Tracing the Evolution of Batman’s Alfred, From Clueless Sidekick to Special Forces Stud

Michael Caine as Alfred. Photo: Warner Bros.

Whenever Batman comes home from a night of bloody derring-do, he’s there, ready to sew up a few wounds, offer a pep talk, troubleshoot some weaponry, and fetch a hot cup of cocoa: Alfred Pennyworth, loyal valet (or, if we’re going to use expired British military terminology, Batman’s batman). He was written into the Wayne Manor household staff early on, in 1943, as an essentially comic character: the bumbling Brit. Over time, and through the various reboots detailed here, he was given more gravitas and a skill set that differs in many ways from, say, Carson’s on Downton Abbey but that comes in handy when your boss is a billionaire vigilante. Now he’s getting his own show on Epix, Pennyworth, which elaborates on his backstory. Showrunners Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon will offer up sexy tales of Alfred’s pre-buttling days as a member of the elite British Special Air Service.


Fat Alfred …

(Batman, Vol. 1, No. 16)

In his debut, Alfred is a portly music-hall actor and aspiring detective who arrives in Gotham City intending to investigate the Batman phenomenon. His father, Jarvis, had been the Wayne-family butler. Alfred takes over the job and only by accident realizes whom he is actually working for.


… Goes on a Hollywood Diet

(Detective Comics, Vol. 1, No. 83)

Batman was a hit, and it turned into a movie serial. But William Austin, the actor cast as Alfred, was thin, which meant that comic-book Alfred was abruptly packed off to a health resort to reemerge as the trim gentleman he has remained to this day.


Fan-Fiction Author

(Batman, Vol. 1, No. 135)

A wild adventure for the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder is followed by the revelation that the whole thing was, bizarrely enough, just an imaginary tale written by none other than Alfred. What’s more, when Bruce Wayne catches him at the typewriter, he implies the guy has done this more than once. Trippy.


A Butler’s Death

(Detective Comics, Vol. 1, No. 328)

While trying to save Batman and Robin, Alfred is crushed by a boulder.


Alfred: Resurrection

(Detective Comics, Vol. 1, No. 356)

A long story line involving a shadowy mastermind named the Outsider reaches its climax when it’s revealed that he’s none other than a deranged Alfred, raised from the dead and granted superpowers by a mad scientist.


Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Butler!

(The first Batman TV show)

For the campy Adam West series, Alfred is played by the classically trained English actor Alan Napier, who initially found the role “the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard of.” Then he learned the contract could be worth more than $100,000. “So, I said I was Batman’s butler.”


His Secret-Agent Secret

(Detective Comics, Vol. 1, No. 501)

So wait, why is Alfred always so good at sewing up wounds and defending himself? In this issue, his British-spy backstory is finally declassified for fans.


Bat Mentor

(Batman: Year One)

When the entire DC line got rebooted in the mid-1980s, Alfred was given a new and more psychologically complicated history with Bruce: He’d been working for the family since before Bruce’s parents were murdered, and then he guided the Batlad along his vigilante path.


Alfred Forever

(Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin)

Michael Gough’s restrained and dignified blockbuster butler outlasted three Batmen: first Michael Keaton, then Val Kilmer, and finally George Clooney. He also starred in a Diet Coke Batman tie-in commercial.


The Millennial Icon

(Batman: The Animated Series)

This show began as a spinoff from Batman Returns, but the sardonic depiction of Alfred at the hands of character designer Bruce Timm and actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. became a pop-culture touchstone. An even more chilled-out version of Austin’s rendition, but with 1940s serials nearly impossible to find in the ’90s, no kid was the wiser.


Alt A: Igor

(Batman: Castle of the Bat)

An alternate-universe story in which Bruce is a Victor Frankenstein–esque tinkerer who learns the hard way that man should not play God. His sniveling, hunchbacked assistant? Alfredo.


Alt B: Zombie

(League of Justice, Vol. 1, No. 2)

This alternate-universe superhero riff on Lord of the Rings features a sequence in which a deceased Alfred returns as an undead wraith.


Alt C: Tycoon

(Tangent Comics, Green Lantern, Vol. 1, No. 1)

In yet another alternate universe, Alfred isn’t a butler at all but rather a publishing mogul.


Doting Uncle

(Batman & Robin)

In this much-derided conclusion to the four-film Batman blockbuster cycle, Alfred is the uncle of Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl. An electronic version of him makes a sexy costume for his niece and grins a little too hungrily when she puts it on.


Employee of the Year

(Batman: Crimson Mist)

In still another universe, Bruce is turned into a vampire and Alfred sacrifices himself and his blood to satisfy Batman’s urges.


Keeper of the Flame

(Birds of Prey)

The daughter of Batman and Catwoman picks up the Bat-mantle in Batsy’s absence with the assistance of an Alfred played by Ian Abercrombie. If he looks familiar, it may be because of his run as one of Elaine’s bosses on Seinfeld.


Caine Is Able

(Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises)

Michael Caine gets fitted for the butler’s tux in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, with iconic results: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon famously lampooned him in The Trip, and the scene in which he monologues about working for the British military in Burma became the subject of countless bizarre remixes on YouTube.


Fake News

(Batman, Vol. 1, No. 679)

As part of a story line called “Batman R.I.P.,” a baddie named Simon Hurt attempts to smear Alfred by telling the world that he had an affair with Martha Wayne and is Bruce’s true father. It doesn’t stick.


Kick-Ass Therapist

(Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?)

This out-of-continuity homage to all the eras of the Dark Knight, written by American Gods author Neil Gaiman, includes a story in which it’s revealed that Alfred orchestrated every fight Batman ever got into, out of a desire to help cheer up a depressed Bruce. Alfred himself even played the Joker!


Alt D: Superbutler

(Injustice: Gods Among Us, Vol. 1, No. 36)

In one more alternate universe — where Superman goes rogue after the Joker kills Lois Lane — Alfred gains temporary superpowers and beats the crap out of Supes.


Biological Daddy

(Batman, Vol. 2, No. 28)

This time, Alfred has a biracial daughter, Julia Pennyworth, who turns out to be a great addition to Batman’s team.


Cupcake Defender


One of the latest TV versions of the Bat-mythos takes place while Bruce is still a child. Sean Pertwee plays Alfred as a dude who can take on any threat, including a supervillain named Cupcake. (Look, it’s a weird show.)


Bitchy Butler

(Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League)

Zack Snyder’s superguy-on-superguy outing was poorly received, but one of its highlights is Jeremy Irons as the bitchiest Alfred to date, rolling his eyes and sarcastically lambasting Bruce for his failings. Irons returned for an even bigger bomb, Justice League.


Try on the Cape

(Batman, Vol. 3, No. 5)

After the latest Universal Comics reboot, a newly determined Batman assembles a wide array of allies to help him out. Alfred gets to dress up as Batman and drive the Batmobile. The mustache looks a smidge out of place under the cowl.


Pennyworth, Alfred Pennyworth


But is becoming a high-end domestic a common career path for those who were formerly in the special forces?

*This article appears in the July 22, 2019, issue of New York Magazine Subscribe Now!

How Batman’s Alfred Went From Clueless Sidekick to Stud