Bruce Wayne has always been a vigilante and billionaire. Since a vigilante needs a lot of help around the house and a billionaire has the money to buy that help, most Batman fans assume that Alfred was in the comics from the beginning. Maybe he wasn’t in that first issue back in 1939, but surely he was always there, the trusty servant in the background who slowly developed into a main character in the Batman universe.
Except he wasn’t. Alfred is more of a newbie than Dick Grayson. In fact, he only appeared on the scene because in the early 1940s someone had a novel idea: why not take this comic book and develop it into a filmed adventure serial? Batman hit screens in 1943. By most accounts, Batman was pretty dark, but it was meant for children and its creators wanted to lighten the mood with a character who could provide comic relief. That character, they decided, would be Alfred, a bumbling butler who was also an amateur sleuth. If he was in the series, he had to be in the comics, so in 1943, before the films hit the screens, Here Comes Alfred hit the stands.
Alfred Beagle, as the character was first called, seemed to be tailor-made to drive up an Englishman’s blood pressure. His speech was punctuated with dashes meant to imitate the cadence of an English accent, and then just to drive home the point, he said things like, “Mawster Bruce,” and “I cawn’t do that”. He made stupid mistakes and described them in stupid ways. When he coincidentally met Batman and Robin he “forgot to get their address” despite considering Batman a “brother criminologist”. He stumbles into the Batcave by accident then talks about how lucky Batman and Robin are to have a man of his “abilities” in their employ. For the next few issues he wanders around, getting in the way of their investigations with his very limited sleuthing ability. The serial was in production, though, so the character was destined to stick around. There was only one problem.
It became apparent that the people making the film series and the people making the comics hadn’t done much communicating. Comic book writers liked the look of a butler with a heavy face and a bit of a belly, but whoever cast Alfred did not want to go with anyone who had ever been over-fed. William Austin, the actor playing Alfred, could hardly have looked less like the comic book character. Rail-thin, with a narrow face, a small moustache, and not even the hint of jowls, he looked like the Alfred we tend to see today in comic books, but nothing like the Alfred that kids back then were seeing in comics.
People noticed the disparity. It was easier to thin down a sketch than feed up an actor, so the comic book character did the changing. In 1944, Alfred starts to look strained and makes efforts to get into shape. Bruce and Dick send him on a vacation.
Alfred goes out clean-shaven and doughy, and comes back thin to the point of creepiness. He reveals that he went to a health resort and worked to get himself into shape. The only thing he had the energy for at the end of his stay was growing his own version of the little moustache that William Austin wore in the series.
It’s at this point, Alfred has both the internal and external elements we see in Alfred today, in comics if not in the movies — including the name Pennyworth. (The comic writers accidentally had two last names for a while, but Pennyworth proved to be more popular.) He has a father named Jarvis who was the butler to Bruce Wayne’s father. It’s Jarvis who makes Alfred promise to go into service, because it’s a family tradition.
Alfred, even at his most out-of-shape, was always tougher than he looked. It was established that he served in World War II, though he was a medic, not a soldier. He also enjoys playing a part; all the way back in his first appearance, the career that Jarvis pries him away from is stage acting. (He mostly played butlers.) Today, comic book creators shuffle the story elements around, but you’ll almost always find acting, military service, and a family tradition of butling foisted on poor Alfred by a father named Jarvis.
You’ll also find traces of villainy. Alfred, in the 1940s and 1950s, was a relatively light and comedic character. He got a short series of books in which he went off to sleuth on his own, although he nearly always got saved by Batman and Robin. In the 1960s, comic books took on a more melodramatic tone. Characters fell in love, fell out of love, turned on each other, and, of course, died off and were resurrected. Alfred was crushed when he pushed Batman and Robin out of the way of falling boulders, but he wasn’t gone long. A mad scientist stole him from his coffin and revived him. The process turned Alfred into a kind of albino-version of The Thing, and it seriously soured his attitude. Feeling alienated, he called himself the Outsider, and turned to villainy before Batman defeated and restored him. Since then, every now and again, in alternate universes or for a shock, the loyal and self-effacing Alfred will turn into a villain.
Over the years, and possibly due to the affection of creators who grew up reading about the character, Alfred got taken more seriously as a character. Now, in movies, he is the voice of reason, and all the other characters respect him. In the comics, his time as a military medical officer has been changed into a wild life of high-stakes espionage, and his time on the stage is a cover for being a spymaster. He’s frequently seen beating the hell out of punching bags or effortlessly handling squads of villains.
But the most recent twist on Alfred isn’t his badassery: it’s that he has stopped being Bruce Wayne’s butler. He has become Thomas Wayne’s butler and Bruce Wayne’s father figure. This wasn’t the case for a long time. As late as the 1980s, Alfred Pennyworth’s origin story is that Alfred’s father asks him to go into service, Alfred turns up unasked-for at Bruce Wayne’s completely servant-less mansion, and Alfred somehow convinces Batman that he needs someone to live in his house and serve him tea every day. In these versions of the origin story, eventually Bruce gets badly hurt and Dick comes running to Alfred to help get him fixed up. It’s only then that he becomes part of the bat-squad.
These days, no one would buy that. The idea that Batman would allow some person who showed up at his door is too much to be believed, even in comic books. Now different writers have different spins on Alfred’s origin, but they all start when the elder Waynes are alive and Bruce Wayne is a baby. Sometimes Alfred’s less a butler to the Wayne family and more a bodyguard. Sometimes he’s Thomas Wayne’s war buddy. Sometimes he comes to the Wayne family to temporarily fill in after Jarvis passes away, and then stays on when the Waynes get killed. No matter how it happens, Alfred had changed from Batman’s bumbling servant to his very, very, very long-suffering dad, and every story acknowledges that.