Happy post Father’s Day everyone!
For the non American readers of this blog, Father’s day is a holiday where we celebrate our fathers, and if marketing campaigns are to be believed it’s usually with MANLY gifts like ties and power tools.
Last year I did an article comparing and contrasting two of comics’ greatest deceased father figures: Superman’s dad Jor-El and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben.
This time I thought it would be time to break out the big guns and celebrate the career and achievements of the greatest living father figure in comic book history: Batman’s butler, Alfred.
Side note: if you disagree with the above statement please write a well crafted and polite rebuttal in the comments.
Origin and Career
Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth made his first appearance in Batman #16 in April of 1943.
On the cover of the comic it says he was created by artist Bob Kane.
Although it is much more likely that actual creator was writer, and the man who got royally screwed out of getting the credit that he justly deserves, Bill Finger.
Artist Jerry Robinson was also heavily involved, since he was busy doing the actual drawing of the issues at this point in Batman’s career.
Alfred made his first appearance on the cover of the issue, and he looked like this:
The original Alfred was a bit of an idiot. At this point in the story Batman and Robin had been doing their thing fighting crime in Gotham when Alfred showed up fresh off the boat and claiming that he was fulfilling the wish of his dying father Jarvis in serving the Wayne family as their butler.
Naturally, Batman and Robin were not very keen on having a near total stranger snooping around the house with their secret identities at stake.
Despite his background as an intelligence officer Alfred was…kind of an idiot.
I only say “kind of” because he was actually a very good butler. He did his job, he was loyal to Bruce and Dick, and when it came time to defend the Manor he wound up discovering who he was really working for by pure accident.
My favorite part of this scene is the dialogue that the two men exchange during the fight.
Of course Alfred reveals what he knows to Batman and Robin and the two gain a new ally in their fight against criminals.
You may notice that the original Alfred doesn’t look a thing like the way we normally picture Alfred.
For that we can actually thank the silver screen.
See, the idea that comic books could be adapted to the silver screen is nothing new. In fact, Hollywood was quick to jump on the wave of superhero popularity and started churning out short little movie serials staring the two most popular heroes at the time: Superman and Batman.
In 1943 Columbia Pictures began releasing short Batman serial movies with creative titles such as “Batman and the Electrical Brain”,
The effects and costumes were…not the best.
but one of its lasting impacts was hiring actor English character actor William Austin to play the Batman’s butler.
The serials were so popular that the comics adapted and changed Alfred’s appearance to reflect the show.
So what happened?
Jesus, to describe everything that Alfred has done since his original appearance would take an entire book.
Wherever Batman has gone, Alfred has followed. He’s an integral part of the Batman mythos, and I would personally argue that he the most important supporting figure in any Batman story. And yes, that includes figures like Robin and Batgirl.
He has fulfilled the role of a caretaker, a guiding moral compass to a whole host of emotionally crippled children and warriors, and most importantly an eternally patient father figure.
So, in an effort to keep this short, I’m going to break his long and storied career down into some of the more prominent highlights.
In 1964 Alfred was killed in Detective Comics #328 after heroically saving the Dynamic Duo from a falling boulder.
He would be reborn as a mysterious villain known as “The Outsider” and fought the heroes off panel, usually using other villains as pawns and working behind the scenes.
His identity and appearance would be revealed two years later in Detective Comics #356.
It…wasn’t the best look for him and I can see why they kept him out of the way.
In terms of backstory, Alfred’s has remained pretty consistent. The comics have always given him some sort of military and/or intelligence background and in the 1960’s he worked as an intelligence agent during World War 2. We know this because he had a daughter named Julia with a French co worker.
In 1985 DC reorganized its comic books with the even “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and reworked the backstories of many of their most famous characters.
Alfred got a few minor tweaks but didn’t change that much. He was an actor as well as an intelligence agent and instead of introducing himself to a much older Bruce, he became Bruce’s butler and confidant at a young age.
The new Alfred had some pretty awesome moments as well and a lot of writers love giving him some really badass lines and small fight scenes.
Seriously, the man’s gone toe to toe with Superman both in quips,
and with fisticuffs.
So he’s amazing in the comics but I would have to say that his film and television appearances deserve a special mention as well.
Alfred has appeared in every single movie, television, and cartoon adaptation of Batman since the beginning and has provided a steady stream of employment to classy senior British actors.
All of them have been fantastic, but special mentions go to the Alfred from Batman: The Animated Series,
where he was voiced by actor Clive Revill (who was actually the original voice of the Emperor from Star Wars)
and the gloriously named Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
Personally my favorite Alfred at the moment has to be the one from The Lego Batman Movie where he was voiced by Voldemort himself, Ray Finnes,
but if you ask me the best Alfred of them all would have to be the late great Michael Gough from Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and the infamous Batman and Robin.
I would actually go as far as to say that Michael Gough was so good that he actually made Batman and Robin halfway watchable.
That’s right, I’m defending Batman and Robin, fight me.
Alfred is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created. He is wise and talented beyond even his considerable years and has been at Bruce’s side through thick and thin. Not only has he been a faithful and dutiful butler but he has been a kind, patient, and loving father to a boy who needed it most in order to become one of the greatest superheroes of all time.
WARNING: This article contains offensive portrayals of Black and Asian people and discussion of legitimate war crimes committed by the Japanese Army in China. You have been warned.
Today I want to talk about diversity in comics.
Yes, I know this is probably the last subject that anyone wants to talk about, and I’ll admit that I’m a bit late to the party on this one (for the record no…I don’t think diversity is killing Marvel’s sales, it’s event fatigue and constant relaunches), but this is a blog series on the Golden Age of Comics and while there were a fair share of non white characters in early comic books,
they weren’t exactly…acceptable for modern audiences, or any audiences for that matter.
With that being said, if there was one specific group of people who were blatantly targeted during the Golden Age of Comics, it was the Japanese.
This sort of propaganda was quite prevalent during the 1940’s and I’m sure people made excuses for it like “there’s a war on”,
and “they attacked us first”,
but calling an entire country of people animals,
and unfairly imprisoning thousands of American citizens because they were suspected of being saboteurs,
is just wrong.
The funny thing is, during the Golden Age of Comics there were a small number of Asian American artists working in the industry, and one of them even created a superhero that actually portrayed the Japanese with a small semblance of humanity.
Today were going to talk about the first Asian American superhero: The Green Turtle.
Origin and Career
The Green Turtle made his first appearance on the cover of Blazing Comics #1 in June of 1944.
You’ll notice a couple of things about the cover such as the shadow figure with the eyes, the fact that the Japanese soldier being strangled has actual eyes instead of slants, and that the hero’s face isn’t showing. All of that is there for a reason and I’ll explain it later.
The character was created by Asian American artist Chu F. Hing.
Hing was born in Hawai’i, studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and was part of a small group of Asian American artists who were working in American comicbooks at the time.
The comic itself was an anthology title and was published by a small collection of publishers known as Rural Home. The specific company that published Blazing Comics was called Croydon Publishing.
The comic takes place entirely in the Pacific, and the Green Turtle exclusively fights Japanese soldiers and leaders.
What’s really interesting is that all of the action takes place in Japanese held China. The Japanese soldiers attack Chinese civilians, the entire supporting cast is Chinese, and America is never threatened or even mentioned in the comic.
While the Green Turtle had no actual superpowers, he did have a cool looking jet called “The Turtle Plane”.
The man swoops in and saves the day by machine gunning a bunch of Japanese soldiers, rescuing a boy and his mother, and roasting two more soldiers with his jet engines.
Holy crap! He actually cares for the civilians and actively tries not to kill them!
So, the Green Turtle works in China, protects the Chinese people, and lives in a mountain in Tibet.
So did that mean that the Green Turtle was a Chinese superhero?
Well…did you notice that in those pages above you never saw the hero’s face? That’s something of a common theme throughout the comic.
It’s widely believed that Hing was locked in a battle with his editor over the ethnicity of the Green Turtle. In all likelihood, Hing wanted to make him Chinese but his editor was resistant due to the infamous “Yellow Peril” that produced many of the offensive stereotypes that permeate our culture.
So while the Green Turtle spoke English and had pink skin, as opposed to yellowish orange like the Asian characters,
Hing subverted this by never showing his face in the comic, even when they slapped an image of his face on the cover of the next issue.
The kid on the cover was the Turtle’s sidekick and the same kid he rescued in the first issue. His name was “Burma Boy” because if you wanted any amount of success in the Golden Age of Comics you needed a kid sidekick with a wacky name.
You may be asking yourself, what’s the Green Turtle’s origin story and what is that weird shadow with a face? Sadly, the comic never gave an origin story or an explanation for the shadow.
Something that makes this comic especially noteworthy is Hing’s portrayal of the Japanese. Unlike many Japanese soldiers in other American comics Hing wrote and drew like…humans.
Which is especially hilarious when, in the VERY NEXT STORY IN THE ANTHOLOGY, there is an American soldier who manages to convince Japanese soldiers that he is one of them by smearing mud on his face.
However, It is worth mentioning that while Hing’s portrayal of the Japanese was substantially less racist that his American contemporaries, they were still portrayed as monsters. While Hing’s Japanese spoke perfect English and had visible eyeballs, they weren’t above bayoneting women and children,
and torturing prisoners.
This could be chalked up to war time paranoia and Hing’s Chinese heritage, since Japanese soldiers had a well documented history of brutal and horrific war crimes in China.
(side note: why the Japanese committed these crimes is a discussion for another day. All that I will say on the matter is that many of the Imperial Japanese military officers responsible for these crimes were tried and punished, many Japanese officials have apologized for them, and it still remains a very sensitive and painful memory for a lot of people to this day.)
So what happened?
The Green Turtle disappeared off of the face of the Earth after issue #5. I can’t say exactly what happened, but my research showed that Croydon only published 10 books from 1944-1946, and I am speaking from personal experience when I say that the publishing industry is not kind to small time publishers.
The Green Turtle would remain obscure for decade until 2014, when American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang and Malaysian born artist Sonny Liew created a six issue mini series that told the origin story of the Green Turtle called The Shadow Hero.
It definitively makes the character Asian and gives an explanation for the shadow and why his skin is pink.
I actually remember reading it in 2014, long before I decided to start this blog. It’s a really good story and I highly recommend it.
The Green Turtle was definitely a special case for the Golden Age of Comics. In an industry dominated by white men and white superheroes here was an Asian creator doing his absolute best to create an Asian hero in a time where it wasn’t socially acceptable. It would be understandable to think that Chu Hing was upset and angry about this, but I don’t think that was the case.
At the start of Blazing Comics #3, Hing has some Chinese characters on the left side of the first panel.
It’s an old Chinese saying “Four oceans, one family”, which could be interpreted as the author stating that even though China and America are worlds apart in culture and distance they’re still brothers in arms and a common cause.
That…is remarkably open for a comic book coming out of the 1940’s and is something that deserves our attention and respect.
You know what they say…comedy comes in threes.
And I like to think that today’s superhero group took that lesson to heart, even though I’m willing to bet any comedy was unintentional.
Today we’re talking about the rather humorously named Target and the Targeteers.
Origin and Career
This trio of superheroes was published by a company called Novelty Press, which was created in 1940 by Curtis Publishing. If that name isn’t familiar all you need to know is that they publish the Saturday Evening Post. If that name isn’t familiar then you probably recognize this cover.
Novelty Press was created as a comic book imprint in order to take advantage of the comic book craze. They were able to draw a lot of great Golden Age talent such as Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Basil Wolverton and their two most famous publications were the superhero series Blue Bolt,
and the anthology series Target Comics.
Despite sharing the name of the title, the superhero we’re talking about today didn’t appear until issue #10 in November of 1940.
Yes that is him on the cover and I have to admit I don’t know what’s funnier: the testicular fortitude of a man who is willing to get shot by painting a giant target on his chest or how stupid the gangsters are for not aiming at the knees or face.
The hero was created by artist Dick Briefer under the pseudonym of Dick Hamilton. Briefer’s most famous work was with the Frankenstein character and is widely considered to be the first modern comic book artist to work with horror stories.
Back to Dick’s most famous superhero, Target’s first adventure had him sending an ominous message to criminals everywhere: “Live your life on the straight and narrow or I’ll find you”. He does this by buying up advertising space on nationwide newspapers, radio space, and even hijacking the phone service.
You know how in modern movies the bad guy can mysteriously deliver a message to every computer, television, and phone around the world? It’s nice to know that this particular cliche isn’t so modern.
The Target’s ominous message doesn’t deter a group of gangsters from kidnapping a scientist who is developing a new explosive that other countries want.
The gangsters reach the professor’s house, only to find that the Target is already there.
On the face of it, it would appear that the hero has a very poorly designed costume for dealing with guns, but the comic explains that while the suit protects his chest and arms (thus leaving the face and legs unprotected) the target is there to draw enemy fire to the places where the bullets can’t harm him.
I would commend the comic for attempting to use “Batman psychology” to explain why the hero made the decisions he made but no, in real life that man is dead.
The adventure ends in typical fashion. The bad guys are stopped, the hero saves the day, and the reader is left wondering what’s next.
The next issue not only delves into the Target’s backstory, it also reveals that he has two friends who share a similar death wish by dressing in similar costumes.
The Target’s civilian identity is Niles Reed. He was an athletic prodigy who decided to become a metallurgist had a brother named Bill, who decided to become a lawyer.
Unfortunately, Bill was framed for murder and arrested. In his rage, Niles decided to rescue his brother while disguised as a masked vigilante.
While it’s a bit unclear it would appear that the cops accidentally shot Bill as he was trying to escape with his brother. So in an interesting twist, Niles was responsible for his brother’s death.
Later that evening Niles happens to stumble across two orphaned boys who were in a lot trouble with some gangsters for not paying protection money. The three become friends and decide to dress up like superheroes using the same bulletproof costumes of Niles’ design.
The origin story ended with the reveal that Bill had been framed by a crime boss named Hammerfist, who would become something of a recurring villain for the trio.
I’ll admit, there are some interesting points to this story. The fact that the hero is actually responsible for his brother’s death coupled with him taking in two orphans who share similar tragic stories draw a lot of similarities to more popular heroes like Spider Man and Batman.
The rest of the trio’s adventures were all one shots with a very patriotic bent them. The three did their duty and fought against America’s enemies, both at home and abroad.
The post war years saw a return to form for the trio where they went back to waging war against criminals in the United States.
So what happened?
The trio of crime fighters had a pretty long shelf life for the Golden Age heroes. They lasted until issue #95 of Target Comics where their last adventure had them foiling criminals who were sabotaging advertising signs in order to extort an advertising firm.
Yeah, maybe it was a good thing that they got cancelled.
The trio would disappear for a while until the Target made an appearance in AC Comics’ Men of Mystery series in 1999.
The trio itself made a comeback in Dynamite Entertainment’s Project Superpowers series in 2008.
Their backstories remained the same, only this time they all had super speed on top of their indestructible suits.
The Target and the Targeteers embodied everything that worked and didn’t work about the Golden Age of Comics. On one hand they were goofy, wore silly costumes, and relied on some pretty bad science in order to survive and function. On the other hand, they had one of the better origin stories I’ve read, they had a long run, and a lot of the things that made it into their stories such as the use of psychology to fight criminals would be use to great effect in other, more popular comic hero stories.
All in all, they weren’t that bad.