Author: Bob Kane
It's been a long time since we've had an issue where they forgot to put a title in the opening crawl, but rest assured: this is indeed about "the strange, almost ludicrous figure of the Penguin--the umbrella man!"
I have generally enjoyed the Penguin. He's one of Batman's sillier villains, a short, waddling man with a beakish nose and a penchant for tuxedos. In fact, in the way his absurd physical attributes match his moniker, the Penguin hearkens back to the old Dick Tracy villains, and the corresponding notion that crime should be colorful (and ugly). What makes the Penguin work is not his stories (can you name one? I can't, outside of the execrable Tim Burton movie), or even his array of weaponized umbrellas (although that was what I loved about him as a child).
No, the Penguin gets by on his attitude. He comports himself with the kind of dignity only given to people who actually use the word "comport". The tuxedo, the self-confidence bordering on arrogance, the breezy sense of violent whimsy--the man has style. It's that peculiar mix of dignity and absurdity that makes him a compelling character and a very fun villain to watch.
Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, of course, have no dignity whatsoever:
Privately shattered by the boy's critique, the "Grrrrrreat" Bustolli ended his art career and found new work as a cereal mascot in a tiger costume.
Knowing that no school would take an unofficially adopted ward, Bruce has brought Dick here in an attempt to educate him. But Bruce only actually knows one lesson: the importance of money, something he demonstrates to the kid by showing him two paintings (by "Watteau") collectively worth half a million dollars. Also admiring the paintings is a peculiar fellow in a tuxedo and top hat, carrying an umbrella. In his stature and coloring, he closely resembles a nearby penguin on a pedestal--which is either a rather boring sculpture, or an animal that has escaped from the zoo for an afternoon of culture.
"Bruce, are you high right now? Because--"
"I am so high."
"Because I am totally high."
Suddenly--or as the comic puts it:
The Watteau paintings have been stolen! Nobody can leave until everybody has been searched!
All fall under the questioning gaze and curious, tender hands of the museum guards--even Bruce Wayne, who, as a member of the ruling class, is usually above such petty suspicions. Even the man in the tuxedo has to open his umbrella, complaining good-naturedly about bad luck.
Consider this hypothetical: let's say you have successfully absconded with two paintings worth half a million dollars. What do you do next? Sell them, of course. Ah, but you (probably) do not cut half so ridiculous a figure as the Penguin. He doesn't need money; what he needs is respect.
"If he turns out to be a Jehovah's Witness, then you can drill him."
The boss of these thugs, by the way, is known only as "Boss", either because the writers were lazy, or because he's actually Bruce Springsteen. (What? He obviously grew old and left his music career to become a time-traveling gangster. It could happen!)
Anyway, once Penguin pulls the purloined paintings out of his pumbrella (mmm, alliteration), he immediately earns the undying respect of Old Man Springsteen and his goons (drums and base guitar, respectively). Penguin uses his ingenuity to plan heists, the goons carry them out, and Bob's your father's brother, leaving the newspapers just spinning and montaging into one another with curiosity.
Obviously Bruce Wayne never fights crime unless it's right in front of his nose, so the comic does the narrative equivalent of buying a vowel--it arranges yet another convenient coincidence.
"Fatty"? Jeez, Bruce. Didn't your mother ever teach you--oh. Oh man. I'm so sorry. I--I didn't think.
The lights go out, and when they come back on, the diamond is gone. Bruce starts to notice a pattern:
"I mean, I would like to investigate these crimes, but it's happy hour at that awesome dive bar tonight. Two for one beers! My hands are tied."
Later, the Penguin gets into an argument with "The Boss" about money (after all, royalties on "Born to Run" won't start rolling in for another 34 years). And let this be a lesson to you, children: never argue money with friends. Especially when your friend has an umbrella machine gun. Even after murdering the Boss, however, the Penguin possesses a perfectly polite panache: "If none of you lads objects--I'm your new boss!" The (pr)E Street Band is... surprisingly okay with that.
That night, Bruce Wayne enjoys happy hour at a scuzzy bar on the waterfront. He's in disguise, of course, mostly because society is not yet ready for a man's man who prefers the appletini. Also because he's eavesdropping on a few of Penguin's thugs, who, like most thugs, have an otherwise rare, unfortunate condition known as Exposition Tourette's. It's actually quite sad--they can't help but tell each other the broad details of a plan they already know. For just a dollar a day, you can help these poor goons buy the medicine they need. Call 1-800-HENCHMEN! Operators are standing by.
"I'm twelve years old!"
"Then you're under arrest for underage intoxication!"
Is it just me, or this is issue vacillating wildly between the evocative--
And the ridiculous?
You don't know want to know the context for this picture. Suffice to say, that was the ugliest painting I have ever seen in my life, and Batman's true victory today was ruining it.
But perhaps this wild contrast in tones is to a purpose: the examination of contrasting identities. Batman stories (and this comes from both noirs and gothics) are often about twins--Bruce Wayne and his secret identity, Batman (Order) and Joker (Chaos), Bruce Wayne and Ra's al Ghoul, and of course both sides of Two-Face, just to name a few--and here we have yet another. Today it's a question of couth.
This is why Freestyle Jousting never caught on.
During this confrontation, each panel represents the duality at play here visually. Not only are the characters here placed on either side of the frame, facing each other and isolated from any potential background (assuming that's not just a case of artistic laziness), but their figures convey contrasting attitudes quite nicely. Batman is in motion, ready for action, charging ahead! Penguin is calm, stationary, ready to defend himself but not concerned about it either. And look at the way Penguin is bound by the lines of the panel, whereas Batman breaks out of it (his foot and cape poking out into the previous panel).
Penguin frames the conflict as the old mind/body divide--Batman's muscles versus his intellect. That's true, as far as it goes, but I think both visually and in terms of what happens in this "fight", there's a deeper layer here. To me, it's about investment. Batman is in the moment, physically present, fully engaged in both the battle and the narrative framework in which it exists. Penguin, on the other hand, is detached, above it all, observing even as he participates. His reaction to poisoning Batman with a spray of noxious green gas from his trick umbrella is completely out of sync--barely even looking at the man he's trying to kill, Penguin is still continuing the previous conversation, concluding that Batman would never make a good partner in crime... not because Batman is too moral, but because he wouldn't "appreciate the beauty" of a good theft.
Appreciation; observation; a detached, ironic point of view. Everything's a joke to him. Penguin is only an "intellectual" for show, quoting Keats to his thugs and telling them he's going home to "browse through Shakespeare". The man's a proto-hipster, embracing the top hat and tails because they set him apart from everyone else. (Look at him! He's never not smoking!)
Why an umbrella? Why not a cane, a much more traditional "rich man" accessory? Because an open umbrella in the rain closes you off from the world. Because it isolates you.
After rescuing his henchmen and successfully completing the theft, Penguin exits, stage left--but first he smashes the burglar alarm, leaving the unconscious, gassed Batman for the police to find.
Shockingly, the comic actually follows through on its own continuity--where previous issues would have had the police arresting him, now they're just questioning him in his new role as an honorary member of the department.
Note the curtains opening--we're about to see a very clever little show.
Mr. Boniface, in a genuinely surprising and interesting twist, is actually the Penguin himself! According to "Mr. Boniface" (whose nose is so large it looks like he has a BONer In the middle oF his fACE), Batman has been threatening him for weeks, demanding protection money and bragging that his pseudo-police status meant he was above the law.
"Officers, I ask you--is the proud, erect nose of a liar?"
Batman is still too hazy from that poison gas to do what he'd normally do in this situation, ie., bribe the cops to look the other way. (Wayne's annual contributions to the Policeman's Ball are the only things keeping Grayson away from Child Services.) In the absence of a counter-argument, the police are convinced that Batman should be taken in, because all crime is handled on a plutocratic basis--rich man beats dude in ridiculous costume any day. (Saves tons on paperwork.)
But the Penguin's perfidious plot is not quite plenary:
I'm surprised accidents like this don't happen more often, given that Gotham appears to have no roads, street signs, or distinguishing features.
A dazed Batman stumbles from the wreckage, to be swooped up by Penguin's thugs. Later, Batman is subjected to a full-on gloating session. Penguin wants nothing from him except an audience. Neck wattles all a-quiver with self satisfaction, Penguin explains each step of his plan: stealing a valuable idol from himself, framing Batman for the crime in order to draw suspicion away from him, and then helping Batman "escape" from the cops so as to solidify any questions of the caped crusader's guilt. Batman realizes that he looks guilty if he stays here, but will get shot if he leaves. Based on past results, I'd go with leaving, given that the police in Gotham couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat. Batman chooses a different strategy, however.
I think half the reason Batman is alive right now is so that he can admire those umbrellas.
While Penguin goes over his prize collection with all the zeal of a fetishist ("Hmm! Got this one in Spain! Hmm!" he burbles), Batman is busy tapping a Morse code message out over his foot phone. Robin, dressed and ready for action upon hearing of the accusations against Batman over the phone, receives the call on his "telephone belt", and decides to rush to his aid. At last, an excuse not to do that homework.
Soon enough, Penguin's doorbell rings. "It's a telegram messenger!" comes the call from outside.
Let's all just take a moment to admire that. "Sssppllff!" What a fantastic sound effect.
In the ensuing battle, Batman is able to free himself from his ropes using some broken glass on the floor. ("I've got to cut these cords--and quickly!" he exclaims to no one in particular. It would appear that Exposition Tourette's is catching.) Batman and Robin make quick work of the goons, but they've lost the war--Penguin holds them at bay with an umbrella while he phones the police.
(It occurs to me that Penguin could actually, randomly, use a completely normal umbrella to scare somebody into doing what he wants. You'd never know!)
Our heroes decide that they'd rather not have to punch their way through the entire Gotham Police Department--oh, they could do it, it's just that their fists would get tired eventually--and so make their way out the back. Batman is pissed enough to make punny ultimatums.
Get it? The bird is ready for a "coup", aka "coop", which is where you keep birds, albeit not penguins? Okay, so it doesn't make a lot of sense.
Batman and Robin disguise themselves as a couple of street people, begging for alms outside Penguin's mansion. After several nights of this, our heroes catch Penguin and his gang heading out on a job. As it turns out, they're pulling the old "Red-Headed League" trick. If you haven't read this original Sherlock Holmes story, give it a shot here. As a detective Batman owes a good deal to Holmes, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories had fewer homicidal clowns.
At any rate, the "Red-Headed League" trick is where you gain entry by subterfuge to an (otherwise innocuous) underground location which happens to share a back wall with your real target--in this case, the Diamond Exchange vault--and then drill or dig through, a little bit at a time. Holmes elected to surprise the villains at the other end of their tunnel, but Batman and Robin have been dicking (and Brucing!) around, and are too late to do anything but the most dramatic possible entrance.
Robin: "Actually I haven't jumped through the window yet, Batman. First I have to tie my shoe."
While Batman and Robin beat up Penguin's thugs in revenge for the framing, the Penguin, caught in the brazen act of open and unequivocal theft, undergoes a remarkable transformation. First he levels his umbrella at our heroes, snarling (no more pretense of good humor) and--for the first time--breaking through the panel border. He's had enough, and is now taking an active, interested role in the proceedings. Then he's seen by the police spraying deadly acid into the face of one of his henchmen:
Ouch. That's probably not covered under medical, I don't think.
Look at that panel, contrasted with Penguin's previous images. Rather than restrained, he's drawn with action lines; he's leaning forward, looming over the rest of the figures, indicating his complicity and responsibility for setting all this into motion; he's finally been caught openly committing a crime, as indicated by the police observers--who, it should be noted, are the first people besides his thugs to name him as the Penguin. He's no longer separated from his actions or the situation they have caused, but overlaps and is overlapped by them--integrated visually and thus metaphorically into the situation, and no longer reacting like anything but a villain.
Finally, he makes a run for it:
Look, he's lost his top hat on the way--his respectability, his safer identity as Boniface. Penguins, of course, don't wear top hats, and the art does a lovely job of showing that Penguin has now stepped fully into his iconic persona. The umbrella is no longer a symbol of isolation, but firmly of violence and crime, a reputation he carries with him going forward. A downward sloping roof, but the rise of a villain.
Fittingly, Penguin makes a run for the el-train--trains, of course, being a traditional symbol of change and freedom. The climactic fight plays out largely in symbolic terms--Batman throws a punch, Penguin loses hold of his umbrella (which we'll see in a moment was full of diamonds), and the exchange leaves both men affected in opposite ways by the rumbling trains:
I'm beginning to think that he thinks real penguins actually say "hee hee".
Batman is alive but shaken thanks to the train passing over him--a fitting conclusion to an adventure in which the cops' newfound trust in him was sorely tested. If nothing else, this was a story about Batman's vulnerability to forces larger or smarter than him, from Penguin's plan which our hero barely guessed at, to the poison gas that left him virtually helpless and the acid he and Robin barely escaped, to actually being taken in by the police as a thief. There's a wider world out there, and Batman's ability to change it is not unlimited. After all, Penguin gets away, scot free.
If there's a reason why Batman has the best and most interesting rogue's gallery of any major superhero, I think it has its origins in stories like this, or the recent introduction of Scarecrow. In contrast to Spiderman, or Superman, these early Batman stories are often not about Batman, but instead use Batman as a force of nature, or an iconic symbol, against which to measure deeper, richer characters such as Scarecrow, the Joker, and now the Penguin.
It's no coincidence, I think, that Batman's main villains have received less and less comeuppance for their crimes as we go along--the Joker is always "killed", whereas Scarecrow was jailed, and Penguin simply allowed to flee. The comic is learning, I think, that its villains are more interesting and attractive to the reader than Batman and Robin (as characters, not icons); that it's far easier to bring on recurring villains if you don't tie them up in narrative knots ("So, I know Joker was shot, stabbed, poisoned, drowned, and thrown into a volcano in his last appearance, but let's figure out a way to bring him back..."); and that the comic's moral constraints do not necessarily require crime to be punished. Judging by the statements and actions of the heroes--who we've seen time and time again as the arbiter's of each issue's moral lesson--Penguin's real crime was making life very inconvenient for Batman, not insurance fraud or the murder of the old crime Boss. Or even running away with a bunch of diamonds.
"Yes, he'll probably be back someday," agreed the others, as they all divided up the jewels amongst themselves. "For one thing, we never found his stolen diamonds." They all shared a significant glance.