The last issue of Batman saw the conclusion to the brutal, knock-down, drag-out battle between Batman and KGBeast in the snow-buried countryside. Batman #58 brings us back to Gotham, as the Dark Knight “runs ‘a fowl’ of Oswald Cobblepot,” AKA the Penguin.
When one thinks of longtime Batman nemesis, the Penguin, formidable probably isn’t the first notion to enter their mind. Sure, he’s no Kite Man, who King aggrandized back in the War of Jokes and Riddles but ol’ Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, with his comically corpulent build, penchant for squawking and assortment of trick umbrellas doesn’t instill the same sort of trepidation into one’s heart as say, Bane or the Joker.
There’s a reason the character has endured since his first appearance in 1941, though. He’s a “gentleman mob boss.” He owns a nightclub called the Iceberg Lounge. When it comes to the criminal underworld of Gotham, he’s pretty damn savvy. And perhaps most importantly, he can pose an intellectual match to Batman.
The Penguin can be daunting too, in an aberrant way. Look no further than his cockney-accented, weapons trafficker iteration from Batman: Arkham City; or his charismatic, manipulative form in the Gotham TV series; or this unnerving page; Batman Returns may have been diluted by missile-launcher-toting penguin commandos, but Danny DeVito’s freakish appearance, Machiavellian mayor run, bile-gargling diction and savage nose-bite are still cinematic elements that stick with me twenty-six years after my first viewing.
With rumors swirling that The Penguin will likely be the primary villain in Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman film, it’s likely the Penguin isn’t retiring as a Bat-villain anytime soon.
If Tom King can craft an interesting Kite Man tale, surely he can do the same with the Penguin in Batman #58, right?
The answer is yes.
“The Tyrant Wing” begins with the Penguin learning of the death of a loved one, Penny. Although Penny is never shown explicitly, we glean from King’s compelling narrative, which follows the Penguin through a battle with Batman, imprisonment in Arkham, a meeting with a “mysterious operator lurking behind the scenes in Gotham City,” (not-so spoiler alert: it’s Bane) and the implementation of plans from said operator to “punish [Bruce] Wayne,” just how much she meant to him. This is made especially evident during Penny’s Cobblepot’s funeral, where the Penguin sprinkles dirt on the deceased’s casket.
“They all thought you were small and silly,” the Penguin says, kneeling over Penny’s grave. “Another lost… thing to be passed around from man to man. They never understood. They never even considered. That maybe… maybe… you had a soul.” It’s a scene that is rich with pathos; a rare look at the Penguin’s empathetic side for a woman who he loved dearly (one whose profession did nothing to diminish that love) and one that becomes imperative to the issue’s curious ending.
A recurring motif which King weaves skillfully into the narrative is the Shakespearean poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” We first hear it as the Penguin recites a stanza just before meeting Bane in prison; again as the epitaph on Penny Cobblepot’s gravestone and once more, in its entirety superimposed onto a sequence that intercuts between Batman tearing his way through a flock of the Penguin’s goons in the Iceberg Lounge and a group of hitmen en route to their target at Wayne Mansion via helicopter. If you have the time after reading this issue, read the full poem by Shakespeare. Per Wikipedia’s synopsis:
The Phoenix and the Turtle is an allegorical poem about the death of ideal love by William Shakespeare. … The poem describes a funeral arranged for the deceased Phoenix and Turtledove, respectively emblems of perfection and of devoted love.
King’s inclusion of the poem isn’t some case of shoehorned pretense — it complements the story in accomplished form and hammers home Penguin’s sense of enduring bereavement.
That mourning, of course, wouldn’t be as effectively expressed without the art, which is handled this issue by Mikel Janin (art) and Jordie Bellaire (colors). I always look forward to Janin’s work and he doesn’t disappoint in this issue. His Penguin is a more realistic take on the one in Batman: The Animated Series, double-chinned and beak-nosed and portly — but appropriately menacing and calculating when he needs to be.
There are plenty of beautiful scenes throughout, from the opening battle between Batman and Penguin wreathed in orange-red flames to the Penguin, dejected-looking in his orange prison jumpsuit within the cold, steel-blue walls of Arkham Asylum to a gorgeous shot of Alfred, suspended upside down from the ceiling of the Bat-Cave as he wipes down the trophy T-Rex’s teeth with Batman gazing up at him, purple cape swirled about his ankles.
All in all, an auspicious start to “The Tyrant Wing” arc and one that portends plenty of compelling interaction and synergy between Batman and the Penguin. Flock to this one.