Friday, February 7, 2020

Is Pain and Prejudice the Definitive Penguin Story?

At a recent author event promoting his latest novel INTO THE FIRE, Gregg Hurwitz was asked how he became one of the writers on a monthly Batman comic book. His answer was simple: I wanted to write the definitive Penguin story.

Can You Name a Penguin Comic Story?

He made an interesting couple of points in discussing his Penguin mini-series, Pain and Prejudice. One was The Killing Joke. For nearly every comic reader, that 1989 one-shot by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is the definitive story on the Joker and his backstory. To Hurwitz's mind, Oswald Cobblepot, AKA The Penguin, didn't have one. I've been reading comics for forty-five years, and the only Penguin thing that comes to mind is the cover of Batman #228 that I owned (and still own) as a child...yet I can't think of the story at all.

Granted, I can easily remember numerous Penguin episodes from the Adam West Batman TV series from the 1960s. Who doesn't think of Burgess Meredith when you hear about Batman's rogue, The Penguin?

In fact, the more I thought of it, the only other Penguin story that comes to mind is Batman Returns, the 1992 Tim Burton film. I can't even narrow down a Penguin-centric episode from The Animated Series. Yes, the Penguin was a central figure from the TV show Gotham, but I only watched the first season, but I enjoyed what I saw of Robin Lord Taylor's performance.

But when it comes to the comics, I honestly can't think of a Penguin story.

Hurwitz was onto something.

Is The Penguin Sane?

The other, and more interesting point, was Hurwitz's comment that the Penguin was the only sane Batman villain. That one gave me pause. Clearly the Joker is bonkers. Ra's al Ghul is insane only insofar as what he wants to accomplish. The Riddler had a makeover a decade or so ago into a hyper-intelligent adversary to Batman, but insane? Not sure. Two-Face? Probably. 

The only argument I could make for a sane villain is Mr. Freeze, the version created by Paul Dini. He was driven to find a cure to save his wife, making him commit crimes to fund his research. Oh, and Catwoman. Almost every version, she's just on the edge of criminality.

But the point is well taken: Penguin is unique among the rogues gallery. So how does Pain and Prejudice hold up?

Pain and Prejudice: The Mini-Series

With art by Szymon Kudranski, Hurwitz delivers a five-part mini-series published in 2011, soon after the huge New 52 event (when DC Comics restarted its universe). Oswald Cobblepot is a crime boss, no a crime lord. In dark-hued panels, we get to see how Cobblepot rules his empire: through fear and whispers. What Cobblepot wants, Cobblepot gets.

Interspersed through the main story, Hurwitz gives us flashbacks to Oswald's upbringing and childhood. We learn the events that made him the formidable crime lord he is, and what he did to get there. The color palette for the present-day story is very dark and black. The flashbacks, however, are sepia tone. Nice touch.

What's compelling is the fear that runs through the story. You see how people stumble over themselves to stay in the Penguin's good graces. You also see how he deals with those who cross him, even if the cross is merely a mis-stated word. The Penguin doesn't do anything to you. He just does things to your family.

What changes the story is when Batman shows up. Now, everyone can see what Cobblepot himself truly fears. Not only that, his stature is diminished by Batman. Now, Cobblepot's hatred grows.

A side story is his own yearning to look good and be accepted. He's still the craggy nosed guy you see in the Animated Series and other comics (and a little of Danny DeVito's version minus the flipper hands) He has no love life until he meets Cassandra, a blind woman who views herself as something less than perfect (as do others who make fun of her). Definitely playing up the 'prejudice' aspect of the title.

Hurwitz gives us good dialogue between Cassandra and Oswald and the budding relationship. But Oswald won't let her touch his face in order for her to "see" him. He prefers she keep her image of him as perfect as possible. The panel Kudranski draws when Cobblepot realizes this is almost heartbreaking. Almost. We are talking a ruthless criminal here.

Naturally, Cobblepot's machinations afoul of Batman and there is a confrontation. Along the way, however, we see the genesis of the monocle, the umbrellas, and why he loves birds and penguins so much. He's got a knack for gadgets so there are things Batman must fight. Throughout this sequence--and, indeed, the entire run--the art is fantastic. I especially loved the onomatopoeia of the sound effects.

The Verdict

So, is Pain and Prejudice the definitive story of Oswald Cobblepot, AKA The Penguin? Yeah, it is. Hurwitz and Kudranski give us not just a story of a hero and villain, but of two antagonists, filled with depth and pathos (well, at least from Cobblepot's point of view). We know Batman's story, and I like how he's used here. He is The Other, the shadowed one, the more perfect man opposite Cobblepot's shorter, imperfect specimen.

I enjoyed Pain and Prejudice. Now I want to read the other Batman titles Hurwitz wrote to see how he handled The Dark Knight himself as well as other members of the Bat-Family.

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