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Penguin's Entire Backstory Explained

While penguins might look cute and cuddly, they can be savage little fiends. Just look at the rockhopper penguin that attacked a photographer in the Falkland Islands (via Daily Mail). Apart from the cute and cuddly part, Oswald Cobblepot lives up to his moniker of the Penguin, proving to be highly dangerous if someone gets a bit too close for comfort. As one of the mainstays in Batman's rogues' gallery, he's a constant headache and general menace in Gotham City, as he uses his cunningness and wile to outsmart those around him and build a formidable criminal empire.

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane for "Detective Comics" #58 in 1941 (via DC Comics), Penguin is widely known for his fowl-like features and weaponized umbrellas. However, there's more to this supervillain than just a waddle and squaw — he has a deep backstory drenched in equal parts deviousness and tragedy. From lost love to being Bruce Wayne's childhood friend, let's dive into the Penguin's history.

Oswald Cobblepot's varying origin stories

For a genre that claims canon is the be-all and end-all, comic books sure do love to change the details of their history, and Oswald Cobblepot isn't exempt from this. Like his fellow rogue-in-arms the Joker, Penguin's origin story is multiple choice when it suits the creative teams.

Not much was known about Cobblepot until "The Best of DC" #10. The tale reveals that Penguin was a bullied child who had lost his father years earlier and was mollycoddled by his mother. His family owned a bird shop where he developed a fascination with the creatures and went on to study them further. After his mother's passing, however, the shop was repossessed, and he turned to crime in anger. 

After "Crisis on Infinite Earths" unified all the canon confusion, Penguin's backstory was rebooted — much like every other DC character. Although it was here that the high-society angle was injected into his backstory, there have been varying versions of this throughout the mediums. Due to the reach and cultural impact of the "Batman Returns" movie, the deformed outcast from a powerful family seems to be viewed as the quintessential origin story for Pengy nowadays.

The lowly thief

Penguin didn't choose the thug life — it chose him. However, as a master of thuganomics, he didn't just ascend to the top of the criminal food chain overnight. No, he had to do his time as an underling and lowly thief doing someone else's bidding. In "Detective Comics" #58, Penguin announces his arrival by stealing expensive paintings from an art gallery, at the time working for a crime lord known as The Boss. As is expected in doing business with Oswald Cobblepot, he eventually whacks The Boss and takes his place as the head of the organization.

This isn't too dissimilar from the version of the character introduced in the "Gotham" TV show. Cobblepot starts off as one of Fish Mooney's stooges, doing small jobs here and there for her and the mob. Eventually, he moves on and serves under both the kingpins Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni, playing a dangerous game of crime charades to see if he can climb the ladder faster. And he does so in his own waddling way.

Penguin married a ... penguin

Much like any other human being, Penguin wants to be loved. In the comics, he eventually finds his significant other in the form of his wife, Penny, letting her stand under his umbrella. Sadly, their happiness is ripped away in the cruelest way possible as Bane murders Penny in an attempt to force Penguin's hand in the battle against Batman.

Little was known about Penny until "Batman" #60. In the issue, Cobblepot reveals more details about the heartbreaking tragedy to Alfred Pennyworth, confirming that Penny was, indeed, a penguin. It's a powerful interaction as the two of them speak about William Shakespeare's poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle" and its symbolism as the death of true love. Crucially, it makes Bane's act even more despicable since he kills a defenseless little penguin to get what he wants. Rest in peace, Penny — gone but never forgotten in our hearts.

G'day, Mayor Cobblepot

Penguin is a smart mobster. He understands that to be successful and avoid the long arm of the law, it's best to have the law in his back pocket. However, there have been a few times when he realizes it's better to be the one making the laws than paying off the GCPD's incompetent cops. So he makes the decision to become Gotham City's mayor. In "Batman: Earth One" Vol. 1, Oswald Cobblepot becomes the corrupt Mayor of Gotham City and is responsible for the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne.

The "Gotham" TV show also features a storyline where Cobblepot becomes the mayor of the city after a little help from his best friend, the Riddler. In all these versions where he enters office, Penguin is never a benevolent or good mayor. Instead, he uses his power and influence to further his nefarious motives. In summary, his terms are the dictionary definition of a "reign of terror."

The Penguin's relationship with the Riddler

Leo "Dr. Love" Buscaglia once said (via BrainyQuote): "A single rose can be my garden ... A single friend, my world." It's a heartfelt sentiment that Penguin and Riddler share about each other as they're constantly paired as pals in the DC Universe. While there might be the odd incident of backstabbing or two, these two are truly as thick as thieves, because that's exactly what they are.

"Gotham" decides to explore this relationship and ask the question: What if the feelings between them are more than just friendship? After Edward Nygma helps Oswald Cobblepot becomes mayor, the newly elected official discovers that the butterflies in his stomach are about more than Nygma's brain-racking riddles. He develops genuine feelings for his friend and loses his mind when Nygma starts dating Isabella. Rather than mope around, he decides the quickest way from Point A to B is to steamroll straight ahead, so he gets rid of Isabella — permanently. Unfortunately, Nygma doesn't see this as an act of love, so he makes sure that his buddy loses his mayorship and then shoots him. It's an event that changes Cobblepot, as "Gotham" executive producer John Stephens tells TV Guide: "He's not letting anyone inside the way he did with Ed, in a way that he feels makes him weak."

The Iceberg Lounge is a ruse

Remember when Walter White bought the car wash to clean his money in "Breaking Bad"? That's the same principle behind the Iceberg Lounge (or the Iceberg Casino, depending on the continuity). On the surface, it might appear like Penguin's efforts to go straight and open up a high-end nightclub, but it's only a feeble attempt to mask his criminal activities.

While the Iceberg Lounge's appearance and services have differed throughout the years, its sole purpose hasn't. It is Penguin's criminal hub, and Gotham City knows that shady business goes down there. Cobblepot might try to convince everyone that he's simply an honest and successful businessman who's an entertainer at heart, but why are villains such as the Joker and the Riddler sitting around there like they're some kind of criminal rat pack? Yet, here's the funny thing: Bruno, one of Penguin's goons, reveals in "Batman" #548 that the casino pulls in more than 10 times whatever criminal activities the villain plans. The irony, right?

Penguin's ties to the Red Hood

When the name Red Hood is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the Joker. Not only does he hold the infamous mantle at one point in his career, but the Joker is also responsible for the reincarnation of the Jason Todd version of Red Hood. Even though Todd would love nothing more than to shove a crowbar in the Clown Prince's smile, he has serious beef with Penguin, too.

In "Red Hood and the Outlaws" #24, Todd confronts the Penguin about an event from his past. He discovers that his father, Willis Todd, wrongfully went to prison for a crime that Oswald Cobblepot committed. Red Hood sees it as a critical moment that resulted in his father and family losing everything, and he blames Penguin for it. Cobblepot shows no remorse for his actions, choosing to mock Todd for revealing his real identity, so Todd shoots him in the head. Fortunately, the gun is holding blanks, so Penguin lives to see another day.

Penguin's relationship with Catwoman

Despite cats and birds being mortal enemies, it's a different story between Penguin and Catwoman. In "Batman Returns," the audience witnesses a villainous partnership that is created to serve both their agendas. One thing is crystal clear, though: Oswald Cobblepot has a crush on Selina Kyle, even if she doesn't reciprocate his advances. Actor Danny DeVito appreciated the opportunity to play the Penguin and described it as "one of the highlights of my career" to Forbes. In fact, he believes "there is a little Oswald" in him.

Returning to the character, DeVito penned a story titled "Bird Cat Love" (illustrated by Dan Mora) for the "Gotham City Villains Anniversary" book. In this Elseworlds-type tale, the Penguin and Catwoman from "Batman Returns" are an item in this continuity. DeVito revealed that he first called co-star Michelle Pfeiffer to tell her what his plans were and get the green light from her. According to DeVito, "She was very excited to hear about it." Batman better watch his back, because Bat-Cat might soon be replaced by Pen-Cat!

Penguin had his own Robin

The more one thinks about it, the more the concept of Robin sounds terrible. It's the act of taking a child and turning them into a soldier. That's not too heroic, now, is it? Actually, it's something we'd expect from a roguelike Penguin, and as it turns out, that's exactly what he did when he took a young protégé under his wing.

Nero XIX played a big role in the "Fear State" storyline, as he nearly assassinates Mayor Nakano. However, his past proves to be more tragic than him simply being controlled by the Scarecrow. As revealed in the "House of Gotham" storyline in "Detective Comics" #1051, the young boy who'd grow up to be Nero learned the trade of violence from experts such as the Penguin. The squawking supervillain treated the boy as his own ward, giving him a job at the Iceberg Lounge and teaching him how to deal with anyone who crossed him. Well, at least Penguin didn't make him dress up in tights and pixie boots.

Bruce Wayne's childhood best friend?!

If we're in the timeline where Oswald Cobblepot was born to an affluent family, it's highly likely that he and Bruce Wayne could have been BFFs in their youth. Their families would probably rub shoulders at galas and debutante balls, while Bruce and Oz would discuss their mutual interest in the stock market and lacrosse. In "Batman: The Telltale Series," a variation of these events happens, as Bruce and Oz were childhood friends before the Cobblepots lost their fortune and Oz ended up homeless (via Inverse).

In this story, Pengiun left Gotham and became a seasoned criminal overseas. Eventually, he comes back home and joins the Children of Arkham, determined to get revenge against Gotham's elite for what they did to him and his family. What's interesting about this interpretation of the character is how he not only looks different from other incarnations of the Penguin, but he also has a real motive to despise Bruce and his family since Thomas Wayne was corrupt and dirty. In many ways, one could blame the Waynes for creating the villain known as the Penguin in this story.

Penguin had a son named Ethan

Imagine Oswald Cobblepot as a father for a second. He'd make Logan Roy from "Succession" seem like the father of the year in comparison because this foul fowl doesn't have one paternal bone in his body. Yet no one can accuse this nasty villain of flying the coop when it comes to responsibilities — quite the contrary.

After impregnating Crystie, a waitress at the Iceberg Lounge, the Penguin makes sure that she has enough money to raise their son, Ethan. Sure, he might fire her and doesn't want anything to do with young Ethan, but at least the child support was always on time. Eventually, Ethan starts his own tech company called VicForm before following in his father's footsteps and becoming the villain known as Blacksun — an antagonist in the "Son of Penguin" comic book arc. Ah, the apple doesn't fall too far from the, uh, Penguin here.

Penguin's malice knows no bounds

While other Batman villains such as Bane and Deathstroke might be known for their physical prowess, Penguin isn't much of a fighter. He'll engage in a game of fisticuffs if he has to, but he's more of a scrapper in hand-to-hand combat. Where he thrives, however, is in playing mind games. In fact, even DC's official biography refers to him as "a master manipulator" and "a villain fueled by pathological rage." There is one instance in particular that demonstrates how ruthless he is and how far he's willing to go to break someone down psychologically.

In "The Joker's Asylum: Penguin" #1, the villain sits at a restaurant with a female companion named Violet. As he's about to proclaim his love for her, he hears a chef laugh. Instantly, he believes the chef is laughing at him and reaches for a knife before Violet calms him down. However, the Penguin doesn't forget — he sets up a series of events to ruin the chef's life and everyone else around him. Cobblepot systematically destroys the poor man, which culminates in the chef taking his own life. It's a shocking display of Penguin's cruel nature and how it knows no bounds.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.