SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Batman #77 by Tom King, Mikel Janín, Tony S. Daniel, Norm Rapmund, Jordie Bellaire, Tomeu Morey and Clayton Cowles, on sale now.
In "City of Bane," Batman's titular foe has Gotham in a stranglehold. In Tom King, Mikel Janín and Tony S. Daniel's Batman #77, Selina Kyle nurses Bruce Wayne back to health a continent away. Meanwhile, Bane keeps the Bat-family at bay by holding hostage Bruce's closest friend and confidante, Alfred Pennyworth. But when Robin – Bruce's son Damian – enters Gotham anyway and encounters Thomas Wayne – Flashpoint's Batman – it doesn't go so well for him. Unfortunately, it goes even worse for Alfred, as when Damian is captured and brought before Bane, Bane does the unthinkable.
He snaps Alfred's neck – appearing to kill him right in front of Damian.
Even by Bane's Standards – That's Low
Bane had in fact threatened to kill Alfred if any of the Bat-family dared enter Gotham, as Damian and Tim Drake discussed last issue. Tim and the rest of the family have been reluctantly abiding by Bane's terms, but in this issue, Damian concocts his own plan. A single-use magic spell borrowed from Zatanna incapacitates Gotham Girl easily enough. Yes, Robin wields magic – and succeeds where the mighty Captain Atom failed.
But Damian isn't ready for Thomas, who defeats him soundly. And when Damian is captured, Bane makes good on his threat – in very cruel and graphic fashion.
The full-page illustration of Alfred's execution leaves little room for doubt as to his fate. In King's time on Batman, though, it's not the first time a character has been left for dead, or at least critically injured, and made a pretty full, and quick, recovery.
Tim, Jason Todd and Dick Grayson were found hanged in the Batcave in Batman #16 – but survived. Batman himself took a punch to the head from a Poison Ivy controlled Superman in issue #42 – and recovered. Batman also just had his spine broken by Bane – again, and after suffering a major beatdown – and not only survived, but was healed by Thomas easily enough for the two to engage in their own confrontation.
None of the physical trauma endured by the characters above was implied or left to the imagination. It was all laid bare for readers to see, yet in short order, said trauma left little lasting effect, let alone kill any of the victims.
Dead Again – Or Not
Alfred's death does look pretty convincing, admittedly. But King's run has historically shown that doesn't necessarily mean anything. As mentioned, Thomas healed Bruce's broken back – perhaps Alfred is still clinging to life, affording Thomas to do the same for him. Maybe Psycho Pirate's manipulations or Scarecrow's fear toxin is at play – and that grisly scene is one that only played out only in Damian's mind. Or maybe that wasn't Alfred at all – perhaps Clayface has returned and is in Bane's employ, and it was merely a Clayface-generated impostor who was killed.
This hasn't been the first time that Alfred has seemingly met his maker, either. In Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Bob Kane's Detective Comics #328, circa 1964, Alfred sacrificed himself to save both Batman and Robin. Two years later, though, in Gardner Fox and Moldoff's Detective Comics #356, Alfred was brought back, and was revealed to have never died in the first place.
So Batman has temporarily survived without Alfred before, and can do so again. Perhaps Alfred is dead, as far as King is concerned, at least for the remainder of his run. Future writers can easily concoct a way to bring Alfred back – it is comics, after all, where death has become akin to an illness that can eventually be recovered from.
A World Without Alfred?
Or, maybe everything is really as it seems – and Alfred is actually gone. It would be a significant change to Batman’s status quo, but then, that status quo has started to change in other ways already. Selina has returned, and the possibility and hopes of a Bat/Cat union have been rekindled. If the world can handle a married Batman, the idea of Batman without a butler seems easy enough to accept.
The dynamic of Batman has slowly been evolving, anyway. For a long time, the Dark Knight was mostly a loner, largely accompanied only by his sidekick Robin, while Alfred faithfully maintained the home front. In recent years, though, an ever-growing Bat-family and an emerging role within the larger context of the DC Universe has brought Batman out of the shadows. With so many more capes and cowls in Batman's world, is there really a safe place, or a need, for someone like Alfred?
The answer is – yes. Alfred has been more than a mere friend or manservant to Batman – he's been the father figure that the orphaned Bruce has always needed. Yes, someone has to polish the Batcave's giant penny and wash the Batmobile, but Alfred serves a far greater purpose than that. Alfred provides the love that Bruce has always needed – and the kind of bond that can only exist between a father and son. He's the hero that a superhero needs.
So Alfred might be dead – but he'll get better. He has to. That's what heroes do in comics, after all, and Alfred himself was one of the first to do exactly that. It might take a convoluted explanation or another continuity tweak, but Alfred will be back. Heroes do always come back.
First, though, the aftermath of his apparent murder will have to be addressed, which will likely play a role as "City of Bane" continues and the end of King's run grows ever nearer on the horizon.
Batman #78 goes on sale Sept. 4.