DC Histories: Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin)

Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about Oswald Cobblepot, the criminal otherwise known as the Penguin.

Showcase '94 #7 (1994) Cover

Showcase ’94 #7 (1994) Cover

Just two and a half years after Batman debuted, the Penguin made his triumphant first appearance. In the pages of Detective Comics #58, a rotund man in a tuxedo, top hat, and monocle waddled onto the scene at an art exhibit. In a surprisingly cruel moment, fellow art lover Bruce Wayne says to Dick Grayson that the fellow they’ve just seen looks just like a penguin. When two famous paintings goes missing later that evening, the tuxedoed figure makes a getaway and soon hooks up with a local mob. There, he reveals that he was the thief and asks to join their number. When asked for his name, he tells them to call him simply “The Penguin.” It’s a bit unclear if he overheard Bruce’s words earlier or if this was a name he already had in mind.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #58 (1941)

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #58 (1941)

Later in the same issue, the Penguin goes by the name “Mr. Boniface,” though it was a bit unclear in this story if that too was a pseudonym.

So began the Penguin’s criminal enterprise. Quickly, he took control of the mob and began a thriving racket around town. In his various schemes, the Penguin was aided by his large stock of trick umbrellas. From an umbrella that could shoot bullets to an umbrella that could release toxic fumes, the Penguin’s pudgy exterior hid a homicidal madman. During one of the first times that the Penguin met Batman and Robin in battle, the Penguin even shot deadly acid at the Dynamic Duo. It missed them and struck one of his own henchmen directly in the face. This horrific attack wasn’t dwelt upon in the story, but it made the Penguin a surprisingly harsh villain.

Quickly, the Penguin became one of Batman’s regular foes. The very next issue after his debut, he again appeared to battle the Dark Knight. Though he was more apt to use range weapons against his foes, the Penguin was no slouch in melee combat. In fact, during an early battle, the Penguin pulled out a sword from a nearby trick umbrella and nearly took Batman’s head off.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #59 (1942)

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #59 (1942)

The Penguin was so much of a mainstay during this time period that he even began showing up alongside Batman’s other villains. During a particularly memorable adventure, the Penguin and the Joker began a series of crimes attempting to one-up the other. Their contest eventually devolved into a series of trick shots involving shooting shot glasses on the Dynamic Duo’s heads. The entire scene was an example of Batman using the Penguin’s natural inferiority complex against him.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #25 (1944)

From Batman (Vol. 1) #25 (1944)

As tended to happen with so many of Batman’s foes after the first few years of the Golden Age, the Penguin softened. Instead of shooting rival gangsters or attempting to burn his enemies with acid, the Penguin started shooting nets out of his umbrellas or using them to make a quick getaway in the form of a personal helicopter or parachute. He was no longer a cut-throat villain but more of a rogue who just liked stealing things.

This cuddlier Penguin was on full display during the story that revealed his true name. No parent legally names their child “Penguin” so it came as no surprise to Batman that the Penguin had another name. However, it was a surprise what form that name took. In the pages of the Batman newspaper strip that ran for only a few years in the 1940s, the Penguin was found stealing a letter addressed to someone named Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot. It was soon discovered that this was the Penguin’s true name.

From Batman newspaper strip (February 17, 1946)

From Batman newspaper strip (February 17, 1946)

This story involved Batman and Robin putting on a show for Oswald’s visiting aunt who was convinced that her nephew was an angel. It was a slight, comedic tale but one that was quickly shown to be in-continuity when the Penguin’s civilian name was ported over to Batman’s monthly periodicals.

For the rest of the 1940s, Penguin remained a thorn in Batman’s side. Between Batman, Detective Comics, and World’s Finest Comics, Oswald appeared several times a year. His obsession with both umbrellas and birds remained his calling card. After 1956, the Penguin appeared to drop off the face of the Earth. Stories featuring Batman fighting outer space aliens and other science fiction tales were all the rage. Only after the Batman books were revived under Julie Schwartz with his “New Look” did the Penguin once again become a villain to remember.

The Penguin’s status was also helped by Burgess Meredith taking on the role of Oswald Cobblepot in the extremely successful 1960s Batman television show. In the series’ third episode, Meredith made his debut.

In a series full of scenery chewers, Burgess Meredith was among the chewiest. It made for a fun take on the Penguin and one in line with what had been done with the character in the preceding decades.

The next few years saw the Penguin regain his position as a regular foe of the Dark Knight. He would continue to strike here and there, mostly as a thief obsessed with birds. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the DCU, the resulting universe became darker and less savory. In this new universe, a proper origin story for Oswald was finally given. In a story written by Alan Grant with evocative art by Sam Keith, Oswald’s lonely childhood was revealed. Mocked by his peers, a young Oswald Cobblepot felt entirely alone.

From Secret Origins Special #1 (1989)

From Secret Origins Special #1 (1989)

This rejection spurred Oswald to become the cold, unfeeling criminal he would later become. He also became obsessed with proving the nay-sayers wrong. As Batman pointed out the following year, if Oswald simply gave others his plans, he would be much more successful. By needing to carry out his schemes himself, he was constantly finding himself on the loosing end of battles with Batman.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #448 (1990)

From Batman (Vol. 1) #448 (1990)

Oswald’s need to feel important drove him to even kidnap Sarah Essen, Commissioner Jim Gordon‘s wife, at one point. During a scathing dressing-down, Jim pointed out that Oswald only does the things he does in order to make someone important, like Batman, notice him.

From Showcase '94 #7 (1994)

From Showcase ’94 #7 (1994)

Soon, Oswald realized that being the face of crime wasn’t getting him anywhere. Taking Batman’s advice, he began crafting intricately designed crimes that others would follow through on. The man with the bird obsession was now happy to do all the planning ahead of time but allow others to really get their hands dirty. Tracing the crimes back to him was suddenly much more difficult.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #683 (1995)

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #683 (1995)

It was also during this time period that Oswald began to embrace respectability. He opened a nightclub named the Iceburg Lounge that served meals, had classy dancing, and had an ice-themed atmosphere. It was also a lovely front to launder money, which Oswald quickly did.

From Gotham Underground #1 (2007)

From Gotham Underground #1 (2007)

It was in the Iceberg Lounge where Oswald became a full-time mobster again. He finally had a base of operations from which to plan his various dealings. As long as the Lounge looked respectable, he could easily pay off Gotham’s finest and keep his operations nicely flowing. But, with this new found place as the head of a gang, Oswald could no longer take on the members of the Bat-family in combat. After all, it simply wouldn’t do to have his businessman persona exposed for the sham it was. So, he was much more likely to turn tail and run during encounters than to take out a sword umbrella and fight hand-to-hand.

Batgirl (Vol. 1) #62 (2005)

From Batgirl (Vol. 1) #62 (2005)

Oswald has remained much the same in the New 52. A miniseries which launched shortly after the world was reset in Flashpoint showed a slightly different origin for Oswald. As it had been shown before, Oswald’s childhood was a poor one thanks to his appearance and his home life. Now, it revealed that Oswald killed his three brothers and father because of their hateful bullying. Only his mother seemed to love the young Penguin so only she was allowed to live.

From Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #2 (2012)

From Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #2 (2012)

Recently, a challenge to Oswald’s throne was revealed. A henchmen named Ignatius Ogilvy became Oswald’s right-hand man in his criminal enterprise. However, Ignatius eventually betrayed Oswald and took over the Penguin’s holdings. He quickly became Gotham’s crime boss and called himself Emperor Penguin.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 2) #15 (2013)

From Detective Comics (Vol. 2) #15 (2013)

After a battle with Batman, Ignatius found himself in Blackgate Prison where he currently resides.

Oswald remains one of Batman’s most persistent enemies. As the years have gone on, he’s changed with the times to a great degree. From petty thief to supervillain to comedic foil to gangster mastermind, Oswald has done it all. He’ll continue to hound Batman for as long as Batman needs criminals to fight and foes to outwit, which should be for a very long time indeed.

 


Jeff Reid didn’t much care for the version of the Penguin seen in Batman Returns so he didn’t talk about him here. That version didn’t have much of an impact on the comic versions anyway. Feel free to yell at him about that decision on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I remember Josh mentioning a Penguin one shot written by Jason Aaron that was supposed to be fantastic, anyone got the name?

  2. I know it’s his thing now, but I’m kinda sick of Oswald judging everything behind the scenes. I liked the version in “The Batman” where he could go to toe with Bats and had some kind of laser chain in his umbrella. The New 52 version doesn’t have to be like that, but I just wish he was more proactive. Entertaining article none the less!

  3. I have always, always HATED this character. He is just ridiculous. Nothing redeeming. He’s a joke.

    Until I played Batman:Arkham City. The Penguine was genuinely terrifying in that game. More than Bane, Joker, Solomon Grundy, Riddler…He was legitmately scary as hell. He may have been a reskinned version of a bad guy from “Snatch” or something, but he was FANTASTIC.

    Not everything needs to be grim and gritty, but in his case, it really worked for me.

  4. Thanks for another great history article. I love these!