Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alfred--Part I

Alfred the butler first appeared in Batman #16. Here he is:

Yep, Alfred was not always the slender figure of a man that we have grown to know and love over the years; for the first eight months of his existence in the Batman family he was portly and rather tall as well. But this was only one of the many changes made to the character over the years, as we shall see.

Batman and Robin first encounter him at the docks as he's entering America. Some criminals they are trailing attempt to steal Alfred's valise. The three of them chase the crooks off, and Alfred advises Batman that they have something in common:

Well, of course Batman and Robin think that's a pretty good joke, since Alfred won't know where to call on them. Imagine their surprise, therefore, when an hour or two later he shows up at Wayne Mansion. Not to worry, though; he hasn't discovered their secret identities yet. He explains:

Jarvis has passed on, explains Alfred, and extracted from the latter a promise that he will serve Bruce and Dick. They decide to let him stay for the night.

But the crooks who tried to steal his valise have trailed him as well. Bruce and Dick, hearing the burglar alarm, quickly change into their fighting outfits and chase after the crooks, leaving Alfred alone with the third criminal. They battle it out and Alfred gets lucky, having a shield conk the crook when he missed with a punch. And as it happens:

Alfred heads down the secret stairway, discovers the crime laboratory and the Batplane and quickly reaches the appropriate deduction that his "mawsters" are the Dynamic Duo. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin have tracked down the crooks to an abandoned theatre, but they are ambushed and tied up. Fortunately, Alfred allows the crook he subdued to escape, so that he can follow him to the hideout. He saves Batman and Robin, and the three of them combine forces to stop the crooks, whose plan was to steal the crown jewels from one of Alfred's fellow passengers on the ship.

At first, they're impressed with his detective work, but when they discover that it was mostly luck, they decide that perhaps they can risk having him around. After all, he's not all that smart and won't discover their secret identities. However:

This characterization of Alfred, as a bumbling amateur detective with a great deal of luck, applied for the first several years. However, there were signs early on that Alfred's character might develop into something different.

In Batman #18, Alfred saves Batman and Robin with some quick thinking. They have been overcome with gas by Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alfred rescues them, lowers them out the window, then leaves the hotel that the Deevers are using as their hideout in a huff:

The next big moment in Alfred's life came in Detective #83. Sensing that he needed to slim down a bit, Alfred decided to take a vacation at a fat farm. The results were quite startling:

Reportedly, the change was instituted to make Alfred look more like the butler in the Batman movie serial that was issued right around the same time. You can see the movie Alfred about 4:05 into this video:

And in Batman #22, the newly slender Alfred got his first real cover appearance and his own backup feature:

This actually made Alfred the first DC supporting character to graduate to his own feature; Lois Lane, Girl Reporter commenced the following month in Superman.

Both features were played (at the time) for laughs. Alfred's stories followed a simple pattern. While pursuing his detective hobby, Alfred would encounter a pair of situations, one of which would arouse his suspicions. He would follow up on that one, and inevitably discover that it had a simple and innocuous explanation. But by amazing coincidence when he followed up the second situation, it would turn out to be criminal activity, and Alfred would, in some bumbling manner, capture the villains.

For example, in the debut story, Alfred is taking notes on criminal detection at the Gotham City library. He meets a practicing professor of criminology, then overhears a very suspicious conversation at the next table:

But when he follows the two men, he discovers that they are simply writers for a radio drama series coming up with a new plot idea. Chagrined, he heads off to meet his professor friend (or is it fiend):

But in his bumbling manner, Alfred manages to get hold of the nitro that the professor uses to blow up safes, and threatening the crooks with it he manages to get them to accompany him to the nearest police station.

The Alfred stories lasted until Batman #32, when they were abruptly dropped (the Lois Lane shorts also disappeared not long after). For the most part, this also was pretty much the end of the concept of Alfred as a detective, although there were a few other tales where this aspect of the character were featured. Alfred more or less faded into the background until the Silver Age, when further big changes occurred.

Much more Alfred to come!

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