My grandfather, Alan Landesman, better known as “Papa” to me and his other grandchildren, passed away on Sunday. He was 89 years old. He had been in a lot of pain for a long time, but as my friend and Comics Beat colleague Cori McCreery told me, “knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it hurt less.”
Originally I had told Comics Beat managing editor Joe Grunenwald that there wouldn’t be a Silber Linings this week. But as my Mom said, “Papa would say to work.” And while this week’s column will be a bit more downbeat than the usual Silber Linings goofiness, there actually is a connection between what I loved about my grandfather and one of my favorite comic book characters.
Here’s an excerpt from the eulogy I gave:
What I’m about to say next may sound silly, but I mean it with utter sincerity. Many of you know that I love comic books, especially Batman comics. Those ’80s and ’90s Batman movies made a huge impression on me, and while Papa wasn’t into comics and liked to tease me about it, he’s part of the reason why I love the Bat-family. The actor who played Batman’s butler and father figure in those movies, Alfred, reminded me so much of Papa. I was always convinced that the actor, Michael Gough, looked like Papa, although not every family member sees it.
I think it’s because I had convinced myself that Alfred, the character, had so much in common with what I loved most about Papa that I grafted Papa’s image onto him. Papa, just like Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth, was witty, sometimes sarcastic, and even towards the end of his life as Alzheimer’s started to take hold, was often capable of devastating, yet hilarious burns.
But more than that he was kind. He was a jokester and never afraid to speak his mind when he was concerned, and it was always rooted in how deeply he cared about his family. And even when he didn’t fully understand what his loved ones were doing and why, he always accepted and supported it.
Alfred became one of my favorite comic book characters because Papa was one of my favorite people. To this day, I read comics in which Alfred chats with Batman and Robin and Batgirl and the like with a cup of tea in the Batcave, and it reminds me of Papa with his cup of hot water at the dinner table, listening to his family talk about their days, always there to offer wisdom and warmth when we needed it.
Most of you reading this didn’t know my grandfather. If you didn’t know him as well as I did, you probably wouldn’t make the Alfred comparison. That character, created by writer and Batman co-creator Bill Finger with artist Jerry Robinson in 1943, is the epitome of the British “stiff upper lip” ideal, or at least the perception of it by two working-class Jewish-American comic book creators. In almost every iteration in all the media Alfred’s appeared in, he’s cool, calm, collected, and classy. Later creators would add wrinkles to his backstory like his theater training and mysterious past as a secret agent. But that’s all secondary, tertiary even, to his embodying the archetype of a soft-spoken, old-timey butler who’s also a father figure to The World’s Greatest Detective and his various bat and bird-themed associates.
Papa, as you might guess, has a different background. He was created by two Jews though – that is, my Polish and Hungarian immigrant great-grandparents. Born in the Bronx in 1932, he had the sort of gruff accent, brash personality and wicked sense of humor one might associate with men his age who grew up in the time and place that he did. He was loud, there was no doubt about that. He had a deep, booming voice that, for a time while he was in the army, was used to sing opera, although his signature song to me was hearing “happy birthday” over the phone every year without fail, at full operatic volume and in its entirety.
But like I said in the eulogy, Alfred reminded me of Papa because they’re both hardworking, caring paternal figures who used sarcastic humor as a sign of affection. They had a few other things in common too. My grandfather owned a travel agency with my grandmother (who’s still with us), and one of the perks was that he’d get to do his own traveling with her and indulge their mutual adventurous spirit. Perhaps in another life he could have been the companion to a globe-trotting superhero like Batman.
I wasn’t thinking that deeply about it as a little kid though. All I knew was, here’s these awesome movies about my favorite superhero, and his butler, who’s kind of like Batman’s dad or grandpa, looks like my grandpa, and acted a bit like my grandpa. And his name’s Alfred, which sounds kind of like Papa’s name, Alan.
As I got older and started reading Batman in his native medium, my love for Alfred only grew. Being old enough to intellectualize the Batman mythos allowed me to see how brilliant Alfred was as a concept. Superheroes, as many other critics have notes, are a sort of adolescent power fantasy. For Batman, part of that fantasy is being rich enough as a grownup to have a butler following you around to wait on you hand and foot, and you can kind of boss him around. Obviously, that part isn’t something I relate to regarding my grandfather.
But what I like most about Alfred is what he represents as a grandfather figure. Batman, after all, is a kind of father figure, at least in many of the Batman stories I love most. Bruce Wayne is wise, strong, and patient, not to mention a literal father in canon. He adopted the various Robins, became a paternal figure to other young Gotham heroes like The Signal and various Batgirls, and even became a biological father to the latest Robin, Damian Wayne.
And yet even Batman, a character known for being able to win any battle as long as he has enough time to plan, for being the strongest, smartest, coolest superhero in the DC Universe, benefits from having a father figure – and to us readers, a grandfather figure.