A Complicated Criminal: Celebrating The Penguin’s Anniversary
The Penguin has always been one of the hardest Batman villains to get a handle on. While the Dark Knight's other foes are usually built around these simple, evocative traits that mirror Batman's own obsessions, the Penguin suffers from an embarrassment of gimmicks. He's got the birds, the umbrellas, the pretensions of high society, the veneer of legitimacy and the nightclub with the giant iceberg in it --- he's even had a gimmicked monocle on more than one occasion. It all creates a complicated set of motivations and themes, and any other character who was saddled with all of that would've fallen into obscurity within a few years.
But for the Penguin, who made his first appearance on this day back in 1941, it only made him a much more complicated and interesting character.
Like a lot of Golden Age villains, the Penguin was based around a striking visual. The difference, of course, is that while a character like the Joker would get his deathly pallor and sardonic grin from The Man Who Laughs, the Penguin was the result of Bob Kane and Bill Finger being inspired by the waddling mascot for Kool cigarettes. It's not exactly an auspicious start, but something stuck, and over the years, the fact that there wasn't much to the visual allowed a character to flourish behind it.
While the gimmick crimes that he committed with trick umbrellas in the comics kept him in regular rotation, the 1966 Batman TV show's impact on the character can never be overstated. Burgess Meredith was legendarily the favorite Special Guest Villain for the writers and producers of the series, who always kept a script in reserve for him whenever he showed up in Los Angeles. And Meredith made them work beautifully.
That was the second step in the Penguin becoming great. The touch of class and the comedic waddle that Meredith brought to the role made him something a little different --- The Joker might be able to enter a surfing contest with designs on somehow becoming the King of Gotham City, but with his neat tuxedo and rakish top hat, the Penguin felt like a character that could compete with Batman on high society terms, even to the point of running for mayor.
And in the years that followed, that complicated his character in a fascinating way. He became defined by the delusions of grandeur that you'd expect from someone who robs banks while wearing a tuxedo, and when Batman's foes were stripped down to their cores for Batman: The Animated Series, those aspirations for high society made the journey with him to the version that was voiced by Paul Williams.
From there, everything else fell into place. Penguin's connections to Gotham City's illustrious history, and the veneer of legitimate business hiding a relationship to the criminal underworld, made him a darker reflection not of Batman, but of Bruce Wayne, and helped cement him as a major player in the Batman mythos.
So today, as we celebrate the debut of the character, it's worth taking a moment to think about how much can be added --- how characters, and interpretations of those characters, can change and evolve to make these stories better over the years --- all without ever losing that trick umbrella.
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