I’m not going to lie—the Joker is my most favorite Batman villain ever, case closed. But, that doesn’t mean there’s not a little room in my heart for other members of Batman’s rogues gallery. Thus, I gave Penguin: Pain and Prejudice a try and I was impressed. I don’t want to go so far as to say that readers will empathize or feel sorry for one Oswald Cobblepot, but this trade paperback — a collection of the original magazine issues 1-5 as well as a cute little short story narrated by my #1 villain, the Joker — will certainly entrance readers with the story of Oswald’s sad sack childhood and ultimately disappointing life as an adult. This is a true origin story that starts with the young Cobblepot’s birth and moves through his troubles with family, school, classmates, and ultimately the world. Batman makes a few rare appearances throughout, but this is really Penguin’s story, a story of heartbreak, loss, anger, cunning, and love. Yes, the Penguin can love, but will his hatred and vengeance kill whatever chance he has to live a happy life?
I knew the bare bones of Penguin’s story, but I think my knowledge might have only come from Danny DeVito’s portrayal of him in Batman Returns. So I was excited to see just how and why Oswald turned into the Penguin. This book does a great job of getting readers invested in Oswald from the beginning of his life to the point where you might almost feel like his anger and resentment is justified, based on how painful his life was as he grew up. Born to a mother that cherished him, but a father and three brothers who hated and taunted him mercilessly, he turned to birds for company and commiseration. He was horribly teased in school due to his beak-like nose and his shortness of height, but those who caused him harm got theirs in the end—everyone who wronged Oswald was punished by the Penguin. Then, one day, he sees Cassandra at the zoo. She is blind and loves Oswald for his personality and his loving nature. Yet, Oswald can’t seem to let the Penguin go, and it might be that the Penguin will crush any chance of real happiness that Oswald has.
This book is visually dark and foreboding, which perfectly echoes the life of the Penguin. The coloring sticks to sepia tones throughout, and even when there is lightness, it seems muddied in grey. Artists Szymon Kudranski & John Kalisz provide a good combination of bigger and smaller panels, allowing for tighter close up shots as well as panoramic views of certain scenes. Since this book is a retrospective account of Penguin’s life, there are quite a few flashbacks showing readers his life as a child. The illustration styles differ slightly between the past and the present, which makes it easier to tell what is happening when. The drawings of young Oswald are almost like old-timey pictures. It’s like they’ve been weathered and aged, the colors are kept quite neutral, but still shown through the sepia lens. The illustrations showing modern day are just a bit different, more of the traditional comic book style drawings — cleaner, crisper lines, clearer pictures, but still using sepia overtones. There’s a lot of talking in this book, so thankfully the thought bubbles and boxes are thoughtfully placed and easy to follow. I was confused with Cassandra and her little asides. I wasn’t sure if she was muttering under her breath or just thinking these thoughts, but it wasn’t a big enough deal to take me out of the story.
Included at the end of issues 1-5 written by Gregg Hurwitz and illustrated by Szymon Kudranski and John Kalisz is a short story, “The Penguin in ‘He Who Laughs Last…!’” written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Jason Pearson. What a perfect little vignette to include at the end. A tiny, sad tale from the Penguin’s life that demonstrates that he can and does find love, but allows his hatred and meanness to overcome it in the end. The illustrations are vibrantly colored and the panels are very easy to follow. The style is more of a cartoony realism style of drawing. The people look real enough, but not so real that they mimic the photographic nature of the previous stories in the book. It provides just another disturbing look into the life of Oswald that will leave readers with conflicting emotions about the life of this career criminal.
Penguin: Pain and Prejudice is a great story of Oswald Cobblepot and his descent into unchecked rage and villainy. It’s a good stand-alone story that is terrifically illustrated and which many readers will enjoy if they want a break from Batman-centered stories.