The Tragic Hero in “Penguin: Pain and Prejudice”

Every great villain is a hero in his own mind. Take, for example, the Joker. In Batman: The Killing Joke, the villain sees himself as a brave messenger, here to prove to the world that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”

This message may sound far-fetched, but The Killing Joke makes it ring true, at least to the Joker’s ears. The comic unravels the story of a man who, desperate to support his pregnant wife, agrees to aid in a robbery. When his wife unexpectedly dies, he tries to quit, but is coerced back into the job. Eventually, he is chased by Batman during the heist. And terrified, he jumps into a vat of chemical waste, from which he becomes the Joker.

The Killing Joke ultimately succeeds because readers sympathize with the Joker’s tragic origin and, consequently, understand the basis of his message. And in much the same fashion, Penguin: Pain and Prejudice tells the story of a mistreated child who grows up to become the villainous Penguin. Readers pity the boy and, in turn, excuse the Penguin’s violent battle against a perceived bully – Batman.

In the second issue of the series, “Beautiful Boy,” writer Gregg Hurwitz unfolds a kaleidoscope of memories that color and shape present-day events. The Penguin was born Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, a runt with a carrot-like nose. Because of his size and looks, Oswald is the victim of cruelty. His only companions are his birds and his mother.

Understanding this, Hurwitz takes the brutality one step further and targets these sources of comfort. In doing so, he establishes the tragic origin of the villain.

In an aviary, Oswald lovingly talks to his birds: “Not eating today, Speck? C’mon. I know you’re a hungry li’l guy.” A panel later and Speck is shot and killed by Oswald’s malicious brothers. In less capable hands, the scene would have portrayed Oswald with a defiant scream and histrionic words. Hurwitz, however, leaves the boy silent and artist Szymon Kudranski draws him poignantly holding the dead bird with his head bowed, its blood splattered across his face and spreading as an infection.

In another scene, Oswald builds a wind-up, toy Penguin for his mother. She exclaims, “Oh, beautiful boy!” and kisses him on the temple. Later, he sits outside his parents’ room as they fight. Successive panels show that his father, who calls Oswald a “little freak,” has broken the toy bird. When his mother attempts to placate his father, Oswald smashes the remnants of the toy with a hammer.

Through these flashbacks to Oswald’s childhood, Hurwitz brilliantly ties the reader’s compassion to an image of violence. And so when the adult villain, the Penguin, commits a brutal act, the reader still has lingering sympathy. For instance, in the first issue, “Cold World,” the Penguin has a woman’s head cut off so he can steal her ruby necklace. The act is vicious, but the outcome is surprisingly tender. The Penguin gives the necklace to his mother, who is frail now and bound to a wheelchair.

Even when the Penguin is confronted by justice, Hurwitz still convincingly portrays him as a victim. “Beautiful Boy” opens as Batman questions the Penguin about the theft of the necklace and the woman’s murder. Kudranski, in a genius move, depicts the Penguin searching on the ground for his glasses, which Batman has broken (this scene introduces the Penguin’s signature monocle and begs the question, “Does Batman help create his villains?”). Batman’s face hidden is in shadow, and the Penguin is drawn like a young, cowering Oswald. The reader recognizes a familiar bully in Batman and sees the Penguin as a scared child.

In a later scene, the Penguin describes Batman as “rugged” and “virile,” a man who “holds a room in his sway just by entering.” All the while, he stands in front of a mirror with his enormous belly hanging over his boxer shorts. And yet, Hurwitz does not allow the Penguin to be self-loathing. He sees himself in the mirror as a muscular, handsome man. And with this delusion, Hurwitz sparks in the reader a sense of admiration, because as weak as the Penguin may appear, he does not see himself this way.

In fact, it seems that Hurwitz spends most of “Beautiful Boy” knocking the young Oswald down, because near the end, the boy learns (through murderous deeds) that strength is “about getting up every single damned time.” And in becoming a villain, Oswald “didn’t merely find [his] feet,” but boldly “found something [he] was great at.”

And so through pain and prejudice, Hurwitz elevates the Penguin, in his own mind and in some ways the reader’s mind, to be a hero. In the process, he has no doubt created a remarkably great villain.

RATING 8 / 10