Ask Chris #170: Everyone’s Favorite Pre-Owned Nuclear Submarine Captain, P.N. Gwynn
Q: How can the Penguin be crafted to be a decent Batman foe without seeming too silly but still true to the character? --@phillyradiogeek
A: My first thought when I saw this question was that the Penguin is already a pretty decent Batman foe, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was really true. Outside of Burgess Meredith and his amazing purple top hat, I'm not sure that I've ever actually been excited at the prospect of getting a Penguin story as opposed to one of the other prominent Batman villains. Even the Riddler is someone I'm way more interested in than the Penguin, but I don't think the problem is that there isn't something good in there. I think the problem is that there's way too much.
The one thing that always surprises me about the Penguin is that he was created in 1941. I always mentally lump him in with that second wave of villains that showed up in the Silver Age, but he's as O.G. as it gets, to the point where he was actually created by Bill Finger and (allegedly) Bob Kane. He's there almost from the beginning, right in that early crowd with Catwoman and the Joker, but if you asked -- and you kind of did -- I'd be hard pressed to name a single "definitive" Penguin story from the comics. Even one that was just memorable would be tough to come up with. That issue of Brave and the Bold where he fakes his death and then dresses up as a nun in order to conduct the choir at his own funeral has been a favorite of mine since I read it when I was a kid, but when you get right down to it, that's more of a story about the Joker being framed for Penguin's murder than it is about the Penguin himself.
Quick aside: That story, Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn and Jim Aparo's "Only Angels Have Wings" from Brave and the Bold #191, is awesome. And, now that I think of it, it probably explains a lot that one of the first comics I ever read featured the Penguin in drag, Joker attempting murders with a novelty purchased "from the back of a comic book," and Batman getting bopped on the chin by a gigantic spring-loaded boxing glove from the trunk of the Jokermobile. Kind of explains a lot, including why I can't even think up a Penguin story without getting sidetracked on something that has another bad guy's name written in big letters right there on the cover.
What I'm getting at here is that the Penguin's been around for over 70 years and, in the comics at least, hasn't really done a whole lot outside of filling up space in group shots of Batman villains, and part of that is that I don't think he was created with anything in mind other than the visual. Finger copped to being inspired by the top-hatted penguin in ads for Kool cigarettes when he came up with the character, and I honestly don't think they got much further than that. And really, why should they? It's not like those dudes knew he was going to stick around for the next century; all they wanted was an interesting visual of a beaky, high-society mobster to contrast with their two-fisted, square-jawed protagonist.
The thing is, all of those other big-name Batman villains that stuck around that long have those really identifiable gimmicks that lend themselves well to those formulaic crime capers that Batman was always foiling back in the day. Cats, riddles, the number two, all that stuff works really well in those stories because they give a nice structure to what's going on that it's easy for the reader to latch onto, and because of that, they tend to be really specific. The Penguin, on the other hand, is all over the map with that stuff.
The obvious character hook, of course, is the bird stuff, but that's always felt like it didn't quite work. It feels tacked on, like they were a few years into it before they realized that oh, hey, penguins are birds, maybe that should be his thing. Much more prominent, probably because of the TV show, are the trick umbrellas, but I'll be honest with you: I've probably thought about the Penguin more than pretty much anybody else you know, and I have no idea how those were added into the equation. I mean, I know there's an in-continuity reason for it, but as far as how they ended up as part of the character design in the first place, your guess is as good as mine. Were umbrellas considered to be an accessory necessary for formal attire? And then someone realized you could probably put a gun in there if you were going to fight Batman? Is that all there is to it?
So already we're dealing with two weird gimmicks that don't quite work, but there's a bigger problem, too. Unlike the other major Batman villains, there's nothing that really connects the Penguin to Batman. It becomes especially apparent as time goes on and Batman's enemies make that shift from criminals to madmen and grow to represent a psychological contrast to Batman. It's that connection that makes characters like the Joker, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman and even Two-Face and Deadshot so compelling, but it's something that's completely absent from the Penguin.
In fact, after that became the dominant theme of most Batman stories, the Penguin became the odd man out by being the only major Batman villain who wasn't insane. Birds and umbrellas were never quite the driving obsessions that the other arch-criminals had, so while they were all transformed into these dark portraits of madness and violence, he was pretty much just a short, fat dude who wanted to rob banks while dressing nicely. And that, in turn, led to Penguin getting another gimmick without ever shedding the first two: The idea that the penguin's penchant for formalwear wasn't just because he liked how he looked in a tuxedo, but because he had aspirations of class.
On paper, this is a really good idea, because it finally gives you that contrast that you need to really spark a relationship between two characters. It recasts the Penguin as an Old Money Villain in the same way that Bruce Wayne is an Old Money Hero, putting both of them at opposite ends of these American Dream stereotypes, where Batman, despite being born into billions, honed himself into the man he would become and spends all of his money on boomerangs and capes philanthropic efforts like the Wayne Foundation, and the Penguin is this entrenched member of a corrupt family that built its money on shady deals and exploited workers. It's actually a pretty interesting idea -- unless, you know, you're a kid and you couldn't give two cusses about the history of industry in this fake city and just want to see Batman punch somebody -- and it's been a huge part of the character in recent years, to the point where the Cobblepots have been just as involved in Gotham City's history as the Waynes. But that said, even though it's a solid idea that's led to some interesting stories, it doesn't quite work as well as I think they really want it to.
The problem here is that the Wayne Fortune and Bruce Wayne's position as the heir of this massive Old Money family isn't actually that important to Batman. I mean, it can be, depending on how you look at it, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a really minor part of who Batman is and what he does. Batman's status as a millionaire isn't really a socioeconomic commentary, it's just a plot contrivance to explain why he can spend all his time being a vigilante detective who drives a sweet car. It's just something that's there to facilitate all the stuff that actually is worth caring about, and basing an entire character motivation around that is putting him on pretty shaky ground. It's like creating a Superman villain who wanted to fight Superman because he really hated yellow sunlight. It's there, yeah, but there are other things to work with.
The end result is that you have this long-running, established, well-known and popular character who's kind of a mess in terms of character and motivation, which makes him really difficult for creators and readers to get a handle on. That's definitely a problem, and if you're going to set out to fix it, you've got a couple of options.
First, and easiest, is just to ignore the stuff that doesn't work and build your stories around the stuff that does. This seems to be what most of the more recent creators have been doing, ditching umbrella robberies in favor of that Old Money Crook who runs a nightclub and has aspirations of restoring his family's name. All the classic elements are still there, but they're just affectations rather than core elements of the character. He has an aviary in his club but doesn't go out of his way to steal exotic feathers, he has an umbrella with a knife or gun at the tip but not an arsenal that includes hypnotic helicopter bumbershoot, and that nuclear submarine he bought while posing as P.N. Gwynn is sadly never mentioned.
Despite my grousing earlier, it works. Even if the family fortune isn't a completely necessary element of Batman's character, it's still part of the story, and you can play it up when you need to to make things interesting. And it can be interesting, leading to a Penguin that hates Bruce Wayne as much as he hates Batman, but for separate reasons, creating an interesting dynamic that no other villain really has.
You just have to rebuild him from the ground up. Which, fortunately for the Penguin, DC just did.
The other option is to take things in another way, working to create a version of the penguin that has those classic elements of Batman's notoriously eccentric Rogues Gallery and blend it with the more recent characterization, which is exactly what they did in Batman Adventures.
Even though he was voiced by the guy who played Little Enos in Smokey and the Bandit (something I just found out last month, which delighted me to no end), Penguin was never one of my favorite villains on Batman: the Animated Series. This was probably because "Batman in my Basement" was one of those episodes that I saw so many times that I got thoroughly sick of it, and also because 1992 almost ruined the Penguin completely. There was, however, a pretty huge bright spot in The Batman Adventures #1, the first issue of Kelly Puckett and Mike Parobeck's tie-in comic that still ranks as the best Batman title of the '90s. In that story, "Penguin's Big Score," they toyed with an idea that was never really brought up on the show: That the Penguin did aspire to a sort of upper-crust classiness, but that it was all a veneer over his criminal ways. The suits and five-dollar words were just an act to make him seem more important, covering up a brutality that would always keep him down there with the common crooks that he looked down on:
As far as I know, that's the only appearance of the Penguin's word-of-the-day calendar, but it's an idea that really stuck with me, and one that I like a lot. There's a big difference between the crook who could be Bruce Wayne and the crook who wants to be Bruce Wayne. While they're both interesting, I tend to lean towards this version a little more.
Of course, there's also the third option where you just write Burgess Meredith in his purple top hat.
That works too.