Your Dad Was a Jerk Too, Huh? – A Penguin: Pain and Prejudice Review
TITLE: Penguin: Pain and Prejudice
AUTHOR: Gregg Hurwitz, Jason Aaron
PENCILLER: Szymon Kudranski, Jason Pearson
COLLECTS: Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #1-5
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
RELEASE DATE: September 19, 2012
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Longtime Batman fans know that in the modern era, most of the more famous members of his iconic rogues gallery were given a certain sympathetic element to their origin stories. Mr. Freeze longs to be reunited with his wife, Bane was born and raised in a prison, the Riddler’s dad was a jerk, we’ve recently found out the Scarecrow’s dad was a jerk (in another Gregg Hurwitz story no less.). Even the maniacal Joker was made into a man desperately trying to provide for his family in The Killing Joke. The idea is that, had he reacted differently to the tragedy that consumed his life, Bruce Wayne could have become any of these characters himself. Most of Batman’s villains are all skewed mirror images of himself.
In Pain and Prejudice, Gregg Hurwitz and Szymon Kudranski take the sympathetic side to the Penguin’s character and supercharge it, making him more emotionally accessible than ever, but at the same time more cruel and conniving than ever. The book takes us back to Oswald Cobblepot’s childhood. His strange hook nose and his short stature made him a target for mockery and degradation not only by his peers, but by his brothers, and even his own father. His only source of love and affection was his doting mother, which left him with something of an Oedipus complex. In the present day, we see the Penguin get involved with a blind woman, who obviously can’t see his physical deformity. We also see him plot to strike back at one of humanity’s greatest sources of cruelty: children.
Also included in this collection is the Penguin issue of the widely popular Joker’s Asylum miniseries. Written by Jason Aaron and pencilled by Jason Pearson, it obviously served as the inspiration for Pain and Prejudice. It also involves the Penguin trying to find love and acceptance, but this time we flash back to his high school days.
From a writing standpoint, what I really admire about this book is that both Hurwitz and Aaron make the Penguin more sympathetic and relatable than he’s ever been in any medium, but they don’t allow the audience to forgive him for being a villain. The latter is so very important. The Penguin is the hero of this story, but he is not a hero. This book shows us that despite his physical deformity, Oswald Cobblepot is capable of finding the love and happiness that have evaded him all his life. But because he can’t let go of his anger and his vindictiveness, he ruins those opportunities whenever they arise. In the end, his greatest enemy isn’t Batman, or any of the people who have shunned him for being different. The Penguin is his own undoing, the cause of his own misery. And he’ll never be able to change that because those elements that prevent him from welcoming a decent person into his world are now a part of who he is. In a sense, that makes him the most tragic of all Batman’s enemies. He’s not insane like the others, he’s simply a man who can’t allow himself any peace or happiness.
In my “First Impression” of this story, I said that from a stylistic standpoint it was reminiscent of what Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo did in Joker. But unlike Joker, the creators took very few liberties with the Penguin’s classic look. As this story coincided with the start of the “New 52″ initiative, they easily could have. But they didn’t turn him into a weird sewer monster like Tim Burton and the Batman Returns guys. They didn’t shove a beer bottle into his head like the Arkham City guys. Kudranski gave him more of a hooked nose than we’re used to, but that’s about it. I think creators generally try to mess with the Penguin because, unlike most of the other villains, readers want to laugh at him. He’s short, he’s pudgy, he has a funny name, he tends to wear purple pants, yet he dresses like an old fashioned gentleman. He’s funny looking! But in a strange way I think that makes the character more interesting. This goofy cartoon character turns out to be one of the most sadistic, cruel bastards you’ve ever met! He instills fear in most of the other characters in this book, and that fear comes from the most unlikely of sources.
You can argue that the end of Pain and Prejudice went off the rails a little bit. I didn’t really buy the way the story with the blind woman ended. Though it was certainly fitting it might have been a bit too on-the-nose for me. Hurwitz’s portrayal of Batman seemed a bit off too. But on the whole, its raw and powerful emotional center will make Pain and Prejudice one of the essential Penguin stories in the Batman mythology for the foreseeable future. Despite having feuded with Batman for almost 70 years now, Penguin doesn’t necessasrily get a lot of moments to shine as a character. But he certainly got one here.
Front page image from talking comicbooks.com. Interior image 1 from blackstrips.blogspot.com. Image 2 from batman.wikia.com.