One of the great things about characters in comic books, villains in particular, is that the right writer can completely alter your perception of a particular character. When the Penguin: Pain and Prejudice mini-series kicked off at the end of 2011, I’ll admit I barely batted an eyelid. I’ve made no secret of the fact that the Penguin is probably my least favourite Bat-villain, and the idea of a five comic series based entirely around him seemed like my own personal hell.
I did catch glimpses of some of the favourable reviews the book was getting, but it still wasn’t enough to get me on board. However, the recent work done by Gregg Hurwitz in turning around the Dark Knight comic with his current Scarecrow arc did get me more than a little interested. If Hurwitz could do such a great job on a pretty awful comic like TDK, surely he could do the same with a certain Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, right? The final decision was made when the fine folks at ComiXology decided to include the comic in their current ‘Super Villains’ sale, allowing me to pick all five issues up for just a few quid. So I decided to give the Penguin a chance to win me over, and Hurwitz a chance to prove me wrong.
And boy am I glad I did.
The book delves into Penguin’s origin in a way I haven’t seen before, building on his relationship with his mother from literally the moment he was born, and it initially paints him as a somewhat sympathetic figure as he endures abuse and ridicule from his peers and unbridled disdain from his father. There’s some genuinely touching moments in the first issue between Penguin and his mother, which are immediately offset by the cruel, calculating, downright sadistic way he dismantles the life of a man who bumps into him in the Iceberg Lounge. This isn’t the bumbling ‘comic relief’ of the little guy with the umbrella that I’ve seen before. This is a ruthless, calculating villain who knows exactly how to get what he wants and how to destroy anyone who stands in his way or slights him.
Throughout the story, Batman is used somewhat sparingly as a peripheral force that spurs the Penguin on, and – in one particularly poignant scene from issue two – a point of comparison as the Penguin visualises what life must feel like to be tall, strong and virile like the Batman. I like this approach, as it would be far too easy to turn this into another Bat-comic where he thwarts yet another villain’s evil schemes. Thankfully, we stay focused on the younger Cobblepot through most of the first two issues, building up the relationship with his mother and reliving the tragic deaths of his brothers. The artwork throughout is perfectly pitched, with great page layouts and some truly brilliant visual touches. We never fully see Penguin’s mother, her appearances limited to silhouettes and red lips. We see Penguin’s rage at those who have wronged him picked out in reds and, in some cases, superimposed over the whimpering wreck he is dissecting. The art fits this story like a glove, and while it may be a little ‘murky’ for some tastes, this is without a doubt a murky story, so to have it in bright, vibrant colours would just feel… wrong.
The story continues with Penguin meeting and falling in love (?) with Cassandra, a blind woman who he seems to view as a kindred spirit and who he is able to relax with due to not having to worry about his physical appearance. This relationship arc, though ultimately ending in tragedy, is perhaps the heart of the book as Penguin attempts to impress the woman who cannot see what others have mocked him for all his life. We are never allowed to forget the cold, calculating monster that Cobblepot has become though, and the contradiction between this side of his personality and the love he has for his mother is played out beautifully in the scene in issue three where Penguin destroys the life of another poor soul while simultaneously rewarding a woman who cared for his mother. It’s tremendously laid out stuff, and Hurwitz does a masterful job of keeping the storyline moving forwards and keeping us (or me, anyway) unsure of how I should actually be feeling about the Penguin. Should we feel sorry for him for the hardship and ridicule he endured as a child? Should we condemn him for his callous, downright vicious actions now? The answer is probably somewhere in between, and that’s the best kind of villain in my book.
The story continues with Batman playing more of a prominent role as Penguin’s plan to hurt Gotham slowly unravels along with his budding relationship with Cassandra. I guess there had to be some sort of ‘evil scheme’, but I’m not sure this comic really needed it. I’d have been more interested in reading about Penguin’s rise to power in Gotham rather than seeing some – admittedly quite creative – plot involving flying Penguins and birds.
I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong, and I was undeniably wrong not to pick this up when I saw it at first. While other writers may use Penguin as a bit of comic relief or as a generic gangster to provide Batman with “wah wah wah”-laced information, this book goes far deeper into the psyche and back-story of the Penguin, and is an absolutely captivating read as a result. It may not be enough to push Mr Cobblepot to the top of my list of villains (and just like a good writer can make a character come across brilliantly, a bad writer can just as easily undo all that good work), it has definitely made me reconsider him as a legitimate character.
I think this is still on the ComiXology sale at the moment, and I urge anyone who likes good storytelling and perhaps wants to know more about one of the most prevalent (though possibly least understood) members of Batman’s rogues gallery to give this a look. It’s spellbinding stuff.
The writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson (aka Ceej)
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