The world of Batman has focused on many eccentric characters, from Gotham’s many colorful supervillains to Bruce Wayne’s Robin sidekicks. However, since 1943, Batman has been accompanied by his loyal and loving butler, Alfred Pennyworth. As much as many may see Alfred as Bruce’s surrogate father figure, a Silver Age story cast him as his old friend’s unlikely enemy. The era was known for absurd stories, and the butler’s fall to evil is one of the best examples of cartoonish villainy in all of comics.
Comic creators love exploring Batman’s lore. Their deep dives have also produced many stories that added a wacky, often absurd spin to some of the hero’s supporting characters. Everyone from Robin to Jim Gordon has had their share of oddball stories. However, few Gothamites have faced the absurdities that Alfred has endured as a character, especially during the Silver Age. This is how Pennyworth became the villain known as the Outsider. Far from Batman’s best-known or most dangerous enemies, the Outsider was a recurring figure in the Silver Age and, since Alfred was his alter ego, one of Bruce Wayne’s most preposterous adversaries. The story of how this villainous persona was created is every bit as nonsensical.
Alfred’s History With Batman
Alfred Pennyworth joined Batman’s side for the first time in 1944’s Batman #16, created by Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Don Cameron. In this comic, Alfred was initially depicted as Alfred Beagle, a comic relief detective and the son of the previous Wayne family butler. Of course, his role in Bruce Wayne’s life was retconned so that he had been with the character since Martha and Thomas were murdered by Joe Chill. From there, he became something of a surrogate father to Bruce and stood by him in his quest to become Batman and fight crime in Gotham. The Golden Age of comics was known for this type of relationship and other comics have mirrored it with characters like Jarvis, Happy Hogan, and Wintergreen. Having a regular civilian who knew the hero’s secret and aided them has often come in handy for these vigilantes and even works as a hook for villains’ story arcs. However, Alfred stands above them all.
In many ways, Alfred has always represented the heart and soul of the Batman books, often acting as Bruce Wayne’s conscience. Throughout the multiverse, one of the constant forces in Batman’s life has been a caring, loving Alfred who also isn’t afraid to speak his mind to the hero. He’s also been cast as a surrogate father of all the Bat-Family, and his tragic death in the “City of Bane” story reminded everyone of his role in Bruce, Dick, Damian, and Barbara’s lives. For all the stories that showed an aloof, even neglectful, or verbally abusive Batman, Alfred has always been there to comfort the hero’s wards. He commands the respect of just about every Gotham-based hero, even the lethal Red Hood. His love of his family has carried over into Elseworlds books like Injustice and DCeased, highlighting how essential he is to Bruce’s world.
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How Alfred Became The Outsider
Alfred’s turn to evil began with an unlikely — and shocking — turn of events when the loyal butler was killed when he saved Batman and Robin from a tumbling boulder. As shown in Detective Comics #356 (Gardner Fox & Sheldon Moldoff), after his apparent death, Alfred was interred in a mausoleum, where a scientist named Brandon Crawford found him while searching for an elusive insect. When he found Alfred in the coffin, he was shocked to see him clinging to life and set about saving him.
Shortly after this, the Outsider surfaced in Gotham, pursuing weird, gimmicky attacks on Batman for the next two years. The most ridiculous of these was a plot to turn Batman and Robin into coffins, which he set in motion after sending the two heroes wax statues of themselves in coffins. On its own, this was one of the weirdest moments for Silver Age Batman, as the two heroes watched their dummies come to life and speak the Outsider’s words.
When Batman realized Alfred was the Outsider’s only possible identity, racked with guilt, the Dark Knight set out to find a way to restore his old friend back to normal. After a confrontation with the Outsider, Batman was horrified to witness Robin’s slow transformation into a coffin as he raced to put things right. He managed to incapacitate the villain, then placed him in a machine that used radiation to destroy his Outsider persona and restore Alfred’s healthy mind. While the treatment was a success, Alfred did occasionally revert to his villainous state throughout the Silver Age. However, this persona didn’t endure, at least not in Batman’s Prime Earth continuity. As Bruce’s stories became darker and grittier, the Outsider felt a little too ridiculous for Batman’s mythos.
As amusing as the idea of The Outsider is in hindsight, it actually has a troublesome history. This came in an era where superhero comics were relentlessly lambasted as being “too gay,” and Alfred’s death was one of many editorial attempts to avoid this allegation. Of course, the idea that the Bat-books were turning readers gay was as preposterous as the idea of a villainous Alfred turning people into coffins. The Outsider actually played a role in several Batman stories before the revelation that he was Alfred. In fact, the immediate issues leading up to Detective Comics #356 had played on the Outsider as a new arch-rival for Batman and Robin, when the villain established himself as the city’s newest crime boss.
The Outsider On Earth-3
Earth-3 is an alternate counterpart to Prime Earth, where the roles of heroes and villains are reversed. The planet is ruled over by the Crime Syndicate, the evil version of the Justice League, led by Ultra-Man, Superwoman, and Owlman, among others. The other evil Alfred Pennyworth works for Owlman — also known as Thomas Wayne Jr., Bruce’s older brother in that reality — and operates in the world where evil always triumphs as The Outsider. In that world, the villain retains his Silver Age appearance but is also Wayne Manor’s butler rather than being a crime boss in his own right. However, the modern, alternate Outsider is an intelligent, scheming villain in his own right.
The Outsider surfaced on Prime Earth during the New 52, where he was recruiting for a new Secret Society of Super-Villains. Alfred had crossed over from Earth-3 when the boundary between worlds was weakened. The plan had been for the Crime Syndicate to follow, but they were unable to accompany The Outsider when he passed into the main world. Instead, he committed to forming a new band of villains in anticipation of Owlman’s arrival. Knowing the Alfred of Earth-3 shared the same fate as that of Silver Age Alfred makes for an interesting fact, emulating how a Jokerized Hawkman became Earth-3’s Sky Tyrant while staying true to the character’s strange roots.
Alfred Pennyworth In The Silver Age Of Comics
Alfred’s tacky supervillain identity was, frankly, the most interesting thing that happened to the butler in the Golden or Silver Age. This was a period when Alfred was rarely written with the depth his character has today and he usually felt more like an accessory in Batman’s life than a fully realized character. This was only made worse following the publication of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that superhero comics were contributing to juvenile delinquency. For some reason, DC’s rebuttal to Wertham’s accusations that Batman comics were “too gay” involved removing Alfred from Wayne Manor and subbing in Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet, and the character was neglected as a result.
The best Batman stories understand that Alfred is the true heart of the Bat-Family, not just a butler but a loving, respectful father figure to all. His death in “City of Bane” only reminded readers of his central, unsung role in Gotham and the Bat-books. It’s hard to imagine a story as absurd as a loving, understated hero like Alfred hatching a plan to turn his friends into coffins making it to print today. The story can be interpreted both as a testament to the unapologetic silliness and creativity of the Silver Age or as a symbol of some of comics’ worst habits. Nonetheless, it produced the goofiest villain in Batman’s rogues gallery history, and readers are richer for it.
Despite being created to be Bruce Wayne’s closest confidant, Alfred Pennyworth has a history as Batman’s strangest Silver Age villain. Read More