Most modern Batman fans — whether they know the character best by way of comics, movies, television, games, or any combination of these — are likely to be quite familiar with the character of Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred. Fans of more recent vintage may not realize, however, that not only has Alfred not always been a part of the Dark Knight’s mythos (he didn’t actually show up on the Wayne Manor doorstep until Batman #16 [April, 1943], meaning that his future boss had to get along without him for the first five years of his crimefighting career) — but for a couple of years in the 1960’s, Alfred was dead. Clearly, though, he got better.
When, and why, did the butler buy the farm? The story that saw Alfred’s demise, “Gotham Gang Line-Up!”, was published in Detective Comics #328 [June, 1964] — just the second issue of Detective to be published after editor Julius Schwartz took over the title (as well as Batman) and established the superhero’s “New Look”. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, Schwartz was charged with revitalizing the Batman comics, which were supposedly in danger of cancellation, and as part of his approach, he pretty much decimated the “family” of supporting characters that had grown up around the focal characters of Batman and Robin within the previous decade. But while characters like Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound were ditched because of their perceived whimsicality not fitting in well with Schwartz’s more grounded version of the Dynamic Duo, Alfred the butler was excised from the books for another reason: He had to go so that Batman and Robin would appear less gay.
A decade earlier, the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, had claimed (among many, many other things) that the relationship of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson represented “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together”. DC Comics, understandably, resisted this interpretation of the Dynamic Duo’s relationship, and continued to do so throughout the next several years, during which Wertham’s book helped inspire the Kefaufer Senate hearings concerning the effects of comic books on young minds, which led in turn to the establishment of the comics industry’s self-censoring mechanism, the Comics Code Authority. DC ultimately weathered the anti-comics storm, as did Batman and Robin; but the suggestion of an “inappropriate” liaison between Bruce and Dick was never entirely expunged. And thus, as Julius Schwartz recalled in his biography, Man of Two Worlds:
Wertham maintained that comics were harmful to kids, and one of the things that came up was about how “unnatural” the living arrangements were at Wayne manor — what he construed as basically a household of three unmarried males — and the self-proclaimed expert raised unfounded questions about what might really be going on.
So I decided to bring a woman into the household, a spinster aunt of Dick “Robin” Grayson, who could possibly be seen as a sort of chaperoning den mother. Her name was Aunt Harriet…
Now, I probably could have brought a woman into the mix some other way… but, honestly, the first idea that crossed my mind was to kill off Alfred. And as was usual for me, my first inclination always seemed to be the best way to go.
So, unlike Batwoman, Bat-Girl, and the other characters that simply got sidelined — no longer appearing in stories, and not ever even referred to (in Schwartz’s books, at least), so that they might as well have never even existed — poor Alfred had to actually die. And so he did, heroically sacrificing himself to save the Dynamic Duo in the concluding pages of “Gotham Gang Line-Up!”:
It was a pretty big deal — one of the first deaths of a long-running supporting character ever chronicled in American comic books — but it seems to have been generally accepted by the readers of the time, taken in stride with the rest of the changes that Schwartz and his stable of creators were making in the Batman books, which most fans appear to have seen as mainly positive.
In hindsight, however, one has to question Schwartz’s judgment in making this particular call in the first place. After all, to the best of my knowledge, Dr. Wertham never implicated Alfred in Wayne Manor’s homosexual “wish dream”, nor did anyone else. Alfred was a middle-aged (or older) man, whose role in the household — to the extent it transcended the traditional employer-employee relationship — was surely more fatherly, or at least avuncular, than anything else. Did Schwartz really think that Alfred’s presence made the prospect of same-sex romance between his two handsome young masters more likely? Whether he did or not, in my own humble opinion the addition of Aunt Harriet actually made things worse. Unlike Alfred, Aunt knew nothing about Bruce and Dick’s dual identities as costumed crimefighters, so they were required to resort to all kinds of subterfuge to conceal their “secret lives” from her. That situation, to my mind, seems a much more fertile ground for innuendo that the earlier status quo. (Michael Eury says something very similar in The Batcave Companion, so I don’t think it’s just me.)
I wasn’t reading comic books yet when all this originally went down, of course. As regular readers of this blog know, I started buying and reading comics in August, 1965, at the tender age of eight, and my first Batman comic book was Detective #344, meaning that Alfred had already been gone from the comics for over a year by the time I came on board. My introduction to the character, therefore, was almost certainly via British actor Alan Napier’s portrayal on the Batman television series, which debuted in January, 1966. The show’s executive producer, William Dozier, was apparently influenced by reprints of earlier Batman comics material as well as by the then-current “New Look” stories — in any event, the cast of characters for the TV version included both Alfred and Aunt Harriet.
Soon enough, of course, my younger self was exposed to the comic-book Alfred by way of reprints (just as Dozier seems to have been). Meanwhile, however, the character’s presence in current tales was pretty much limited to occasional references to the “Alfred Memorial Foundation” — established by Bruce Wayne at the conclusion of “Gotham Gang Line-Up!” as “a charitable organization that will contribute to the betterment of all mankind!” (No, not the Alfred Pennyworth Memorial Foundation. DC was vague about Alfred’s surname for decades — he was originally called Alfred Beagle, then later Alfred Pennyworth, and Pennyworth was the name that eventually stuck — but in the mid-Sixties, he didn’t have a last name at all.)
The purpose of the Alfred Memorial Foundation certainly sounds pretty lofty — in practice, however, my own primary experience of the AMF was their role in keeping custody of the Hulk-like Bat-villain called the Blockbuster, aka Mark Desmond. As shown in Justice League of America #46, that custody extended to conducting electrical experiments on the guy (probably in an attempt to cure him, but that wasn’t exactly clear to me as an eight-year-old). Just how the Blockbuster came into the possession of the Foundation in the first place had been explained a few months previously, at the conclusion of Detective #349:
Yeah, what about those last panels, huh? This story, “The Blockbuster Breaks Loose!”, was my first encounter with the mysterious villain known as the Outsider. The character had first appeared, so to speak (as a voice on the Batmobile’s Hot-Line phone) in Detective #334 (December, 1964), and had returned to bedevil the Dynamic Duo in issues #336 and #340 prior to my making his acquaintance in #349. The Silver Age Comics blog has published a fine, well-illustrated post chronicling the Outsider’s history, and I will refer you to that resource rather than going into all the details here. I’ll simply note that in addition to being essentially unseen (readers were never shown his face, or even much of his body, save in a distorted reflection), the Outsider possessed uncanny, unpredictable powers, and was even able to affect objects in the Batcave — suggesting knowledge of Batman’s and Robin’s secrets that few people living should know.
As indicated by the Detective letters columns, fans of the time were fascinated by the ongoing mystery, although at least one (future Batman scribe Mike Friedrich, whose letter was published in my own first issue of Detective, #344) opined that editor Julius Schwartz himself didn’t know who the Outsider was, any more than the readers did, and that he and his creative team were just making it up as they went along. Schwartz declined to comment on that possibility, but countered that, hey, maybe even the Outsider didn’t know who the Outsider really was. (Schwartz also noted that Biljo White, editor of the Batmania fanzine, believed that the Outsider was Aunt Harriet!)
Did Schwartz and the other individuals working on Detective know who the Outsider was? In an interview published in 1983’s Amazing Heroes #113 (an especially fine issue of that late, lamented publication, which entirely by coincidence also contains the second half of my own Spectre “hero history”), writer Gardner Fox — who scripted each and every one of the Outsider stories — stated: “It’s my belief that when we started the Outsider series, neither Julie nor I had any idea who the Outsider would turn out to be…”
But, of course, the Outsider had to be somebody, and the mystery couldn’t be extended indefinitely. The very same issue of Detective which featured the villain’s manipulation of the Blockbuster included the following lettercol exchange:
This letter was published in January, 1966, the same month that the Batman TV series first aired, and the editorial response must have been written some time before that. It’s quite possible that, if Schwartz didn’t yet know who the Outsider was going to be, that reader Henry Goldman provided him with a potential solution which, as it turned out, might have proved to be very useful. For, as the editor recollected years later, in his autobiography:
Dozier decided that there were a few changes I had made that he wasn’t too thrilled with.
Foremost of all, Dozier insisted Alfred by part of the ongoing TV continuity, and so he contacted DC and told them to bring the butler back.
Fortunately at the time I ran a series of stories featuring a supernatural character called the Outsider…
And so, by an admittedly circuitous route, we arrive at last at Detective Comics #356 — and the “Inside Story of the Outsider!”
Before the story proper gets underway, of course, there’s the cover — another classic by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella that gives us our first full look at the Outsider — whom, I must admit, didn’t exactly meet my expectations back in 1966. The one Outsider story I’d read had suggested a bulky figure in a cloak, so I was a little surprised by this slender, purple-swim-trunks wearing guy, who seemed to be covered in white cobblestones. But I quickly made the mental adjustment, as I expect most other readers did as well. (The cover also provides us with what had by now become an almost-obligatory nod to the TV show, courtesy of Robin’s “Holy tombstone!”)
Gardner Fox’s story really gets going on the second interior page, as a delivery truck visits Wayne Manor and drops off two mysterious long wooden crates, addressed to Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, respectively. Our curious protagonists quickly open the crates, only to find two coffins inside — and within each coffin, wax figures of Batman and Robin:
Realizing that their foe can only be the Outsider, and that he has the power to make good on his threat, Bruce and Dick change into costume and take the Batmobile in pursuit of the delivery truck. The delivery men, wouldn’t you know, turn out to be the Outsider’s henchmen, the Grasshopper Gang — a gang of criminals who, um, dress up like grasshoppers for some reason. The Dynamic Duo overcomes the gang in less than two pages of ZWAK! SQUINCH! THUWWNK! action, but the hoods can’t or won’t give up their boss, leaving our heroes back where they started, but now with only forty minutes left to live.
Hurrying back to the Batcave, Batman explains to Robin that he’s devised an instrument that will let them track the unique radiation used by the Outsider from the delivered coffins back to its source. At this point, scripter Fox lets Batman and Robin demonstrate that they’re at least as smart as Henry Goldman:
Yes, of course they’ve already fingered poor, dear, dead Alfred. As we now learn, they’ve even returned to the Wayne family mausoleum and opened Alfred’s casket after every previous Outsider adventure to make sure he’s still in there, and still dead. They do the same thing again, now, even though their personal doomsday clock is down to twenty minutes.
After proving again to themselves that Alfred is dead, Batman and Robin speed away in the Batmobile towards their rendezvous with destiny — but now our story’s omniscient narrator changes the scene, taking us readers back in time to the night of Alfred’s internment. We see how, on that night, a man named Brandon Crawford (“physician — physicist — biologist — geologist — all-around scientific genius”) visited the cemetery in search of a rare insect. Listening for this creature with a “sensitive micro-audiometer”, Crawford instead heard the faint sound of a human voice coming from the Wayne mausoleum. Entering the refrigerated crypt (the Waynes were apparently old school, and didn’t go in for newfangled practices like embalming), the scientist-of-all-trades opened the coffin, and found a very weak (but still very much alive, thank you) Alfred:
Yes, kids, Batman and Robin entombed their best friend alive. But, hey, it’s all good, because death “can only be defined in relative terms” anyway, right? Still, maybe you shouldn’t read “The Fall of the House of Usher” just before bedtime tonight, OK?
Anyway, Alfred was in luck that night, because there was a “radical individualist” on the scene. As Crawford informs us via interior monologue, he “quit college when I realized how much more I knew than my professors!… Because my ideas were so ‘far-fetched’ — so far ahead of their time — I was forced to become a recluse! But now all that will change!”
(So, um, you don’t actually have a medical degree, or any other kind of degree for that matter, Dr. — um, I mean Mr. Crawford? Yeah, this is going to go well.)
Crawford soon had Alfred safely laid out in his home laboratory, where he proceeded to subject the unfortunate manservant to the rays of his experimental cell regeneration machine:
Yes, Alfred lived — but only at the cost of turning eeevil — and cobblestoney, to boot.
As fate (or, more accurately, the necessities of the story’s plot) would have it, the regeneration treatment that turned Alfred into the Outsider also altered Crawford’s physiognomy to turn him into an exact duplicate of the supposedly-deceased butler, and placed him into a deathlike “catatonic trance” — allowing the Outsider to simply haul Crawford’s inert body back to the Wayne crypt and plop him into Alfred’s coffin, leaving no one the wiser.
Back in the present, Batman and Robin have followed the trail of the Outsider’s “O-Radiation” to finally arrive at his hideout — which is, of course, the reclusive Brandon Crawford’s former residence:
Heedless of the Outsider’s taunts, our heroes hurl themselves into the fray, but they’re no match for the villain’s telekinetic powers (though the action does give penciller Sheldon Moldoff the opportunity to craft an uncharacteristically dynamic page layout):
We’ve finally reached the cover scene, now, and things are looking mighty grim for our heroes:
But the Caped Crusader has indeed successfully solved the life-and-death puzzle (How? Just hold your horses, we’ll get there in a minute), and so:
Not to worry, Robin’s just fine — the only ill effects being “the peculiar feeling that I’d been changed into a coffin!” And Alfred will also be fine, with no memory of his brief career as the nefarious Outsider. There’s just a few loose ends left to tie up:
Yes, even reclusive, all-around-scientific-genius, radical individualists get a happy ending in this one!
Of course, Bruce and Dick will have to come up with a really good story to explain Alfred’s revival, right? I mean, the guy’s been dead for years. OK, maybe just months, or even weeks in comic book time, but still… What are they going to tell Commissioner Gordon, and all of Bruce’s and Dick’s other friends? What are they going to tell Aunt Harriet, for goodness sake?
“Alfred has come home again.” From the grave. Sorry, gang, but that’s all you’re getting.
Of course, the Outsider was pretty much forgotten after this episode — by the characters, if not by the fans — so Alfred’s miraculous return from death could, and would be easily overlooked. In any event, however the feat had been accomplished, Alfred was back — and, save for a temporary story-driven absence here and there over the decades, he has remained a fixture at Wayne Manor ever since, in virtually all media manifestations of the Batman franchise.
Ironically, however, Aunt Harriet — who had been seen by Schwartz as a necessary figure to mitigate any notion of rampant homosexual goings-on at the mansion, and who seems to have been readily accepted as a regular member of the TV series’ supporting cast by producer Dozier — didn’t last long in the comics under the new arrangements. Her role would become smaller and smaller over the next few years, and by the mid-Seventies she would drop completely out of sight. Happily, however, Aunt Harriet Cooper has been restored to continuity in recent years, appearing as a member of the faculty in the Batman spin-off book Gotham Academy. This version actually resembles Madge Blake (the actress who played Harriet in the ’60s TV series) more than she does the traditional comic book incarnation depicted above — still, one way or another, it’s good to have the dear lady back in Gotham, where she belongs.
As momentous a tale as “Inside Story of the Outsider!” was, the team of Fox, Moldoff, and Giella wrapped it up in a tidy 15 pages (even more impressive when you consider that at least two of those — the ones featuring the fight with the Grasshopper Gang — could easily be called filler). That left plenty of room for the regular Detective back-up feature, the Elongated Man.
“Truth Behind the False Faces!” is another entertaining, if not exactly major effort from writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino, featuring a credible, if not exactly likely mystery for the Stretchable Sleuth to solve. Like most Elongated Man stories, its primary pleasures come from Infantino’s energetic, fluid rendering of the malleable hero’s superheroic stunts, and the charming depiction of his and his wife’s teasing but tender relationship — a happily married superhero being even rarer in 1966 than it is today;
And speaking of superheroes and marriage — the concluding panels of “Truth Behind the False Faces!” were followed by the following in-house ad, which ran in many other DC comics published that month besides Detective #356
What’s that? You didn’t get your invitation in time, and now it’s too late to RSVP? Fear not — you can be our Plus One, when we cover this auspicious occasion in the very next installment of this blog! See you then.