Tuesday, November 01, 2022

What is: The Penguin? A Freaking Genius


Burgess Meredith 1, Scenery 0.

is not The Penguin.

In contradistinction, this, however:

Well, Oswald, the tie's too matchy-matchy, but on the whole, much better.

IS The Penguin.

Both these scenes are from One Bad Day: Penguin.  It does some things I dislike a lot. It starts with the premise that the Penguin has lost his entire criminal (a story that has not only been done before bt it on the verge of becoming a personal trope) because it was taken out from under him by a scheming assistant (I can't be the only person who remembers the "Emperor Penguin" storyline), the guy who used to hold his umbrella for him (which is of course the Penguin's OWN origin on Gotham). Oh, and he's obviously been beaten up (you know how I feel about Penguin being used as a punching bag.) And so the plot is: Penguin fights to get his empire back, needs to get his hands (and, apparently, teeth) dirty, and learns that the REAL empire is the friends he made along the way.

It's just like that scene where Dr. Manhattan notes that reassembling himself after losing his intrinsic field was the first thing he ever did, so doing it again later wasn't much of a challenge.  Taking over organized crime was the FIRST thing Penguin does in his original story.

That's certain not very original (except for the making friends part). But I'm going to go easy, because this comic gets most the essential elements of the Penguin right.

The Penguin is an aristocrat. Even if not by birth, he is one by choice.

I can understand the choice of, say, The Batman (2021) to make him a rough-and-tumble mafia boss; but it's wrong.  Even on Gotham, where the Penguin is an obsequious little weasel or in Batman Returns where he's a sewer-dwelling freak, he's still eventually shown to be a born aristocrat.  

There's a purpose to this: so that the Penguin fits in with the very class of people he preys upon.  The character is based on A. J. Raffles, the Gentlemen Thief (although he clearly had other visual inspirations).

Being a gentlemen is, in fact, one of his principal weapons.

It's why the Penguin carries an umbrella, the sign of an English gentlemen of Raffle's era.  Comics have not sound, but if they did, you know that the Golden Age Penguin would have an actual or affected British accent (or at least a Trans-Atlantic one).

The Penguin is always underestimated

The Penguin is consistently underestimated for a variety of reasons. He looks very unthreatening, silly in fact.  

The Penguin's very first appearance.

His name, Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, is silly.  He has a silly sobriquet, which is pointedly self-chosen, as noted in a first Golden Age clip above.  His outfits are silly, his weapons are silly, his affectations and interests are silly.  And Oswald leans INTO it, with good reason.

Trivium: The Penguin's name was revealed in the Batman comic STRIP, not in a comic book.
In this light-hearted storyline, a sympathetic Batman helps Oswald deceive his naive aunt, who thinks he's a legitimate businessman.

Even his protestations that he is a "legitimate businessman" are a way of reducing any sense that he is a threat.   The key here is that the reason is the Penguin is underestimated is because he WANTS to be; it's one of his great advantages.  

In the One Bad Day story, during his final confrontation with Umbrella Man, the usurper savagely beats the Penguin in an extended sequence where the Penguin essentially offers no defense.  It's brutal. But it has the intended effect of lulling Umbrella Man into a false sense of security. Then the Penguin kills him quickly, something made possible only by the fact that Umbrella Man underestimated him.

The Penguin is a cold-blooded killer.

My distaste for the scene where Penguin rips out his foe's throat with his teeth is only due to thee method not the murder. Unlike the Raffles archetype, the Penguin not only is willing to kill, he's remarkably sanguine about it.

Always polite. No throat ripping required.

The Penguin adapts but doesn't change his style.

The Penguin is actually the most adaptable of Batman's major foes, although no one ever notices.

Try to imagine, say, Two-Face or Catwoman on that robot's shoulder.
Nope. Only the Penguin.

Who else is going to negotiate with the TNMT straight-facedly?  
The Joker? The Riddler? Nope. Only the Penguin.


These examples are, of course, on top of his roles as a Gotham mob boss, a thematic super-criminal, a behind the scenes arms-dealer and power-broker, a (three-time) mayoral candidate, a nightclub owner, and 'legitimate businessman'.  

Nobody gets tattoos of him.  Nobody wants to dress as him for Halloween.
But, in case you've never noticed it: the Penguin is always the enduring star.

Of Batman's six classic foes (him, the Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler, Catwoman, and Scarecrow), the Penguin is only one who didn't suffer a large gap in appearances between the golden age and later ages. Believe it or not, the Penguin is Batman's most consistent foe.  And he never really 're-invents' himself.  He doesn't suffer existential crises, he doesn't change his costume or M.O., he doesn't need a new origin.  He's the Penguin, and he's a lot more famous than many supposedly "cooler" villains, none of whom have their own shows on HBO; he was around before them and will be around when they are gone.

The Penguin gets away.

In the Golden Age, the Penguin was a very popular villain, used repeatedly. To facilitate this, the Penguin almost always...got away.

In modern time, the equivalent of these escapes is that the Penguin maintains his facade as a legitimate businessman and doesn't slip up to get sent to jail. But think of just how significant that is; his foe is the world's greatest detective and yet the Penguin remains free while continually committing crimes.  

Comics Archaeology said it best: what we tend to forget about the Penguin is that "he's a freaking genius."


Matthew E said...

I like this series, and I am with you on most of this, but I suggest one adjustment: the Penguin is not so much a gentleman as he is one of those Depression-era types who were lower class but put on the airs of a gentleman, like WC Fields or J Wellington Wimpy or George Clooney’s character in O Brother Where Art Thou.

Also, I note that the Penguin is one of the most obviously rational of Batman’s villains. Not a psycho; just a professional crook.

Scipio said...

"I suggest one adjustment"
I consider that an acceptable variation. That's what I meant when I said "Even if not by birth, he is one by choice."

Anonymous said...

Suddenly I want the Penguin to throw down with the Kingpin. Though I'm pretty sure I know who would win that one, easy. Sneakiness beats "DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE MY PHENOMENAL STRENGTH FOR I HAVE BATTLED SPIDER-MAN WITH THESE VERY HANDS" every time.

Scipio said...

The Penguin would have already shot Fisk repeatedly before he finished that speech.

Anonymous said...

I don’t recognize any version of the Penguin who doesn’t at least have delusions of eloquence. Burgess Meredith rode the line between gangster and gentlemen well. Penguin wasn’t the best villain on the Animated Series, but I like the episode in which he tries to become accepted by high society.

- Mike Loughlin

Scipio said...

"It's true what they say: society IS to blame. HIGH society..."

Anonymous said...

What a great line! The delivery, the sentence structure…

Wait… It’s Tuesday… It’s the Absorbascon…

“It’s true what they say:
Society is to blame.
HIGH Society”


- Mike Loughlin

Anonymous said...

HAIKU Society!

Scipio said...

I wondered whether anyone would catch that...