Review: Penguin: Pain & Prejudice #1

Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot was born physically ugly, and life made the rest of him match his face.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #1

For many years, The Penguin has been one of the odd men out in Batman's rogues gallery.  He's the one villain you couldn't really make cool, because half the point of is existence is that he's not cool.  Heath Ledger can make the Joker sexy, and people would clamor for Johnny Depp to play the Riddler, but the Penguin is either Burgess Meredith or Danny DeVito and pretty much nobody else.  He couldn't really carry a story himself anymore, as he'd become kind of a comedy throwback in a ain't-we-cool modern Batworld.  Every comedian's Dick Cheney impression is a Penguin impression for a reason.  He'd settled into a great little niche in he DCU, being Gotham City's premiere underworld information broker and smuggler, but that left him as more of a plot device than a full-fledged character.

That all may change with Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, a new miniseries from writer Gregg Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudranski, making it either the 53rd or 54th #1 in the DCnU, depending on whether or not you want to order this and Huntress #1 alphabetically.  This isn't a bumbling buffoon, a garrulous gadfly or an annoyingly alliterative albatross.  This is Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, an absolutely ruthless criminal powerhouse forged from a lifetime of abuse and isolating misery.

As much as we've all enjoyed the goofier aspects of the character, Hurwitz strips most of them away and still gives us a deeply compelling and highly disturbing story about a man who survived a cold, unforgiving upbringing of mockery and derision to become such a powerful figure in the Gotham City underworld that a mere gesture gives commands, and a few simple words can destroy lives. 

From the opening pages, where his father actually drops him in horror as an newborn due to the natural deformity of his nose, and throughout his childhood where he was treated with absolute disdain and cruelty by everyone save his mother, we see just how his current state of being was forged.  He is completely aware that his money and power are the only reasons he can maintain his present world of being feared and revered by everyone he comes across, and he is not in any way hesitant to wield that power to destroy anyone who inflicts even the slightest indignity upon him.  The tearful waitress who accidentally spilled a little champagne on his sleeve is a testament to that, as is the suffering and ruination of the fool who almost called him a 'fat-ass' before realizing who he was and ineffectually groveling in apology.  The only compassion he has time for is what he devotes to his aged, infirm mother, as it is heavily implied that he has killed his heartless father and brothers.  That compassion is so singular that it extends to having people murdered for high-end jewelry to give to her. 

This is the best kind of villain – he does horrible things, but you can almost completely understand why he does them.  The world has been nothing but cold to him, so he became determined to be the coldest he could be in return.  Hurwitz's work in crafting this world of Cobblepot's absolute power not only succeeds in giving us a chilling new appreciation for this much-mocked man, but it's so damn effective that when Batman crashes in at the end and completely disregards all that eggshell-walking fearful reverence that everyone else around the Penguin has, it makes the Dark Knight seem ten times more awesome and ballsy than we already know him to be.  And the sheer indignity it inflicts on Cobblepot makes it completely understandable why he'll immediately despise the Batman and want him humbled with a vengeance.

The art from Kudranski is amazing in its heavy shadow and stark contrasts, expertly detailing the heavy mood of this character study, helping us understand why so many people fear the wrath of the Penguin.  This is a story that relies heavily on facial expressions to drive home its impact, and Kudranski doesn't only drive it home – he drives it right through the living room window. 

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #1 is a fantastic piece of work which excels both in writing and visuals, and I can't wait to see how the rest of this series pans out.  The only reason this isn't a 10/10 is that I will miss the vivid vocabulary of the more avidly alliterative apperception of the character.  That's hardly fair, but hey, reviews rarely are, either.