The Penguin(pop culture)
“The Man of 1,000 Umbrellas”—the plundering Penguin—belies the stereotype of the fearsome supervillain. He is obese, smokes, dresses as if he's stepping out for a night at the opera, surrounds himself with birds, and wields bumbershoots as weapons. Despite his comical appearance, the Penguin has remained one of the Batman's feistiest foes since his first appearance in DC Comics' Detective Comics #58 (1941). Legend offers conflicting stories behind the creation of this waddling wrongdoer. Batman creator Bob Kane cited the cartoon penguin icon for Kool cigarettes as the villain's inspiration, while Batman's unsung champion, ghostwriter Bill Finger, remarked that he found his felonious muse in emperor penguins, the stately yet stout birds that resemble tuxedoed men. Another contradicting report is the five-page tale “The True Story of Batman and Robin,” published in DC's Real Fact Comics #5 (1947), which suggests that Kane dreamt up the Penguin upon spying a portly “eccentric fellow” strolling with an unopened umbrella on a blisteringly sunny day. From whichever roost the Penguin hatched, his motivations are clear: to feather his nest with ill-gotten gain, much to the consternation of Gotham City's guardians, Batman and Robin. To achieve this goal, the Penguin employs an arsenal of trick umbrellas specially outfitted for the cagey bird's menacing brand of fowl play. When cornered in a heist by the meddlesome Dynamic Duo, the Penguin might brandish a pyro-parasol, forcing Batman and Robin to dodge a jet of flame; a machine-gun umbrella, spraying a hail of gunfire at the heroes; or an acid-squirting bumbershoot for a potentially lethal big splash. The tip of the Penguin's umbrella is razor-sharp, and he's not averse to using it when making a point. When all else fails and escape is his only option, some type of getaway umbrella is always at his fingertips, from a spring-coiled “pogo-rella” to a jet-propelled rocketumbrella to a rotor-blade helicopter-umbrella. The Penguin's parasol fixation harkens back to his childhood, when, as Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, he was forced to carry an umbrella at all times at the behest of his overprotective mother, who worried he might take ill from exposure to the elements. Podgy and beak-nosed, young Cobblepot was egged on by classmates who mercilessly derided him, nicknaming him “Penguin.” The ostracized Oswald had no friends, save the feathered ones at his mother's bird shop. From this kinship he was inspired to study ornithology in college, but after the passing of his mother and the bank foreclosure of the family's shop, Cobblepot turned to crime. Motivated by the desire to profit from a society that had rejected him, he becomes the Penguin, Gotham's most dapper and deadly thief. But not too deadly. Despite his perilous umbrella arsenal, during comics' Golden Age (1938–1954) the Penguin was essentially a comic foil to the Dynamic Duo. He was Batman's most gentlemanly adversary, tipping his hat to his caped foe, and he sometimes employed henchmen to do his dirty work. The Penguin toddled through several tales a year in the pages of Batman, Detective, and World's Finest Comics, in mirthful romps with titles like “Four Birds of a Feather” (Batman #11, 1942), “The Penguin's Nest” (Batman #36, 1946), and “The Umbrellas of Crime” (Detective #134, 1948), comfortably predictable crime capers featuring either birds or umbrellas (or both). The cover to Detective #67 (1942), depicting “The Man Who Uses Birdlore for Banditry” escaping his Bat-foes by riding an ostrich, proved that Penguin stories were not to be taken seriously. By the end the Golden Age, Batman's colorful rogues' gallery was being supplanted by gangsters and alien invaders, and after “The Golden Eggs” in Batman #99 (1956), the Penguin migrated into limbo. Bill Finger, along with artists Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris, resurrected the flabby felon in Batman #155 (1963) in a story appropriately titled “The Return of the Penguin.” Cobblepot, flustered by the scoffs of underworld incorrigibles who regarded him a has-been, emerged from retirement by taking to the skies in his “Penguin's Roc,” a penguin-shaped dirigible. During the superhero boom of the mid-1960s, the Penguin became one of comics' most recognizable supervillains after Burgess Meredith's portrayal of the character in ABC's live-action Batman series (1966–1968). Decked out in black tails and a purple top hat, Meredith's fanciful birdlike sway captivated viewers, as did his famous Penquin “quack.” That sound, as the actor once revealed in an interview with journalist James H. Burns, was the result of Meredith's allergy to cigarette smoke: “The smoke would get caught in my throat. Since I didn't want to constantly ruin takes by coughing out loud—which the smoke forced me to do—I developed the Penguin's ‘quack, quack' to cover it.” Meredith's Penguin appeared in more Batman episodes than any other supervillain, and teamed with the Joker, Catwoman, and the Riddler in the motion-picture spin-off of the series, Batman (1966). Thanks to this wave of popularity, the Penguin's paunchy puss was plastered onto a bonanza of Batman-related merchandising. He was one of many Bat-villains appearing on trading cards, plastic coins, and board games, but unlike his fellow fiends he was the only Batman villain immortalized as a plastic model kit, courtesy of model-maker Aurora. A flock of Penguin reprints from the 1950s was gathered in Batman vs. the Penguin (Signet Books, 1966), the fourth of six quickie paperbacks capitalizing on the Batman craze. The villain also fought Batman and Robin in “The Penguin's Fowl Play,” one of a series of sixteen-page Batman mini-comic giveaways in 1966 boxes of Kellogg's Pop Tarts. After the cancellation of the live-action Batman, the hero leapt into animation in CBS's The Batman/Superman Hour (1968–1969) and The Adventures of Batman and Robin (1969–1970), and the Penguin fluttered to his side, appearing in such episodes as “In Again Out Again Penguin” and “Two Penguins Too Many.” The Penguin found TV animation a popular perch: he appeared in short Batman cartoons running during the premier season (1970) of Sesame Street; teamed with the Joker to fight Batman, Robin, and the Scooby-Doo gang in The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972–1974); and was a recurring adversary in The New Adventures of Batman (1977–1978), in episodes that would be rebroadcast for several more seasons under various Batman show incarnations. Also during the 1970s, the Penguin was heavily merchandized as action figures (in a variety of sizes) from the Mego Toy Corp., and on sew-on clothing patches, 7-11 Slurpee cups, and Pepsi drinking glasses available at fast-food outlets. He appeared in comic-book ads for Hostess Twinkies, and in 1977— in perhaps the oddest incarnations ever conceived for supervillains—sang and danced with other DC heroes and villains in the traveling stage show Bugs Bunny Meets the Super-Heroes and water-skied in Seaworld's Salute to the DC Super-Heroes. The Penguin was not treated as well in his host medium of comics. In the early 1970s DC Comics rejected the campiness of Batman's television heyday and returned the hero to his moody “creature of the night” roots, making the jovial Penguin an uncomfortable fit in this noir-ish world. He still surfaced for a token, nostalgic appearance from time to time throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even returning to television in 1985 as a villain on The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, a tie-in to Kenner Toys' Super Powers action-figure line, which included a Penguin figure. In “The Killing Peck” in Secret Origins Special #1 (1989), the Penguin was given a harsher edge, his brutality spawned by repressed hatred for those who tormented him during his youth. Three years later, director Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) thrust the Penguin back into the media spotlight in a horrifying interpretation portrayed by Danny DeVito. A sewer-dwelling freak of nature, DeVito's gruesome, sludge-slobbering Penguin reportedly frightened young filmgoers and enraged their mothers—much to the chagrin of McDonald's, which had licensed the villain for Happy Meals toys. The darker tone of Batman Returns aside, the movie managed to borrow two bits from the live-action Batman series (the Penguin running for mayor and stealing the Batmobile), but nearly lost its footing with its absurd climax featuring thousands of penguins armed with missiles. The Burton Penguin was softened for the fall 1992 debut of the long-running Batman: The Animated Series, with Paul Williams voicing the debonair racketeer. The Penguin was back on the tube in a new animated series, the WB's The Batman (2004–- present), with actor Tom Kenny in the role. In the 1999 multi-part story “No Man's Land,” serialized through DC's Batman family of titles, Gotham City was devastated by an earthquake, allowing the opportunistic Penguin to reap obscene profits by gouging citizens and criminals alike on grossly overpriced necessities. In the 2000s the Penguin operates a covert crime cartel under the auspices of his legitimate business ventures, including the Gotham hotspot the Iceberg Lounge. Batman, however, knows that the Penguin cannot be trusted and forever keeps the Man of 1,000 Umbrellas under his watchful eye.
The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.