What They Say:
Bestselling author Gregg Hurwitz examines the painful and dark past of one of Batman’s most devious foes. How did young Oswald Cobblepot go from being the apple of his mother’s eye to the leader of underworld gangs and adversary of The Caped Crusader?
Writer: Gregg Hurwitz
Artist: Szymon Kudranski
With my intention of trying most if not all of what DC Comics puts out in their New 52 line of books, one of the things I shied away from in single issue form was this series, Penguin: Pain and Prejudice. The character has been around since forever at this point and we’ve certainly seen a lot of interpretations within the comics themselves over the decades never mind the old TV series and the Tim Burton movie. So when a new miniseries was hitting as part of the New 52 launch, I’ll admit I cringed since it’s a character that just has never felt right to me. The general idea isn’t bad with him and his overall story, but with all the quirks that have been made larger through comedy and the like over the years, especially with his style of speech, it’s just plainly hard to take him seriously. And when you have a character that inhabits such a grim city and serious setting like the Batman world, that’s dangerous.
With this series by crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudranski, we get a take on the character that’s been part of its fabric for an age but treated in a way that would allow him to fit in the Christopher Nolan movie universe. Oswald Cobblepot is a man with a lot of pain in his life as we see through the five issues here. Each of them weaves the story in the past and present as we see his birth and the way his disfigured body kept his father from loving him. With several brothers, he suffered a good deal under their abuse,and that of others as well since he was in a family of wealth and looks are very important among both young and old alike. Seeing him as a meek young boy, very introverted and kept as close to his mother as he can as she continued to adore him, it paints him in a particular light that’s definitely easy to connect with. It’s broad strokes, but the details of it are very well done.
Within his life, we see some of those early encounters in the playground, at school and as he grew up a bit more and was set upon by all those that just wanted to attack him for his looks and strangeness. The shaping of his young life is like many villain origin stories over the years – and quite a few heroes as well – where he’s bullied, picked upon and just generally not dealing well with it. The harshness to it isn’t really overstated, but with the artwork for it here and the sepia style design, it just gives it that proper flair of realism that weights it properly. You can see why Oswald went like he did, especially as there really was no turning point where he could have ended up on the side of good. Everything kept hitting him and making it worse and with the way he grew up because of the people around him, the chance simply was never there.
While we get a good bit of the past, it’s seeing the Oswald of the present that hits its marks even better. Known as the Penguin, though not really called it to his face, he’s created a significant criminal empire in Gotham where he has clubs, plenty of less than savory people to work for him and an extensive fencing business as well. He operates in a certain way that has him known well by the police and people like Batman as well, which isn’t exactly a gray area to be sure, but it’s something that he works to his advantage. When he cares. What we get from Oswald here is that he does a lot of what he does for a couple of reasons. One of them is that with his mother being his only surviving relative, and not doing well at that, he gets her whatever he thinks she needs and adorns her in jewels and the like. This volume follows that pain of his youth, the connection with her in a big way that’s carried through to the present, and how he’s worked into the empire that he has.
One of the biggest things that have stuck with me over the years are all the “waughs” and the like of his speech, the waving of the umbrella, the bright purple suit and the top hat. He had his various gang members and always an empire of some sort. But here, he has that real threat of presence and a methodology for enforcing it that is just brutal to watch. When someone just bumps into him in his club and starts to insult him before he realizes who it is, he puts him through his paces and pretty much anyone one or two degrees away from him in his life. He does this a few times in the series, and shows it from the opposite angle as well where he does something very good for someone, Getting the two sides definitely helps, it shows that he really does have a heart and cares between that and his mother, but seeing the lengths he goes to in order to ruin someone is just brutal. It’s the kind of mob boss mentality that’s fascinating and utterly scary to watch.
What this book does do though is to go beyond the origin story and work the present day material to show how he fits into the world of Gotham to some degree. It brings Batman in as it should, along with a bit of Commissioner Gordon, bu it doesn’t overplay it. In fact, we even get a bit of Joker time as well that provides some spot on comedic relief in a way that also doesn’t overplay it. The use of Batman works well for most of it since it’s just a few shadowy scenes where he watches him, instead allowing the book to focus on what it is that Oswald is doing, but it kind of falls apart towards the end as it turns into an action piece, something that I don’t think it needed to do as just having Batman stop him in some way and bring him in would have sufficed. It’s a mix of a clunky ending and less than clear artwork at that stage that didn’t allow it to come together well. I did like the part of the arc before it where he had gained himself a real girlfriend for awhile, a blind woman whom he still hid himself from, as it shows a more humble and open form of him in a way. But there was also a mildly rushed aspect as well which the action part just made all the more apparent.
While there are issues I have with how the book ended in the main miniseries, I thoroughly enjoyed Penguin: Pain and Prejudice overall. Hurwitz brings a great and engaging voice to the character that really needed that crime novelist approach to show us a twisted kind of mob boss without him going over the top and becoming a super caricature of himself. The movements between past and present are very well done and always clear and they balanced each other very, very well. The book also draws on some pre-New 52 material with a short story in the back from the Joker’s Asylum gig that ran back in 2008 and that fits in very, very well with what Hurwitz did here. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Penguin, but this book definitely gave me an incarnation of the character that works exceedingly well. Very recommended.