This week’s Batman #77 contains a truly shocking moment… but it’s not the first time we’ve seen it! Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Detective Comics #356 awaits!
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Sheldon Moldoff (as Bob Kane)
Inker: Joe Giella
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 12 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $80.00
Previously in Detective Comics: Ever since his debut back in 1943, Alfred Pennyworth (originally called Alfred Beagle) has been an intrinsic part of the Bruce Wayne/Batman experience. An amateur detective, Alfred figured out that his employer was Batman entirely by accident, but kept his secret well, even getting in on the adventures a time or two. Sadly, in Detective Comics #328, he gave his life to save Batman and Robin from a falling boulder, and was interred with honor in the Wayne family estate. Not long after, a villain called The Outsider began sending villains at the Dynamic Duo, all the while mocking from the shadows that they have never seen nor heard of him before.
That, as they’ll see shortly, is a lie.
The arrival at Stately Wayne Manor of a pair of coffins was unnerving enough, but when it becomes clear that The Outsider not only knows their secret identities, but has given them only one hour to live, Batman and Robin are shocked. They’re not, however, so shocked that they don’t remember to put the smackdown on the deliverymen, secretly the Grasshopper Gang in disguise. Their battle with the minions of The Outsider goes pretty quickly, but it leaves them with no new information.
This issue’s art is by Sheldon Moldoff (though, contractually, it’s still credited to Kane, even 25+ years after Batman’s creation) and you can clearly see the influences of the brand-new Batman television show on the visuals. Than again, given that the TV show drew heavily on the 1964 “New Look” Batman revival, I might be misattributing the situation. Either way, it’s clearly not Kane’s work and it’s kind of crap that he was credited for the work of other artists. Bygones. As the Dynamic Duo puts all the clues together, Robin finally says out loud what smart readers and heroes have been thinking…
Though it seems impossible, the clues lead to the late Alfred Pennyworth as the Outsider, but he’s abolutely dead, thanks to editorial caveat. As he wrote in his autobiography, incoming Bat-editor Juilus Schwartz felt that the allegations of homosexuality leveled at Batman in ‘Seduction of The Innocent’ had to be dispelled. He decreeed the creation of a new character, Dick’s Aunt Harriet, who served as an overseer/den mother figure and (at least in his opinion) served to make a relationship between Bruce and Dick seem less possible. Sadly, this meant that Alfred’s role was now duplicated by a new character, which led to his death being written into the book, but Julie quickly realized that he made a mistake. Thus, we flash back to shortly after Detective #328, where we discover Alfred’s body lying in state.
That’s… a LOT of exposition there, Dr. Crawford. Fortunately for Alfred, who was clinging to the slightest threads of life, Bruce Wayne didn’t have him autopsied or embalmed, simply sticking him in a refrigerated mausoleum out of… respect? I don’t know. Brandon Crawford siezes on the chance to test his theories, and exposes Alfred to a strange device that energizes his cells and transforms him into a superhuman form. (It also turned Crawford into a double of Alfred, which Outsider/Alfred placed back in his own empty tomb.) Batman and Robin follow the “O-radiation” emitted by The Outsider to Crawford’s lair, and immediatley engage him in combat, hoping that they can avoid being turned into coffins. Robin succumbs, but Batman, who was exposed to the power later, gets in his last licks on his former majordomo, even figuring out which machine would save him and his partner!
I think “A Peculiar Feeling Of Being Turned Into A Coffin” is perhaps Marcel Proust’s most underrated volume. As for The Outsider, Batman realizes that he had no idea about his strnage double-life, and vows to keep the knowledge from him, lest it kill him again. He even hires Crawford to do scientific research at the Alfred Foundation, which he quickly renames the Wayne Foundation, and returns Alfred to his post at Wayne Manor. Heck, even Aunt Harriet gets a happy ending, as she is asked to stay and help Alfred with his recovery, leaving Detective Comics #356 with remarkably clever story and pretty okay art, for a combined 3 out of 5 stars overall. As one of the earliest examples of a convoluted retcon to overcome a misguided death, it’s a fascinating example and one that I find myself enjoying even as it serves as a gateway to Mephisto deals, clones, alternate-reality selves and whatever that nonsense was with Iron Man post-Civil War.
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Fox's script does a really thorough job of overcoming Alfred's death, with some fun science fictiony bits thrown in and a solid art job by Moldoff. I can't wait to see if the hypothetical next Alfred resurrection is anywhere near this successful.