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Batman's History With Penguin Explained

Blood money is what fuels Oswald Cobblepot, the criminal kingpin known simply as the Penguin in Gotham City. There isn't any bar too low for the Penguin and the level of slimy misdeeds he's willing to commit throughout his criminal enterprise in DC Comics. In many iterations of Oswald Cobblepot's history, the Batman villain came from an aristocratic family. In other versions, he simply made his mark through murder and deceit to ultimately establish himself as the "Gentleman of Crime," a mobster who claims a place in high society while unofficially ruling the streets of Gotham through fear and corruption.

The Penguin has had countless run-ins with the Dark Knight. In fact, Cobblepot fancies himself a formidable foe for the superhero, using his money and connections to thwart Batman's chances at stopping his criminal undertakings. There's no shortage of tricks up this ruffian's sleeve, as he's armed with a ballistic umbrella capable of both destruction and protection. He also makes use of his feathered friends trained to carry out his deadly commands. Of course, if his true aim is the death of his enemies, he's not known to penny pinch in the allied-villain or capable hitman arena to ensure the deed is done. The Penguin is, without a doubt, not an individual to trifle with, as his endless need for satisfactory and bloody vindication knows no bounds. Thankfully Batman is well-trained, capably equipped, and a frighteningly brutal force to be reckoned with as well. If anyone is able to stand up to the Penguin, it's Batman. Here's the history of Batman and the Penguin.

Humble beginnings as a lowly thief

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Penguin made his grand debut in the pages of Detective Comics issue 58 in December of 1941. However, he wasn't quite the imposing crime-lord that we know him as today. In the Golden Age of comics, Penguin began as nothing more than a thief. However, he started out much bigger than a simple burglar by targeting high-value objects. Eventually, his actions and apparent expertise gained the attention of a criminal organization within Gotham City. Oswald Cobblepot then began putting his efforts into stealing for the organization alongside a shadowy figure known as "the Boss." The promise of expanding his empire with additional resources and loot-sharing opportunities only made strategic sense to the Penguin.

In Detective Comics, much of the loot consisted of valuable paintings worth a small fortune. Everyone has to start somewhere, and one might not successfully lead a criminal empire without seeing how it's done from the ground floor first. Simply put, working for "the Boss" was an educational experience for Oswald Cobblepot. The lessons he learned would be invaluable, as he'd eventually set his ambitions much higher and make his mark on Gotham's criminal underbelly.

Murdering his way to the top of a criminal empire

Soon, Oswald learned one of the harshest realities of the seedy underworld in Gotham City: there's no honor among thieves. Once it came time to share the proceeds with his underlings, the Boss gave Penguin the shaft. Apparently, the Boss was simply aiming for a one-off pyramid scheme that ultimately wouldn't prove fruitful if it meant shattering the loyalty of his subservient followers on the payroll.

The Penguin simply wouldn't stand for it, and he killed the Boss with his infamous umbrella. After granting himself the new promotion, he was finally notorious enough to be on Batman's radar, going toe-to-toe with the Caped Crusader. This was the first instance, but certainly not the last, where the Penguin would murder in an attempt to consolidate power under his umbrella — pun intended.

In the Earth One timeline of events in DC comics history, the Penguin takes a similar approach to achieve his version of respect. Due to his appearance and penchant for waddling, he was constantly taunted by bullies at a young age for looking like a penguin. After his mother passed and the debt collectors seized everything his family owned due to egregious medical debt, Oswald became bitter. Deciding that crime was his destiny, he sought employment from a renowned criminal who mocked him. Furious, Oswald killed the man and utilized his resources to begin building an empire that the people of Gotham City would fear — one run by the Penguin, a moniker he decided to own. Once again, he became a person of interest for the Dark Knight who'd quickly find that Penguin's maliciousness knows no bounds.

Oswald Cobblepot's best friends

It's no secret that the vicious mobster has an affinity for his avian compadres. In some instances, the Penguin gained his moniker simply based on his appearance. In others, he is known for his appreciation for birds. Whatever the case may be, Oswald Cobblepot eventually embraced his identity in the criminal underworld and used his feathered soldiers to enact his heinous plans for dominance in the city. Depictions of Cobblepot having birds in his employ date back to Detective Comics issue 67 in September of 1942. In the story, Penguin and his goons steal trained birds. As a front from his operations, Penguin opens up a bird store where he utilizes the trained birds for monetary gain. In one instance, a rich man purchases a parrot who learns his owner's safe combination. Penguin plans a heist where he breaks into the man's home and steals all of the money from the man's safe. Batman's detective skills are put to use as he attempts to solve the case.

While the idea of training birds to do the bidding of a criminal seems a bit over-the-top, we were able to witness it in live-action with Tim Burton's "Batman Returns." In the film, Oswald Cobblepot lived in the sewers and became close with penguins who had escaped the local zoo. In the film, the penguins can later be seen marching to the orders of Oswald Cobblepot. A penguin army strapped with explosives converged on Gotham Plaza. However, Batman foiled the plot when he jammed a signal being sent to the birds.

The umbrella that symbolizes tragedy

In all of Penguin's battles with the Dark Knight, he always had his trusty umbrella that was fully loaded with tricks to help the mobster win the day. Often, he'd upgrade his umbrella, even managing to keep Batman on his toes. The Penguin's iconic weapon of choice, however, is actually a somber reminder of his tragic past. Later in life, Oswald Cobblepot's sordid legacy of villainy would actually be the fruits of childhood trauma as revealed in The Best of DC issue #10 that was published and released in March of 1981.

These issues collected several smaller stories for characters throughout the DC universe. One particular tale titled "The Origin of the Penguin"  revealed young Oswald Cobblepot's suffering at the hands of bullies. His father died from bronchial pneumonia, and Oswald's mother ensured that her son carried an umbrella with him everywhere he went believing her husband's death to be a result of him disregarding proper protections in inclement weather. At the time, his parents owned a bird shop. The store was consumed by debtors, however, after the death of Oswald's mother. This marked a breaking point for Oswald as he began to create a criminal identity for himself — one that'd protect him from the cruelties of the world by inflicting them on others.

The ultimate con-man of the 1966 television series

The 1960s "Batman" TV series was known for its camp and whimsy. Batman was less of a "Dark Knight" and more of an oddity in tights attempting to foil criminal capers. The villains were no different. Burgess Meredith donned the top hat and bow tie of the ruthless Penguin in this version of Gotham City. The series was known for comical violence over brutality and true villainy. As a result, the Penguin adopted the persona of being a con-man, something Oswald took great pride in. 

In fact, the Penguin would find himself down in the dumps when he was stuck spinning his tires, unable to think of his next great plot. It was at a moment like this where the Penguin was able to enact his most memorable con in the entire show. He tricked Batman into planning a heist. After being released from prison, the Penguin had the idea to open an umbrella shop and hand out free umbrellas to all of Gotham City. Batman was, of course, suspicious of all the activity and took an umbrella back to his cave for analysis. The trick, however, was that there was no trick. He just wanted to rope Batman in with curiosity and hope that Batman would deduce a criminal plot that didn't exist. He'd then use that plot for his next act. Somehow, Batman perceived that the Penguin was planning to kidnap an actress. The Penguin heard all of this over a planted listening device including Batman's plan to foil the operation. Therefore, the Penguin carried out the plan and successfully thwarted Batman and Robin's attempt to sabotage the event. It was a rather proud moment for the villainous Gothamite.

Bullied into villainy

At this stage, it's no secret that Oswald Cobblepot was the victim of bullying at a young age, mostly due to his appearance. However, writer Alan Grant drove home the point that his childhood tormentors created a monster. In the post-"Crisis" continuity of the DC universe, Grant once again established an origin for the vicious mobster in "Secret Origins Special #1." The story, titled "The Killing Peck," followed the Penguin as he kidnapped a thug by the name of Sharkey. The Penguin has a brutal fate planned for Sharkey, however.

Oswald begins by force-feeding the gangster fish and then welding his metal teeth shut. He then enlightens Sharky of the history the two share. When Oswald was a young boy, Sharkey was the first individual to ever call him "Penguin" for his appearance. He'd beat Oswald and smash fish all over the poor youngster during school lunch. At one point, he even forced Oswald to wear a tuxedo too small for him. After gaining some confidence, young Oswald decided to take matters into his own hands. One day, he surprised Sharkey and punched his teeth out. As retribution, however, Sharkey's gang murdered all of the Cobblepot's birds from their bird shop. Having finished reliving painful memories, Oswald brutally beats Sharkey and then takes him to the zoo ready to feed him to the tigers. Batman, however, has been watching the Penguin's movements and is able to save Sharkey's life from the tiger pit.

Welcome to the Iceberg Lounge

One of Penguin's most famous hangouts is his own nightclub — the Iceberg Lounge. At one point, Penguin became exhausted with the stresses of constant criminality and decided to run a legitimate business in the form of the Iceberg Lounge. However, birds of a feather tend to flock together. Penguin's underlings and criminal associates stayed in his employ and the mobster would again dabble in criminality. Eventually, the Iceberg Lounge became a front for the Penguin while his illegitimate businesses continued to occur in the dark corners of Gotham City.

Whenever Batman sought answers from the Penguin, he knew where to look. Additionally, the Iceberg Lounge attracted Penguin's associates and allies, which often included other famous super villains in Batman's rogues gallery. While it might've been suicide to enter the criminal safe-haven, that never stopped Batman from doing so, bold as he may be. In the video game "Batman: Arkham City," players have the opportunity to visit the Iceberg Lounge in the virtual world. In the narrative, Penguin has actually captured Mr. Freeze and is wielding his freeze gun. Players have to confront the Penguin in the Iceberg Lounge as he attempts to take down Batman with the freeze gun.

After the Flashpoint storyline of 2011 that altered some of the DC universe's continuities, Penguin rebrands the Iceberg Lounge as the Iceberg Casino. As the name would imply, it is now a casino, as well as a hotel, that operates just outside of Gotham. Just like the nightclub of the past, however, it was always an attraction for the seedy denizens of Gotham City.

The Tim Burton re-imagined monstrosity

In 1992, Tim Burton's "Batman" received a sequel in the form of "Batman Returns." This time, Burton brought a bit of his own pizzazz to the character he marked for the star villain, the Penguin. While Penguin may have been mocked in DC comics lore for his appearance, Burton took that angle to an entirely new level. Young Oswald Cobblepot was not only short and rotund, but his skin was deathly white and his hands were fused together like actual flippers. After snacking on the family cat, his parents remained cool, calm, and collected as they determined the right action to take for their crazed infant son — tossing him in the river. However, instead of an act of infanticide, baby Oswald's story took an unnatural Moses twist as the carriage floated into the sewer only to be received by penguins who apparently raised the child as their own.

Oswald would eventually emerge with the help of Max Schreck, a corporate villain who is being blackmailed by Oswald. In an attempt to gain power over the city he felt once betrayed him, Oswald stages acts of heroism and charity in order to gain the trust of the public and the votes he'd need to become Gotham's mayor. Behind closed doors, the Penguin shows his true colors as a sadistic womanizing murderer bent on satiating his own desires for dominance and destruction. His true colors are revealed to the public by Batman and the final battle truly begins as Penguin's goons and ... well, penguins, emerge to take the city by force. The premise is wildly absurd, yet rather dark given the ideas at play such as infanticide, sexual assault, and mass murder. Thankfully, Batman puts a stop to the Penguin's aspirations.

Mayor Oswald Cobblepot

In the Earth One version of the Penguin, he is actually mayor of Gotham City. This proves to be a challenge for Batman as he attempts to prove the mayor's corruption. Oswald's history in this iteration of his story is dotted with countless acts of corruption and flat-out evil-doing schemes including murder-for-hire. In fact, he targeted Thomas Wayne for death via assassination because the billionaire was running against him.

Much of his funding came from the unsavory parts of the city. Therefore, Mayor Cobblepot allowed crime to endure. He often acted like the mafioso kingpin we've known in all iterations of the character silencing partners who knew too much or harbored incriminating evidence against him. His position as mayor allowed him easy connections to the courts where he'd flaunt his money and connections to corrupt the judicial branch in Gotham. Many in Gotham's PD were on Mayor Oswald's payroll and his enforcers would ensure the public continued to support Oswald Cobblepot through fear. Batman digs into the mayor's past and eventually uncovers disturbing truths, like his attempted murder of Bruce's parents. Mayor Oswald gets the better of Batman, capturing him and unmasking him. However, his knowledge of Bruce Wayne's secret is short-lived. The hardened veteran of the Royal Marines, Alfred Pennyworth, arrives and guns down Cobblepot. While Earth One Batman may not kill, Alfred never set that rule for himself and does anything he can to protect Bruce.

Taking control of Batman's assets

While the Penguin is a loose cannon when his temper flares, he's also highly intelligent. In fact, he's one of the few Batman villains who is considered completely sane. His cunning extends beyond his drive for wealth and power. The Penguin also often seeks an audience with Batman in an effort to remove the Caped Crusader from the chess board so to speak. On multiple occasions, he's seized Batman's assets — like the Batmobile. In "Batman: The Animated Series," Penguin finds the secretive mechanic responsible for repairing the Batmobile. He then uses the mechanic's own family as leverage against him. When Batman drives off with his Batmobile, he doesn't realize that Penguin had the vehicle sabotaged and he begins to control it remotely. Batman becomes locked in his own vehicle at Penguin's will. 

In the one-shot issue "Penguin Triumphant," the Penguin takes a hard turn towards white-collar crime. He colludes with a partner to manipulate the stock market, raking in massive profits. Bruce Wayne, of course, closely watches these developments, understanding that Oswald Cobblepot's actions are never what they appear to be. At one point, the Penguin jealously makes an attempt to purchase Wayne manor and succeeds when Bruce finally agrees. However, Bruce used the opportunity to trap the criminal businessman. Later in the issue, evidence is unearthed after a clash between Batman, the Penguin, and the Penguin's partner that incriminates the latter two of insider trading. Following their conviction, Bruce returns to Wayne Manor. For a hot minute, however, the Penguin owned Batman's family home as well as the secret bat cave below the manor's foundation.

An unlikely star in the "Gotham" TV series

Portrayed by Robin Lord Taylor, Oswald Cobblepot receives the attention he's never had with the TV series "Gotham." The show focused on Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his entrance into the dark and dreary world of Gotham City, constantly attempting to uphold the law and do what is right when everything is against him. Oswald Cobblepot begins as a lowly crook working for crime boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith). He tires of his subservience to her and aspires to more. He eventually conspires to remove Fish Mooney from the picture.

Oswald Cobblepot manages to steal the show on many occasions as he wheels and deals with Jim Gordon and the villains of the city to ensure he winds up on top. Viewers are even presented with a sympathetic view of the character as we witness his attachment to his mother and her eventual demise. It's clear that Gotham City is Oswald's home as he feeds off the drama between criminal foes for his own gain.

The Penguin mirrors Bruce's privilege in high society

It's always been said that each of Batman's villains reflect a different element of the Caped Crusader's persona and psyche. The Penguin's portrayal of either coming from or seeking after the approval of high society is a reflection of Bruce's own familial privilege. In many instances, the Penguin reflects the individual that Bruce could have become – one who is greedy and obsessed with making a name for himself. And while many instances have depicted Oswald Cobblepot having a traumatic childhood — whether from bullying, the deaths of his parents, or the injustice he seemingly witnessed day to day in Gotham City — he chose a path opposite of Bruce drenched in bullets and blood. While Bruce and Oswald may both have their place in the upper class, they have gone in opposite directions regarding the use of their wealth and their ultimate destinations in life.