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.
So before we begin talking about the ridiculous old school hero of the week I feel obligated to bring up the passing of the great Adam West.
The man was a fantastic actor, a great human being, and for the longest time he WAS Batman.
The reason I created this blog was to showcase some of the crazier and goofier aspects of the early comic book industry. Granted, many of these heroes were blatant cash grabs and lazy copies of other popular heroes but there was a crazy energy to those early comic books that was so captivating that it demands your attention and respect.
I bring this up because the 1960’s Batman show was one of the first attempts to bring that crazy energy to mainstream audiences and holy crap did it succeed.
Sure the show was campy, sure the show was goofy, sure the show is the antithesis of everything that modern comic book audiences think Batman should be, but underneath the camp and celebrity appearances was a show that had razor sharp wit and writing, awesomely cheesy effects and fight scenes, and acting so gloriously hammy that you could put it between two slices of bread and make a sandwich.
Hell, the show won a freaking Emmy and is the reason why the Riddler is my favorite Batman villain!
If you want to check it out for yourself the show is available on Blu Ray, the Batman movie is on Netflix, and you can read the modern take on the show in the DC comics series Batman ’66
Okay, so that’s enough mainstream acceptability for one week. Let’s dive right back into another crazy Golden Age hero.
Hydroman seems nice.
Origin and Career
Hyrdo Man was one of the first characters created by Eastern Color Printing in 1940.
What’s interesting is that Eastern Color Printing was a well established publisher by the 1940’s. In fact, they were the first company to produce what we would call a comic book in 1933,
In an attempt to cash in on the Superman craze of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Eastern created the title Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics. This was cover of the first issue published in August of 1940.
Yes, that is actually how it was spelled and yes, Hydro Man was their main hero deemed worthy to be placed on the cover of the title.
The hero was created by comic book creator Bill Everett,
who co created Marvel’s Daredevil,
and Timely Comics’ Namor the Sub Mariner.
The origin story for Hydro Man combines elements from Everett’s two most famous heroes: water and chemical spills.
The story begins when an unassuming scientist named Harry Thurston accidentally spills a harmless mixture of water, alcohol, and “a little sulfuric acid” onto his hand.
Why did he do this? Because he wanted to see what happened.
At this point I have to ask. Where would superheroes be without a near casual disregard for lab safety and basic human caution? Nowhere, that’s where.
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly since this is a comic) the explosion doesn’t kill Harry. Instead it turns his hand into a waterfall.
So what does he do? Does he call the hospital? The police? The Nobel Committee?
Nope! He calls his best friend Bob Blake.
In another stunning display of stupidity, another man named Tom trips, and spills the same chemical all over Bob.
Thankfully Tom has a gallon of a counteractive chemical (somehow) and manages to return Bob to human form.
Naturally the men decide to abandon all safety and common sense and decide to inject the chemical directly into Bob’s veins. Then they decide to dress Bob up in a costume, give him weapons, and go and fight off a group known as “The Oriental Invaders”.
Oh right, did you know about the Oriental Invaders? They mentioned it in a couple of panels.
Bob’s girlfriend has a point, he is a nut.
It turns out that the Oriental Invaders are a real threat to our country and way of life. Complete with ridiculous costumes and almost all of the offensive stereotypes that 1940’s America can muster towards Asians.
Thankfully, Hydro Man is there to over compensate like a true American hero and responds by drowning one of them.
In the next issue he gets a see through suit made out of a fictional bulletproof material similar to cellophane in order to go after this mysterious enemy organization.
It should be noted that while Pearl Harbor was still over a year away from pushing America into the war, it was still a time where comic book publishers could get away with calling Asians “a Mongrel Race”.
He was able to find out more information by spying on the guys in charge by dissolving himself into a glass of water.
All silliness and casual racism aside, that’s actually pretty clever.
The rest of his adventures were pretty similar. He fought against so called “Fifth Column” enemies, secret agents who were working for the Nazis and Japanese in the United States in an attempt to sabotage and otherwise subvert the war effort.
He would later get a kid sidekick in 1942 named “Rainbow Boy”,
Sweet Jesus that costume is terrible.
Rainbow Boy could transform himself into a rainbow, create brilliant flashes that disoriented enemies, and could travel at the speed of light.
Seriously, that costume is just the worst.
So what happened?
Hydro Man and Rainbow Boy were actually one of the most successful comic book superheroes of the 1940’s. If he had continued we probably would have gotten to see a gritty reboot (although we did get a Spider Man villain named Hydro Man in the 1980’s)
Unfortunately, our hero fell victim to forces outside his control when his publisher got butchered in the 1950’s with the rise of the Comics Code.
Eastern Color Publishing would hobble on until the 1970’s until they stopped creating original work and existed by printing books from other companies. They finally closed their doors in 2002 when they couldn’t keep up with advances in modern printing technology.
The Golden Age Hydro Man would go on to have a single modern day appearance in Dynamite’s Project Superpowers series in 2008.
That’s him on the far top left of the drawing. His name was shortened to “Hydro” in order to avoid a copyright lawsuit with Marvel.
Hydro Man was a popular hero of the 1940’s and it’s easy to see why. Despite the ridiculous appearance he had a pretty cool power set and a halfway decent artistic team that did their damnedest to keep his stories and powers interesting.
He’s actually available in the public domain, so if anyone wanted to use him in a story, there would be nothing stopping you.