NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for DC’s Current Batman Comics
This year has been good to DC Comics, but bad to Alfred Pennyworth, as Batman’s butler was killed off multiple times across the DC Multiverse. And it’s hard to say exactly why. Most readers can understand why harming, wounding, or even killing Batman’s trusted butler and father figure is a narrative hand grenade. Indeed, there are few things that might actually break Bruce Wayne – and the loss of Alfred is at the top of the list. But it doesn’t explain why the year 2017 has seen it employed across books, creative teams, time periods, and even parallel universes.
The arrival of the DC Rebirth put Alfred in the Batsuit, so perhaps it’s just karma balancing out. Fans of the current Batman comics can breathe a sigh of relief, since Alfred Pennyworth is still alive and kicking in the DCU continuity. But judging by the comics that dealt with the extended Bat-Family beginning this past Fall, he may want to take out some extra life insurance.
Whether the past, possible future, dark parallel worlds, or ones not yet to be… Alfred Pennyworth is dropping left and right.
Alfred Dies in DC Metal’s Dark Multiverse
To those who dismiss the deaths of major characters as sales ploys or marketing stunts, the first example actually refutes the claim. In fact, the death of Alfred in Batman: The Murder Machine was the entire reason Bruce Wayne fell from grace, and became one of the nightmare killers of DC’s METAL. The story from Frank Tieri and Riccardo Federici is told in flashback, set in a much more tragic parallel world than the one of the main DCU. One in which the villains of Batman broke into the Batcave as a team… and find only Alfred Pennyworth. When he stands up to their violent interrogation techniques, refusing to reveal the identity of Batman – as if Alfred would ever do anything else, even on an evil parallel Earth – Bane steps in to repeat history. Raising Alfred above his head as he did to Batman in the infamous Knightfall story arc, he smashes his back across his knee.
Alfred is tough, but not Batman tough. So where Bruce walked away from the injury (eventually), it claims the elder Pennyworth’s life. Knowing that it took place in Bruce’s absence, in the middle of his Batcave, below his own home is what makes The Murder Machine dark and grim enough to truly exist in DC’s “Dark Multiverse.” The loss is used to demonstrate Alfred’s importance to Bruce, and play out the terrible question of what would happen “if Alfred were killed.” In short: Bruce would resurrect him digitally with Cyborg’s help, and he would take over Earth’s programming to hurt anyone who would threaten his adopted son – upgrading Bruce into an invincible cybernetic killer and being recruited to wipe out DC’s primary Earth.
But it wasn’t Alfred’s only death this year. It wasn’t his only death that same week.
Alfred Dies in The Future of Nightwing: New Order
It isn’t just Bruce Wayne’s entire world that would be changed with the death of Alfred, as evidenced the same day Murder Machine released over in the pages of Nightwing: The New Order‘s superhuman-less future. The series was pitched from the beginning as Kyle Higgins and Trevor McCarthy’s idea of a possible future of the DC Universe, in which the superhuman community grew so out of control and dangerous, Dick Grayson took it upon himself to use a weapon to negate superpowers everywhere. Years of peace soon followed, with Dick becoming the de facto flagbearer for a new age of superhuman registration and incarceration… until his son Jake’s powers emerge.
The New Order kicks into high gear when law enforcement comes crashing down on Dick Grayson’s home, having ambushed their commanding officer in his own home. Alfred Pennyworth, having stayed in Dick Grayson’s life to look after Jake (and act as Dick’s conscience, once he ascends into Bruce’s hero role) is finally forced to draw a line in the sand. He had kept his disagreement with Dick’s vision cordial, and clearly swallowed the changing society as a whole. But when the men in black come for Robin’s son… he must stand his ground. And for his trouble, he gets a bullet in the chest.
Alfred’s death shocks Dick and Jake, playing an obvious role in Dick’s decision to go on the run with his son. With the series only in Issue #4, it remains to be seen if Alfred will truly be avenged. But even after so many years out of the superhero game, it’s Alfred’s courage which sets a hero in motion (sounds familiar).
Alfred Dies in Batman: White Knight
It’s hard to know if Alfred’s death will draw Nightwing back to the light, or deeper into the dark, but Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight #3 makes another argument for the latter. Yet another comic series told outside the confines of DC’s main continuity, White Knight hinges mainly on The Joker being cured of his criminal insanity – and the former criminal reuniting with the classic Harley Quinn to take on the Batman in the public, with laws on their side against the reckless vigilante. Ever the one to play into Joker’s hand, Bruce gets so reckless in Issue #3, he winds up crushed underneath a building, crawling his way back into the Batcave effectively bleeding to death.
In such a dire condition, Bruce stumbles his way towards Alfred’s bedside – the reveal that Alfred is “dying” and being kept alive by Bruce’s work with Mr. Freeze to extend life coming issues earlier. When Bruce succumbs to his injuries and loses consciousness, Alfred stirs, and goes to work. When Bruce awakens, he is the one in the hospital bed, with the Freeze tech hooked into his veins. It’s the last patch-job Alfred was able to give, left sitting at Bruce’s bedside with a goodbye note to give his last words.
Dick and Barbara share their concerns for Bruce’s well-being after the funeral, with Batgirl stating that without Alfred keeping Bruce on the right path, there’s no telling how far he may descend into his darker impulses. Dick doesn’t want to hear it… but DC readers certainly do.
After all, it’s the third time that fact has been stated in the past few months. But all kidding aside, the sheer coincidence that three prominent DC comics would all kill off Alfred to raise the stakes speaks to the character’s meaning, not effectiveness as a plot device. Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have survived without Alfred – and as 2017 makes perfectly clear, Batman can’t survive without him either.
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