Many of the most popular and influential villains in Batman’s lengthy rogues gallery debuted within the first decade of the comic. Joker and Catwoman both appeared in Batman #1 in 1940. Scarecrow, Two-Face, Clayface, Riddler, Hugo Strange, and Mad Hatter all got their start before 1950. But of all of those, none has been both as omnipresent and as underserved as Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin. Penguin first showed up in Detective Comics #58 in December 1941 and since then he has cultivated a very strange but important niche in the lore of Gotham City’s most notorious baddies.
Who Is the Penguin?
Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot (excuse me all to hell) considers himself the “Gentleman of Crime,” far more than a petty thug or boorish gangster. People who wore tuxedoes back in the olden days would be compared to a Penguin, and so artist and co-creator Bill Finger amped that up, making Cobblepot’s anatomy more like that of a bird. Beakish nose, Emperor penguin-esque physique.
Early on, Penguin had no identity beyond his alias and appearance. His schemes were all ways to outthink the caped crusader and prove his acumen to the mobsters in Gotham City. Always ambitious, he quickly rose through the ranks of the criminal underworld and took over one of the city’s most notorious crime families. His trademark umbrellas would house his various gadgets, explosive devices, a guns, or hiding places for stolen goods.
It wasn’t until the Silver Age that Penguin became Oswald Cobblepot. As would happen consistently with Batman’s villains, the Penguin got a tragic backstory. As a child, he was the victim of bullying because of his short stature, weight, nose, and way of walking. His mother forced him to carry an umbrella everywhere he went after his father died of pneumonia following umbrella-free rain walking.
His parents owned a bird shop, where Cobblepot spent most of his time. He saw the birds as his only friends, and devoted all of his attention to them. His love of birds would eventually lead him to study ornithology in college—only to find out that he knew more about birds than most of his professors did. In some versions, Cobblepot turns to crime after his mother dies and the bank repossesses the bird shop, along with all of her birds.
The Penguin’s Life of Crime
Unique among Batman’s rogues, the Penguin is not criminally insane. He possesses all of his faculties and has used his wit and guile to set himself up as one of the top criminals in Gotham. He’s one of the few holdovers from the gimmicky gangster-style villains who Batman would fight during his early days. A businessman, Cobblepot owns the Iceberg Lounge, a fancy nightclub that is also home to a number of under-the-table illegal activities.
The Penguin’s schemes in the Silver Age were almost solely bird-themed; stealing Faberge eggs, robbing aviaries, stealing priceless fossils of eggs. You get it, the dude likes eggs. But it’s because of his dogged devotion to his bird brethren that Batman and Robin are usually able to defeat him. Comics writers often wrote the Penguin as a cultured, intelligent adversary for Batman, whose downfall is his supremely low self-esteem where Batman is concerned. In the Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Comics continuity, Penguin would help Batman on occasion when it suited him, and Batman even admitted that the Penguin was smarter than he.
The Penguin Goes to Television
In 1966, the Penguin joined other famous (and not so famous) Batman villains as a recurring foe on the Batman TV series. Actor Burgess Meredith portrayed the Penguin, in traditional top hat and tails, with a monocle and long cigarette holder. Meredith’s grizzly voice and choice to give Penguin a distinctive, squawk-like laugh proved especially iconic. His henchmen always had either bird or fish names, and his schemes were usually in the same vein.
This version of the Penguin was, along with Cesar Romero’s Joker, the most consistent returning special guest villain. Each showed up in 19 episodes, a full 15% of the series’ episodes. Meredith’s take on the character was certainly beloved by fans as well. He was one of the four villains to appear in the big screen spinoff of the show alongside Romero’s Joker, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, and Catwoman played by Lee Meriwether in her lone outing as the character.
Big Screen Penguin
After the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, which saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight take on the Joker, the director brought two more classic villains for the sequel. In addition to Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, Batman Returns gave the world Danny DeVito as the Penguin. It seemed a fairly “no duh” casting choice, but DeVito ended up imbuing the character with a lot more grotesquery than the comics ever did.
This version of Cobblepot didn’t merely resemble a bird, he seemingly was part bird. He had flippers, a nose that may as well have been an actual beak, and ate raw fish like an animal. Not only was this the most physically repugnant version of the character, but he was also lascivious and crude which was at odds with his projected image of aristocracy and class. None here to speak of.
Despite DeVito’s fully committed performance, I find this version of the character almost unwatchable. And certainly unlistenable. Every line of dialogue that comes out of his mouth is cringey and bad. If I could watch a version of Batman Returns that had no dialogue and just Danny Elfman’s score, I’d love it. I mean, who’d vote for that guy to be mayor?!
Though the Penguin had appeared in all of the previous versions of Batman in animation, it was Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 that proved to be his most defining version in the medium. The series came about off of the wild success of the Burton films. As such, the Fox Network encouraged the show’s creative team to stick to the visual style of the movies as much as they could. This extended especially to Catwoman and the Penguin, both of whom resemble their movie counterparts in a number of ways.
For the Penguin, with a great vocal performance from Paul Williams, the animated series version kept the movie’s long hair, flipper-hands, and overall silhouette. Though they refrained from giving him the zombie-grey pallor and stringy grey hair from DeVito. Williams’ take on the character was back to the refined and educated criminal mastermind obsessed with birds.
Unlike the 1966 series, this version of the Penguin didn’t make too many appearances, only showing up in seven episodes of the original 85. He faired a bit better in the 1998 reimagined continuation, The New Batman Adventures, appearing in four of the 24 episodes. While still played by Williams, the second version of the character looked much closer to the comics and Meredith version.
A Video Game Titan
Following the success of 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, which featured a number of rogues facing off against Bats, an even larger follow up game dropped in 2011. Batman: Arkham City had even more villains in an even larger map. The Penguin here operates his Iceberg Lounge and conducts a series of illegal activities all under the nose of Hugo Strange’s militarized police.
This take on the Penguin takes a fair amount from the previous versions. He’s definitely more in the birdlike monster mold, and he speaks with a Guy Ritchie-esque Cockney accent. (Nolan North provides his voice, no big whoop.) In Arkham City, Cobblepot is the first major antagonist, kidnapping Mr. Freeze and holding him ransom when Batman needs his help. After Batman inevitably defeats Cobblepot, the crime boss unleashes his secret weapon, the undead behemoth Solomon Grundy, to finish the job.
The Arkham Penguin returns in the trilogy capper, Batman: Arkham Knight, where he and Two-Face work together on a series of petty heists while Scarecrow holds Gotham City’s citizens hostage. What really stands out about the Arkham version of the Penguin is just how much of a thorn in Batman’s side he is. We learn a lot about the villains by how Batman treats them, and there is nothing but bitter disdain between the pair in their dialogue scenes in both games.
The Penguin will appear in the upcoming Gotham Knights game, though in a different continuity.
From Penguin to Kingpin
The most dramatic reimagining of the character came in 2014’s Gotham series. A prequel to the Batman mythos initially conceived as Jim Gordon fighting crime at a time before the Dark Knight appears, Gotham ended up just being a way to get every Batman villain to show up way before their time. But from the get-go, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord-Taylor) stood out as the show’s biggest asset and most interesting character.
A cunning, ruthless, and ambitious mid-level criminal, Cobblepot worked for mob boss Fish Mooney. Outwardly, he was a sniveling, groveling lackey, but inside, he worked behind the scenes to overthrow his boss and take over.
The Penguin goes through a lot of ridiculous stuff in the course of the series, but the most fascinating aspect is the character’s growing kinship, partnership, and affection toward Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith). The pair become a great team, but there was always something more between the two, and while never explicitly romantic, the pair’s chemistry and genuine love for each other made them a fan-favorite.
I Got YOU!
Which brings us to 2022. The Penguin will return in Matt Reeves’ reimagined film The Batman. As played by Colin Farrell in heavy makeup and doing what amounts to a Robert De Niro impression, this Penguin is an enforcer for the reclusive mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turtutto). He runs the Iceberg Lounge, just as he always does, and exhibits a great deal of intelligence and cunning. However, he’s a violent, thuggish character who is definitely not the erudite sort of previous iterations.
We’ll definitely get plenty of time to spend with this version of the Penguin. Before The Batman even came out, Warner Bros. announced a spin-off series on HBO Max starring the crime boss. Colin Farrell will, of course, reprise his role from the film. If it’s anything like the Peacemaker series, we’re in for a fun time.
Like Batman himself, the Penguin has proved to be one of the most versatile and malleable characters in the rogues gallery. He can be a monster or a guy in a suit, a violent killer or a gentleman thief. As long as there is a Batman, however, there must be a Penguin. If for no other reason, than because he makes Gotham City so much more fun.