Trouble with Comics, It Takes A Villain #6: Forgotten Gold - Penguin:...
It Takes A Villain #6: Forgotten Gold - Penguin: Pain and Prejudice

It Takes A Villain is TWC’s semi-whenever-the-hell-Mick-wakes-up column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role, brought to you by your favorite cartoon animal, Mick Martin

Batman’s rogues’ gallery is a gold mine. The dark knight’s franchise has produced some of the most memorable and enduring bad guys in comicdom. Ask any random comic-book-uninitiated civilian to name as many super-villains as he/she can, and you’re likely to get at least half Bat villains. Joker. Riddler. Catwoman. Penguin. Bane.

There’s a lot of sexy and a lot of cool in Batman’s villains, but neither the sex nor the cool has touched Oswald Cobblepot. There are a few reasons for that. There’s his physical presence. He’s short, fat, and ugly. There’s his age. And there’s the fact that in the group therapy session that is the rogues’ gallery of Batman, Oswald Cobblepot doesn’t have as obvious a place. The villains of Batman - particularly the Joker - owe a large part of their popularity to their insanity. Whether they actually are as free as they want us to think, characters like the Joker evoke ultimate, unbridled freedom in their insanity. But Penguin has never seemed a true part of that fraternity. Sure, he’s eccentric. He’s got the outdated FDR thing going on and there’s the crazy gadgets and the penguin motif, but he’s always seemed like a gangster who was just slightly off-kilter because, after all, it’s a comic book so he needs a little crazy. He’s always seemed much more concerned about the dollar-and-cents than the likes of Joker, Two Face, the Riddler, or even Catwoman (whose motivation for crime is at least sixty percent thrill). Not to mention that while the villains of Marvel and DC are flush with animal themes, those bad guys usually pick a beast that’s scary or tough or at least sneaky. The Rhino. Doctor Octopus. Man-Bull. Hell, Catwoman. The predators. The behemoths. Oswald Cobblepot picked a short, squat bird that doesn’t fly. He seems like he should be in the world of The Tick and Squirrel Girl. He’s ugly, old, uncool, and unscary. He’s not the Joker. He’s a joke.


For those reasons - and because the wonderful mini Penguin: Pain and Prejudice was released around the same time as the dawn of the New 52 and was drowned by it (it’s actually not clear to me if this is a New 52 book or not; there was no “NEW 52” on the cover of the trade or the single issues, yet in some panels Batman’s outfit looks like his New 52 get-up) - there’s a good chance you never heard of Penguin: Pain and Prejudice. And that’s a shame. On the back cover of the trade is a pull quote asking if this is “Penguin's Killing Joke.” Look up the trade on Amazon and half the reviews make the same comparison. Most of them even use “Penguin's Killing Joke” as the review title. It’s kind of an annoying comparison. It’s easy. It’s obvious. But it’s not wrong.

The story opens on Cobblepot’s birth, and the first two pages tell us so much that if that was all novelist Gregg Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudranski showed us of the villain’s childhood, that would be enough. Oswald’s father is so shocked by his newborn son’s strange face, he drops Oswald the first time he holds him. The toddler survives perhaps only because of the love of his doting mother, who is as blind to his ugliness as the literally blind woman Penguin falls in love with later in the story. His mother’s embrace is the only love Oswald knows and so, on the second page when we see the child forced to lay at the foot of his parents’ bed as they have sex, we see exactly how and where the Penguin was born.

Interlaced with Penguin’s past is his present. He rules over the Iceberg Lounge while dealing vengeance with the sadistic cruelty of a Keyser Soze; punishing not his transgressors, but their families, friends, lovers, etc. Batman gets the villain’s scent when Penguin hires some pros to steal unique, priceless jewelry from the rich and famous of Gotham. In fact, at least part of the first scene depicting one of the robberies – a man in a ski mask trying to tear a necklace from a rich woman’s neck – makes it tough to not think of the birth of Penguin’s greatest enemy. We learn that the bloody robberies are for nothing more important than providing treasured presents to Penguin’s aging – and seemingly vegetative – mother. While lording over his particular corner of Gotham’s crime world, Penguin meets a lovely blind woman named Cassandra who he romances. He refuses, however, to let her touch his face. She falls for him just as hard as he falls for her, and though he tries to protect her from the dark aspects of his life, eventually the authorities’ pursuit becomes impossible to avoid. His humiliation drives him to a self-destructive assault on Batman, Gotham, and the ghosts of tormentors long dead.

Kudranski’s art is gorgeous, and rather than letting the Penguin’s ugliness work against him, he uses it to great effect. The Penguin has never looked more chilling, more dreadful, or scarier. One of the most memorable sequences is in the first issue, when Penguin is tormenting a young man who insulted him earlier in the evening. He isn’t tormenting him physically, but describing to him all the things his small army of thugs and killers have done to his loved ones while he’s been oblivious. In one panel, Penguin is looking at his watch. In the next, he looks from the watch to the man who is crying on the floor. The only difference between the two panels are the lack of a dialogue bubble in the second panel, and the movement of the eyes. It’s simple, perfect, and quietly terrifying.

Sometimes – though not often – John Kalisz’s color choices take away from the art. Usually, they work perfectly. There are distinct differences between scenes in the present and those in Penguin’s tortured past. The scenes of Penguin’s childhood have a kind of faded amber hue. But everywhere, especially the present scenes, is saturated with shadow. Perhaps oversaturated. This is the only way the colors take away from the art, as it can sometimes confuse the action.

Batman is smartly kept even more in shadow than normal. We hardly even see his mask in most scenes, much less his skin. Batman is not only a target of Oswald’s envy, but he is the adult manifestation of the bullies who helped to make Penguin’s childhood a living hell. In the beginning of the second issue, after Batman crashes into Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge and questions him about the attacks, Oswald is literally transplanted to the past as we see Batman as one of Oswald’s bullying brothers and Oswald as a young boy cringing against a tree. After Batman leaves, the scene ends with a memory of a young Oswald cradling the broken body of a bird one of his brothers shot and killed just for fun.

Batman’s portrayal in the story is almost perfect. My only (very minor) complaint is a scene toward the end of the series. Talking with Gordon, Batman says something that seems to partly uphold Penguin’s argument that Gotham pursues him while ignoring the crimes of others. It’s not that I don’t think Batman would be that thoughtful, but that I preferred to see Batman through Penguin’s eyes for the duration of the series. As an unforgiving bully.

I don’t know if I would’ve necessarily doubted someone if they told me a skilled writer could render Penguin sympathetic and tragic while still being deadly honest about the monster he is, but it’s still a wonderful surprise. Hurwitz’s Penguin is ruthless, abominable, horrible, and yet exactly the man none of us could blame him for becoming. His treatment at the hands of his father and brothers is disgusting and absolutely believable. I wouldn’t say it makes you root for him. It doesn’t, and if it did it would make itmuch less of a story. The Penguin’s history is as real as it could be.

Just as Thomas Wayne is such a giant figure in Bruce Wayne’s history, Oswald’s mother is a giant in his. Similar to how Kudranski treats Batman, we never fully see Oswald’s mother. Most prominent are her full, red lips. We see them kissing Oswald’s cheek when he impresses her with a toy gadget that springs out a bouquet of roses like a jack-in-the-box. We see them framing her smile in the reflection of a snow globe he makes for her. While it is never inappropriate, the image of her lips is clearly suggestive. Oswald’s story is as Oedipal as you can get.

Just as Hurwitz’s story humanizes Penguin, Kudranski’s art makes the sillier aspects of the villain genuinely intimidating and scary. When Oswald launches rockets at Gotham filled with violent birds, we don’t think of the comical clockwork Penguin bombs of old. We think of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and the terror seems all too real.

One interesting little touch that at first annoyed me but which I eventually warmed to were some well-timed Joker cameos. A couple of times, Penguin accidentally walks in on a private room in the Iceberg Lounge that Joker has apparently rented for some “private time.” We see the clown prince in situations as depraved and deadly as we would expect; like wearing women’s underwear while standing over a live goat tied to a spit. At first, it annoyed me because I thought it was just some easy humor. Then, because I thought “Oh of course we have to have Joker in it a little bit, don’t we?” But as I read on I saw a sharper point. As I wrote above, Penguin’s never truly seemed fully a part of the more truly deranged Batman villains. Penguin: Pain and Prejudice proves, I think, that we’ve always been wrong about that. Cobblepot is no more about the dollar-and-cents of the thing than Joker or Riddler or Catwoman. Penguin’s brief stumbles into Joker’s depraved little exercises are more than cheap gags. They’re occasional reminders to Oswald – whether he heeds them or not – just how batshit crazy he really is.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice is forgotten gold. Find it. Read it.

  1. troublewithcomics posted this
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