Alfred Don’t Shiv

So the latest episode of Gotham, a series detailing the early life of Bruce Wayne before he was Batman, has Alfred step up and accept Bruce’s request to teach him to fight. The recent cartoon series Beware the Batman also had built into the show’s backstory that Alfred was the one who first taught Bruce Wayne how to fight.

This is an interesting development, I think. Alfred, for most of his existence, has been a kindly old, aristocratically British gentleman. There was little indication that Alfred could himself put up a fight and none that Alfred taught Bruce anything about the martial arts.

Maybe there was an earlier example, but I think this new, tougher portrayal of Alfred really started with Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Michael Caine’s Alfred is much more of a working class butler who, it is revealed, has a history in the military. He’s presented as capable of rescuing Batman from a fire through physical force and seems able to handle himself. Was the change purely a choice on Nolan/Caine’s part that then found its way into the Batman myth, or does it reflect something deeper in our culture?

The Batman myth is constantly retold and revised. And each retelling, each revision, can easily be seen to reflect truths about the culture it finds itself in. The 50s had the innocent Batman, for a time that wanted heroes to be innocent. The late 60s and 70s saw a tall, mysterious Batman who was getting a bit old as his boy wonder grew up and struck out on his own—right when America was coming out of the last of the innocence and sliding into cynicism and a feeling of being out of a golden age. The examples could keep going.

Assuming that the change in Alfred that seems to be taking more and more pervasive of a hold is also similarly culturally based, what is it that this says about our culture? I’m really asking!

My guess, FWIW, is that it has something to do with our lack of faith in CEOs and other corporate big wigs. Our entrepreneurial aristocracy—of which the fictional Wayne family are part—is often portrayed in a fairly negative light with bailouts and excess greed. In fact, somewhere around the introduction of Fight Club, the Western zeitgeist seems to have truly rejected the claims of protection by the aristocracy, even to the point of fantasizing about taking them out of power. Fight Club shows the working class as having teeth rather than the captains of industry. The proletariat being the sheep dogs left to sleep outside so that the bourgeoisie lambs can get fat off the land. Whether that’s right or not (both about the current political climate and about Alfred’s change), I don’t claim to know or guess. But I do think it’s worth noting the change cropping up in the myth.

Art vs. Reality

The recent, very sad shootings at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado left me thinking about the obligation, or lack thereof, of art to protect its audience. Though I don’t know the motive of that shooter, I do remember working at a movie theater for another Batman premiere 15 years ago or so. At that premiere, we had a mentally disturbed individual who had a fit during the film because he believed that monsters were under the theater seats. The assumption on our part was that the individual was unable to tell where the dark dream world of Batman and the real world divided.


With individuals like that in the world, is there an onus on art to ensure that it does not encourage madness, violence, or depravity? Or is art not to blame for the acts that others might say were influenced by it? Even if it is to blame, is the price too steep to censor art to ensure that it never causes ill consequences? Would a world of bland and sanitized artistic expressions be too high a price to pay and would it even make any difference in the end? Is art just a scapegoat for the madness of individuals who may well have been incited to acts of violence by any source available to fuel their insane rage?


I don’t have firm answers to those questions. My own books often contain violence and espouse conspiracy theory doctrines. I, of course, realistically know that there are no reptoids pulling the strings of humanity and that sword fights resulting in death and dismemberment are not as fun as they seem in fiction. But do my readers? And if they don’t, is it my responsibility to educate or protect them from the products of my imagination?