growing profession. The rise of a new billionaire class in the past few decades–especially in areas like India and the Middle East, where Britain retains a cultural residue–has increased the demand for this particular style of household manager.
“The role has grown in numbers, having almost disappeared in the 1970s,” said Steven Ferry, longtime butler and co-author of “Serving the Wealthy: The Modern Butler’s & Household/Estate(s) Manager’s Companion.”
In America they’re more likely to be called household or estate managers, but the role is still the same, Ferry said. In Silicon Valley especially, a new generation of wealthy homeowners are seeking out a very time-tested form of assistance.
“Having strangers in large houses to care for them is a given, so it makes sense to hire those who are attentive, intelligent, and trustworthy, whom you can count upon to be there for you because they are loyal and know you inside out–no explaining to do, they present things you want without your having to ask for them,” Ferry said.
And as the standard mansion has become much more technologically complex–less a “machine for living,” as architect Le Corbusier once said, and more like a giant machine you live in–the need for people to manage these houses has increased exponentially. Just as Alfred’s duties have upgraded from sweeping and cleaning to running the Bat-computer, the modern-day butler must be much more tech-savvy.
But, Ferry emphasized, people still want to hire a butler, not a computer engineer.
“Homes are meant to be warm and welcoming, not clinical and business-like,” he said. “No amount of AI robots and software can substitute for live, intelligent, and genuine butlers.”
Ferry, chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers in Florida, is a real-life Alfred of sorts. A native of the United Kingdom, he worked in intelligence, among many other fields, before entering domestic service. He said all of those careers helped prepare him for the problem-solving that household management requires, and most butlers come to it as a second, third or fourth career.
Butlers may be just as common now as they were in 1943–but as wealth inequality continues to grow and the ultra-rich inhabit a world increasingly alien to the rest of us, we’re just not as likely to hear or read about them.
People hire butlers because they’re the lucky few of us who can afford to achieve stability at home with minimal effort, so their focus can be spent on the things the wealthy do–work, play, or crime-fighting. Most of us have to seek out the few remaining civic spaces for our third place that provides support without the complications of work or family. A butler can give you this in your own home, for a price.
Every culture has servants, but it’s that particularly English model of dignified, literate, dutiful reserve that homeowners find most comfortable. A butler is a family member you employ. But above all else, he doesn’t judge.
“A butler is like man’s best friend: Always loving, always eager to see you, neither judgmental nor argumentative, ready to leap to your defense, and loyal to the end,” Ferry said.
It’s the refusal to judge his Batman quest that perhaps Bruce needs most from Alfred. Not that it’s been easy for either of them. At times, Alfred provides Bruce the encouragement he needs to continue on, when he faces his own doubts. Other times, Alfred can barely contain his own worry about how Bruce chooses to chase his demons. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred’s determination to get Bruce to give it all up gets him fired.
The Batman story has always had an elemental quality to it–the best Batman books emphasize the “man versus nature” theme it shares with real noir, an allegory about the determination to bring order to chaos. To me, Batman has always been about a young boy who grew up in a world that was artificially stable and fair–and then, in a horrible moment, learned how unfair life truly is. Being Batman is this insane project to try to make the world fair again.
But maybe it’s possible to invert this, and see Batman as a man who finds a perverse sense of normalcy in never-ending war against an endless stream of bad guys. No matter what craziness he faces out in Gotham, Bruce knows he can return to a well-kept Batcave, tended to by someone who really knows him. Two people in a symbiotic relationship, weathering a turbulent world and providing the only sense of family either of them have left.
Really, what Bruce Wayne is trying to do is to Alfred-ize the whole world.
It’s no secret that people read Batman stories to fantasize about being Batman. But maybe what we all really want is to have our own Alfred, tucking us into bed.
This post also appears at The Parks Department