Oh, Joy!

Those from the mid-eighties’ school of Bat-writing – people, in short, who are still obsessed by DKR and the terms ‘darkpain-sex’ and trenchcoat-rape’ – generally dislike the Penguin. His wacky rubber-duckmobiles and funny pear shaped gait don’t sit well with the mature reader, so he’s fallen out of favour recently. Sure, there’s the odd die hard Penguin fan out there, but his recent reinvention as a shady nightclub owner indicates that fandom in general has no interest in him as a real supervillain. And what do we say to that?

For shame!

I guarantee this: as soon as the batbooks cheer up a bit and ditch the rape-coat, the Penguin’ll make a serious comeback. If Morrison’s gonna make good on his desire to have Batman lighten up, then nothing will say it quite like a brolly-bazooka. The Penguin’s fun and he’s silly – everything the Dark (K)night people hate about the 60s TV show. Well, I love the TV show and I love the Penguin. His eccentricity? His absurdity? – these things are his strong points. And the Batverse makes perfect sense of them. Allow me to explain…

In my Harley Quinn post I mentioned that the batverse has always been, essentially, an absurd place. Bruce Wayne dons his bat-outfit, the emblem of the underworld (the realm of dream, the collective unconscious, madness and death) in order to immerse and submerge himself in, and withstand the terrible pressures of, the mythic environment. Things get very strange down there around the gibbering reefs of Arkham Asylum and the vast, tittering schools of Joker-fish. The bizzare proposition of a crime-fighting bat-man begins to seem positively tame compared with the more bendy iterations and concepts that start to emerge: rainbow monsters turning men to 2D, bat-apes and bat-mites. It’s hard to grokk, I know, but the oft repeated idea that Bruce Wayne clothing himself in head to toe, blue, pointy eared spandex is in fact a totally sane response to an insane situation is 100% on the money. Bruce doesn’t live in Burgess Hill, where setting yourself up as a flying rodent fascimile vigilante in response to watching your parents murder means you’re nuts, he lives in Gotham City where the random loopiness of existence wears white and green facepaint and sics joker missiles on yer ass -where existential dread dresses in a purple suit and runs amok and you can actually punch it in the face. In the DCU, adopting the mantle of the bat is to take the insanity on on its own territory. Batman sneaks his moral certainty and his incredible powers of reason under the loony-radar, deploying these weapons against the powers of madness and the abyss. They never see him coming because they confuse him with just another candy coloured crazy in the asylum, but the only reason he makes his home there, contrary to popular opinion, is so he can kick their collective butts.

But I digress….

The point I was trying to make before everything went googly eyed, is that the Penguin sits more than snugly in the Dark Knight’s Gotham. He’s as absurd as they come. But truth be told, I think the Penguin’s absurdity has even more of an edge than that of the Riddler’s or Mad Hatter’s. Because, well…have you ever taken a good look at him?

Before I waffle on, really give the old boy a once over.

He’s the absurd, distorted, hall-of-mirrors reflection of Bruce Wayne.

Go on, just lengthen Brucie’s nose a bit. Shrink him. Expand his mid-section. You see? Works, doesn’t it? Imagine Batman’s malformed, premature older brother and you’ve got the Penguin. Whereas Bruce is handsome, tall, healthy, athletic, strong and all his faculties are in top condition, Oswald’s ugly, squat, unfit, waddling, bloated and squishy and he needs a monocle. But the inversions are more than just skin deep. If Batman is wise, super intelligent, generous and philanthropic, then the Penguin is scheming, cunning, acquisitive and self-serving. The former’s kookiness is nothing less than grand and operatic – the stuff of Greek tragedy – but the Latter’s, with his ornithological obsessions, is just plain old batty and eccentric, a la Anne Widdecombe and her odd enthusiasm for cats.

And this leads me onto a key inversion.

Widdecombe is old school Tory, the last vanguard of the toffs and landed gentry from which milieu both Bruce Wayne and Oswald hail. Bruce, however, with his playboy lifestyle, his beneficent, charitable attitude and his supermodel girlfriend, representing today’s no. 1 cause celebre, Africa, is a cipher for the new aristocracy: the celebrity. But Oswald Cobblepot? With his stove hat and dickensian name, he’s a throwback to a different time, a different social order. He wouldn’t look out of place in a million and one BBC period dramas. Think Boris Johnson but with more brains and you’ve got the idea. Basically he’s seedy and repulsive. He’s old money making no conscession to the new. The weird etonian dinosaur. He probably thinks he has the right to take everything he steals. He’s everything Bruce would instinctively rail against.

But the distortions go even further. Instead of a billowing cape, Pengy sports a betailed dinner jacket, and he substitutes the emblem of the bat for a black, leathery, flapping umbrella. Do you remember the old Doom patrol story that featured the horseman of the apocaplypse who succumbed to the energies of dadaism and wound up as a rocking horse? Well, replace the horseman with the primal, demonic bat-creature who inspires Batman’s mission and run him through the same process. What do you get? One of the Penguins brollies, that’s what. The detournement of the bat totem finds its ultimate expression, however, in the Penguin’s predeliction for strange ineffectual birds, like his namesake and the rubber ducky. The character acts as a fucked-up lens degrading the fiercesome, airborne, befanged creature of the night until it emerges as nothing more than a flightless, waddling, slightly stupid looking beast, the stuff of which dumb-ass, Morgan Freeman narrated docu-cartoons are made.

So, yeah, on the surface of it the Penguin is laughable, but if we hop, skip and jump back a few posts to Candyfloss Horizons and my take on the Silver Surfer’s board, an entirely different picture emerges. The great thing about the odd gadgets and characters that litter comicbooks is that they can be read as not just simply silly and absurd, but also strange and other. Viewed from this angle the Penguin reveals himself almost as a sickness – all the denied, unhealthy bad ju-ju that inhabits the negative space around Bruce Wayne. Imagine if Bruce hadn’t lost his parents, if the opposite was the case, and the huge void where Mummy and Daddy used to be was filled fit to burst with overbearing parenting. That’s the Penguin. Bruce is alone, but the Penguin is the ultimate Mummy’s boy, forever craving affirmation. Just check the Greatest Stories Batman Stories Ever Told if you doubt me. Oswald’s Mother’s all over him.

If both of them are damaged little boys (the Penguin as a result of constant name calling and Mummy dearest, and Batman because of Martha and Thomas’s murder), then it’s no wonder they’re so infatuated with toys. The Penguin should always be the most gadget laden rogue. Okay, the Joker and his joker-in-the-boxes and squirting flowers works really well, but he could get by without this stuff. Not so Ozzie. His current incarnation as a nightclub boss is really missing something without all the whipping out of ‘brellacopters at every available opportunity. The Penguin’s toys, though, in contrast to Bruce’s, contain a yucky, coddled vibe. You can just picture him in the bath surrounded by quack-quacks, Mater standing beside the bath with a towel for him. There’s a constant referencing of stunted childhood about Mr. Cobblepot – a baby grown enormous, grotesque and as needy as he ever was. The Hugh Hefner of crime. But the Penguin’s sublimated the desire for the tit for a desire for cash, power and empire. And this is why he’s Gotham’s greatest – and most outlandish – gangboss.

Black Mask and the rest are cool, no doubt about it, but the Penguin has such a unique flavour. He’s that bent commissioner in Year One, with all his kitschy nicknacks, timesed by a million. The Penguin should still be surrounded by all those childhood quack-quacks, but this time they’ve got laser guided targeting systems and rocket launchers embedded in their bills. The guy’s no good in a fair fight, but that’s fine – that’s what his henchmen and razor-tipped umbrellas are for. He’s all about the wiley schemes and the quick, last minute escapes. He should always have a trap door, or an unbrellachute, or some other trick up his sleeve to thwart and evade his dark nemesis at the eleventh hour. The idea that, at this present time, he’s stuck in the backroom of a Gotham nightclub with his only nods to crime being A) his connecton to some dodgy geezers and B) the odd line of charlie off a hooker’s boobies really depresses the shit out of me. The guy should have barmy plots and intrigues dripping off his beaky nose. He should take as much fetishistic, childlike pleasure in flamingo-themed theft and criminality as Batman takes in doing up his new batmobile. They should meet at that point, almost as equals, beak to bat, and may the best beast win.

Having said that, I’ve got nothing against the Iceberg Lounge in principle, I just don’t want the Penguin to be relegated to a shady nightclub owner. He should own a nightclub in the same way the Mafia own casinos. It’s all about the respectable front and the glitz and glamour, but behind the scenes there’s some really criminal shit going on. The Cosa Nostra don’t give up on their favourite pastime just because they own some swanky property. Sure, the Penguin craves acceptance – that’s always been part of his history since the playground taunts first began – but it’s in the same mode as the mob boss who desires to present himself as a good catholic. It doesn’t mean he has to go straight. All of this stuff reeks of an attempt to shoe-horn the fnarking one into some kind of realistic context. It is in essence cowardly, unimaginative writing. To continue today’s theme, the Iceberg Lounge should be the Penguin’s fortress – his batcave – filled to the brim with robot polar bears, relics of past crimes and the rest of it. Woe betide any of Gotham’s avenging vigilantes if they make the mistake of taking the Penguin on on his own territory. The icy floor could crack at any minute, and the dynamic duo might find themselves floating on a tiny berg in the middle of a flooded dancefloor with an enormous, small scale replica of the Titanic ploughing across the water towards them. In fact what better floorshow could the Penguin provide than taking out Batman and Robin in front of an audience, lounging at their umbrella shaded tables, sipping on ice cold snowballs, the lay people among them confusing the murder attempt as nothing more than a bit of play-acted, special effects driven fun? The place has so much potential as one vast, elaborate death-trap, if only DC’s current stable of writers could see it that way.

(I found this on someone’s myspace page. A message to the creator: you, Sir, are a fool)

Oswald should be constantly punning and smirking at his own intelligence, full of self-regard, but perhaps there’s a side of him – the polar, arctic side – that enjoys the isolation, the vacation away from society, that jail affords, away from the catcalls of the crueler children and the cool kids. I like the idea that there’s the whiff of the manic personality type about him. When he’s up it’s all brollies vs Batman at dawn, but when he’s down he’s morose and contrite. That might go some way to explain away and recontextualise some writer’s attempts to reform him. Whatever, I think there’s something of Lex Luthor about the Penguin – we should feel that he only spends as much time in Jail as he fancies. He may spend that time withdrawn and quiet, clucking about his lonely cell, but when the grey snow storm lifts and he returns, he does so in style, ever the show off, making up for his inadequacies by having a giant roc show up in the prison courtyard and spirit him away.

In the end the most profound inversion Batman’s enemies represent has to be the colour they bring to Gotham City, in stark contrast to his blues, greys and blacks. They’re the neon lights of the strip joints and the casinos and the nightclubs and the bars. As I mentioned above, they’re Gotham’s gleaming, radiant underworld made flesh, buried beneath the shadowy cloak of her Dark Knight. The Penguin really is the apotheosis of this idea, and that’s why he’s a perfect foil for Batman and why he must never be relegated to the status of a second stringer. Because when Batman gazes into the wet pools left on the sidewalk after the driving rain, he sees his image warped and confused with the the glowing, blues and yellows of the red light district and the vast towering adverts projected on the superscraper’s walls, and his gaily lit shadow self winks back at him, chuckling to itself:

Fnark! Fnark! Fnark!

Perhaps the rocking horse is a trojan horse afterall?

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21 Responses to “Rogue’s Review # 3: The Penguin”

  1. The Satrap Says:

    Great “review”, insightful and to the point. The notion of Oswald as a slightly manic personality in particular is brilliant. Do allow me to add some (merely complementary) remarks…

    It’s not only fans of trench-coats and rain-drenched funerals who need to be knocked off their high horse every now and again: those of us who like to go on about modern myth, heroic rites of passage or how Bruce Wayne dons the garment of the Bat House of Xibalba and whatnot can occasionally forget that the stereotyped characters, the continuous iterations of a number of well-worn routines, the sharp distinction between masked and unmasked figures, the frivolity with which things like pain or death are treated and so forth have more in common with the overwrought schmaltz of e.g. the Commedia dell’Arte than with Greek tragedy. The Penguin teaches us to avoid the pitfalls of excessive self-seriousness and dance the Batusi.

    Obviously, his farcical exuberance also allows to accommodate all manner of meta-narrative winks and nods.

  2. The Satrap Says:

    It is strongly implicit in the essay that the Penguin should also be able to fuck with Batman’s head in a pretty massive way. For example:

    -the ludicrousness of the Penguin’s version of Batman’s obsession with toys should remind his nemesis that the game they’re playing is nothing more than an old-boys’ indulgence;

    -for the most part, the Penguin gets away with the pretence that he’s free from the emotional complications of the Batman. He tries to get even with the shadow of his mother by denying any need for affection or comradeship, and when he is feeling peppy he is convincing in his impersonation of the ultimate self-contented pragmatist;

    -nothing showcases the above better than the implication that he must be one of the (to paraphrase GM) better-sexed villains in comics. The umbrellas, the ridiculously long nose, the cigarette holders are blatant phallic symbols, and Oswald’s grin gives the lie to any suspicions of over-compensation. One of the few positive side-effects of the introduction of the Iceberg lounge are the cohorts of shapely “escorts” who accompany him. Of course, there’s an all-too familiar whiff of misogyny there (ooh, the air-headed, disreputable broads, so easily impressed by power), but there needn’t be, if we assume that Oswald engages in purely chrematistic transactions with knowing, consenting women. Of course, they wouldn’t even give him the time of day if it weren’t for the money, but for Oswald, the money he has “earned” is every bit as part of his essence as the avian motif. He is a mocking reflection of Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s wealthiest, most eligible bachelor, who nevertheless tries to delude himself into thinking that his billions are merely a means to an end, and who cannot fill the emotional void within by bedding down actresses and top models.

    -the Penguin knows how to frustrate Batman in another crucial regard: he absolutely abhors violence. This is in part due to his obvious lack of natural talent for it, and to the fact that he is infatuated with his own slickness, but it’s also a way to deny Batman’s schtick. Batman fights the fire of criminal violence with controlled fiery bursts of his own, but Oswald drinks his martini ice-cool.

    In fact, the Penguin is in a sense a waggish parody of the ultimate “libertarian” role model. Perhaps it’s not only the grim n’ gritty that explains why he’s morphed into a businessman over the last three decades; perhaps it’s a reflection of the shaky victory of neo-liberalism and Reaganomics.

  3. RAB Says:

    The Penguin as “absurd, distorted, hall-of-mirrors reflection of Bruce Wayne” is one of those insights that makes my jaw drop with awed respect. Right there you’ve got an awesome character that simultaneously works with most everything we’ve seen before but points the way to a whole new modern treatment.

    One appearance by the Penguin that really registered with me was his depiction in the Englehart/Rogers storyline in Detective. Out of all the classic villains that team used in the series — or their latter-day sequel Dark Detective — in a funny way Oswald came across as the most high-functioning and capable of the lot, the one least hampered by his own insanity. That and Burgess Meredith probably did the most to shape my sense of the character until you came up with this…

  4. Bombie Says:

    I am in awe – great writing and you gave me a completely fresh perspective on the character.

  5. Qthgrq Says:

    The waddling bird as the bat transformed had me chortling and nodding in agreement

  6. amypoodle Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, guys, but most of the ideas in the piece were as surprising and fun to me as they were to you. Somehow you never feel like you own this stuff – it’s just *out there*, floating ready to be retrieved.

  7. Matt Shepherd’s Man-Man: The Blog » Blog Archive » Thinking about comics can be fun! Says:

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  8. shep.ca: the writing work of Matt Shepherd » Blog Archive » Thinking about comics can be fun! Says:

    [...] This sort of article is why The Mindless Ones is shaping up to be the best damn comics blog on the Internet. Intelligence without wankery is sorely lacking in writing about the capes-and-tights set, and they have it in spades. [...]

  9. The Satrap Says:

    Intelligence without wankery is sorely lacking in writing about the capes-and-tights set, and they have it in spades…

    True, true. But wankery is to comics like knee ligament injuries to football. To wit, here are some wanksome pointers for the next rogue reviews that Amypoodle must, really must write soon:

    -the Scarecrow: Oswald is a cheerful, randy endomorph, the SC a bitter, unsexed ectomorph. One´s a bird, the other scares birds, and so on. Diametrically opposite perversions of the Bat-template, really. Also, it´s important to play up the hallucinogenic character of the SC´s schtick.

    -Bane: yeah, let´s go for a real challenge. How to rehabilitate the shitty Bat-nineties. The extreme mesomorph*, perversion of the Batman self-improvement and play-dirty-if-need-be-the-end-justifies-the-means ethoses. How to clear a route to Teh Weird for Bane? By playing up his grotesquery? The S&M overtones? The slightly surreal Lucha Libre angle? Could he take recreational drugs, in addition to performance-enhancing ones?

    These are the questions that Amypoodle needs to answer. For us.

    *: Oswald, the Scarecrow and Bane should found the Syndicate of Body Types, stat.

  10. The Satrap Says:

    Also, what about some non-Bat villains? White Martians, anybody?

    Thinking about White Martians is like meditation under a ficus religiosa.

  11. amypoodle Says:

    I’m doing Bane as we speak. Bane fucking rocks.

  12. KdS Says:

    I like what you suggest about the Penguin as Boris Johnson-style aristocrat, but I was equally fond of the Animated Series version where it’s made clear that he’s actually an insecure arriviste who ends up being brutally taken advantage of when he tries to mix with the real corrupt aristocracy.

  13. Qthgrq Says:

    Yes, that’s certainly the tack I would have taken, although I recognise that DCU continuity has him as a rich kid.

  14. ReverendNoah Says:

    First-rate stuff! The Penguin’s is a sort of self-aware madness. One of my favorite Penguin stories involves him kidnapping a soap opera actress because he’s become infatuated with her character on television. Back at his lair, she tries to tell him that in real life she’s nothing like her soap opera persona. The Penguin makes it clear that he’s fully aware of that fact, but demands that she play the role around him anyway. In effect, he’s saying “You play the buxom belle, and I’ll be the aristocratic gentleman-rogue. First one to break character gets a bullet in her head.”

    One of the things I hate most about the modern nightclub-owning interpretation of the Penguin is that it inflames a lot of folks’ lowest prejudices. Rather than being a cynical, leering mastermind with a grotesque wit so sharp it befuddles even Batman’s, he sort of congeals into being the fat and/or rich kid on the playground that the reader can, through Batman, vicariously bully around. To go from being Richard III to Piggy from Lord of the Flies-that’s quite a fall.

  15. Qthgrq Says:

    That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, particularly because the Penguin seldom seems to do anything villainous these days that would provide justification for said bullying. I wonder how many other characters we could apply that kind of analysis to.

  16. Rogue’s Review round-up « Mindless Ones Says:

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  17. Rogue’s Review round-up « Mindless Ones Says:

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  18. The Dark Knight, Part II - What Next? « Moving Violations Says:

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  19. Johnny Sorrow Says:

    One of my favorite Penguin stories is Penguin Triumphant, the Ostrander one-shot released in conjunction with Batman Returns. The interpretation of the character there dovetails nicely with your take– Oswald is a dark inversion of Batman, fantasizing about being receiving the same warm acceptance and attention in Gotham high-society that seems to come so easily, and so unfairly, to Bruce Wayne.

  20. Lonelyhearts Says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this ground mostly broken in the Tim Burton sequel Batman Returns? Same for what has been written about Catwoman. Oswald Cobblepot very clearly mirrors Wayne in this movie. He’s an orphan and the whole plot is driven by his advertisement of this fact.

    Likewise, Pfifer’s Catwoman was a subordinate woman pushed a little too far. She’s classier than a prostitute, but exploited still. Her soft feminine side is exploited and when finally pushed beyond her ability to sustain her lonely life she becomes exactly what we know her as, the vicious, playful, powerful, terrorist.

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