Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Batman

(or "The Inside Story Of The Outsider!")

I'm sure this is going to disappoint a lot of people, but this column isn't going to be a complete analysis of Batman's storytelling engine; for one thing, a long-running character like Batman doesn't have just one status quo, he's got dozens. The Bob Kane era of 'Batman' is so radically different from the Bat-books of the late 1990s that they have to be considered separately from each other even though they're the same series. So, in keeping with my promise from the first column to look at these characters through the prism of the Essentials and Showcase series, let's look at a singular storytelling engine of Batman, a short-lived one that is perfectly captured in the two current volumes of 'Showcase Presents: Batman'. Let's look at the cautionary tale of...the Outsider.

Although he probably didn't term it as such, Julius Schwartz's job as the new 'Batman' editor was to revamp the storytelling engine of Batman. The series had become steeped in science-fiction, with aliens, time travel, and additional Bat-helpers galore, and had fundamentally become too far removed from its roots to remain workable. Schwartz had a number of ideas to change the tone of the series, removing Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, ditching the aliens, and reducing the science-fiction elements down to a "James Bond" level. (In other words, they had gadgets from about five years in the future, not fifty.) He also decided to make one change that was destined to be even more controversial, a change that shocked fans everywhere...

He put a little yellow oval around the Bat-Symbol.

Nah, nah, I'm kidding. He killed Alfred the butler.

Of course, casual Batman fans everywhere have just raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Gee," they say, "he looked to be in pretty good shape last I saw." And therein lies the point. Schwartz killed Alfred because he was sick of the 'boy's club' atmosphere of the Batcave, worried about complaints that Batman promoted a deviant lifestyle, and because he didn't think it mattered too much; Alfred was really such a minor part of the Batman mythos that replacing him with a snoopy Aunt Harriet would be an interesting shake-up, and nobody would care too much. So Alfred met his end pushing his boss out of the way of falling boulders, was crushed to a pulp on-panel, and the matter was settled.

Except that as it turns out, storytelling engines are powerful things. Sometimes--heck, often--they are more powerful than the people who write them or the people who edit them. Making a change to a storytelling engine is easy, but making it stick is hard. In this case, the Batman TV series loomed on the horizon, and William Dozier, its producer, was not a regular 'Batman' reader. He was familiar with the "classic" Bat-family, including Alfred, and he insisted that the comic match his TV series rather than the other way around. So, despite planning to add in snoopy Aunt Harriet, the storytelling engine of 'Batman with Alfred' proved to have durability with casual fans, and had to be reinstated.

Which left the comics with a small problem, to wit: Alfred had been crushed to a pulp by falling boulders, on-panel, less than a year previous. This left Schwartz in a bit of a conundrum, which was solved by claiming that Alfred was only "mostly dead", and that his body was recovered by a mad scientist who re-animated him as the super-villain, "The Outsider". Naturally, Batman restored the Outsider to normal, Alfred resumed his duties, and no more was ever said about the incident.

So the story of the Outsider highlights a number of interesting elements from a storytelling perspective. It tells us that writers and editors are subject to outside forces that can force them to retract a decision no matter how permanent it seems. It tells us that Batman's storytelling engine is an enduring one--even tiny elements, like Alfred the butler, have staying power and importance to the general public. And it also tells us that shock deaths and contrived resurrections aren't a creation of the 1990s. Before there was Parallax, there was the Outsider.


magidin said...

Well... I wouldn't necessarily characterize Alfred as a "minor" part of the story-telling engine. He is a minor character, but he is also the surrogate of the Reader: the non-super hero who is privy to the secret of The Batman/Bruce Wayne. In that sense, a snooping Aunt is no substitute. Killing him off does not disrupt the ability of the writer to generate stories ideas, but it does distrupt his ability to connect with the reader. So I would say that while it does not affect the "story" part of the engine, it does have some impact on the "telling" portion of the engine, if only because you need to keep your readers aboard. Doesn't matter how cool or interesting your story is if nobody wants to read it!

One could also argue that Alfred plays a role similar to that of Ma and Pa Kent in the Superman backdrop: he is the grounding influence on Bruce Wayne, what keeps him from going over the edge or completely disassociating himself from society. The simple act of refering to him as "Master Bruce" or the like is a reminder to Bruce that he is Bruce Wayne, and The Batman is his alter ego, not the other way around. Just like to the Kents, it is Superman which is the disguise, not Clark. Sure, Ma and Pa Kent were dead and buried for most of the pre-Crisis period, but they were ever-present. By contrast, when they tried to get rid of Alfred, they tried to expunge him. Perhaps had they kept him present in the same way the Kents were a constant influence on pre-Crisis Superman, the reaction would not have been that bad.

John Seavey said...

He actually was "present" in that sense; I didn't have time to get into it, but during that period, Bruce Wayne ran a charity called the Alfred Foundation, which was a plot point in several of the stories in that time. So he was "gone but not forgotten", certainly, right up until his return (at which point they renamed the foundation after Thomas Wayne, IIRC.)

magidin said...

Ah. My only knowledge of The Outsider comes from a couple of later issues in which he resurfaced (with a short recap explaining who they were talking about). Still, Alfred's role as the reader's surrogate (at least for most of his existence) is probably more important. The Kent's were not around for Superman (though they were for Superboy) until after the Crisis, so by comparison they had always been "gone".

Mauricem said...

LOL. Great article showing the power of the engine. I thought you were going to talk about when he was in "Batman and the Outsiders" which was the most ridiculous story-telling engine ever. "Hey guys, since nobody likes us, let's form a group of our own. That'll show 'em."

J. L. Bell said...

I think there have been actually three versions of Alfred, aside from that blip of the Outsider.

First came the comic-relief Alfred, a clone of Arthur Treacher who did a little support work but mostly provided laffs galore with his oh-so-convincing British accent.

After the first movie serial, Alfred grew thinner and less comic, a reliable support for the dynamic duo for several decades.

Finally, post-Crisis Alfred's history was rewritten so that he had (a) a vast array of useful skills, such as combat surgery, disguise, etc.; (b) a history with the Wayne family that dates to Bruce's childhood, and predates Dick Grayson's arrival; and (c) an acerbic wit and the passive-aggressive personality that ensures he'll always be around to make critical remarks about Bruce's hobby while still enabling it.

Each era may get the Alfred it deserves.