Review: Penguin: Pain and Prejudice trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

[Guest reviewer Scott Beattie writes about the Memphis Grizzlies for Straight Outta Vancouver]

Although the Penguin is arguably one of Batman's most memorable villains, this has more to do with the portrayals of Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito than anything that has appeared in comics. With the relaunch of the DC Universe through the New 52, there has been an opportunity for creators to breathe new life into characters in desperate need of a fresh start. Considering the fact that the Penguin is a property with an incredible potential for marketability, it was only natural that he was chosen as the subject of a miniseries.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice is a series in which the plot is secondary to a grim and brooding character portrait. Additionally, the trade also includes the Penguin one-shot "He Who Laughs Last ..." written by Jason Aaron as part of Batman: Joker's Asylum. Gregg Hurwitz takes many of the ideas suggested by Aaron and expands them into five issues. In doing so, he has created what might eventually be thought of as the definitive take on the character.

[Review contains spoilers]

For the first two issues, Hurwitz is content to forgo a true plot in favor of character development. Scenes of the Penguin's present life are contrasted with flashbacks from his childhood: unloved by his father, bullied by his brothers, and doted on by his mother. Although the reader sympathizes with his circumstances, the reader is not ultimately meant to actually sympathize with Penguin himself -- but in glimpsing his childhood, we are better able to understand his motivations. When he meets and falls in love with the blind woman Cassandra in the third issue, the reader doesn't doubt his sincerity because we observed that same love directed towards his mother. While it is rather cliche to cast Penguin's inability to love himself as the cause of the inevitable breakdown in their relationship, Hurwitz writes the character so well that the reader can accept it.

In the past, the Penguin has often been portrayed as a mafia boss with a fondness for trick umbrellas. While this is no more ridiculous than, say, a man who wears a question-marked green jacket and compulsively leave riddles when he commits a crime, it is difficult to make the character seem threatening in a world where the Joker's face has been cut off. Hurwitz recasts the Penguin as a ruthless crime lord who has absolute control over his domain. When someone crosses him, they are not beaten up, tortured, or killed outright. Instead, a stroke of bad luck befalls all of their family and friends -- murder, car crashes, terminal illness -- at the same time. The device works so well because we see the germ of this strategy in Penguin's childhood. Through meticulous planning, he slowly eliminates each of his brothers and his father until only he and his mother remain.

What is especially remarkable about this version of the character are the henchmen that serve him. For a villain like Penguin who relies so heavily on his underlings, it is important that they are competent, because if they're not, it's difficult for the reader to perceive him as a true threat. Hurwitz surmounts this problem in Pain and Prejudice, because when Oswald Cobblepot gives instructions, they are carried out immediately with ruthless efficiency.

No Penguin story would be complete without appearance by Batman, but Hurwitz wisely opts to keep Batman mostly in the background. When he does appear, the reader is given only brief glimpses where very little of the Dark Knight is seen onscreen. As the reader is repeatedly shown how Oswald Cobblepot suffered at the hands of bullies as a child, we are able to see how he views Batman as the worst bully of them all. Batman acknowledges as much during a conversation with Jim Gordon, and even questions if it is fair that the people they protect are often just as terrible as the Penguin. In contrast, perhaps, to Brian Azzarello's Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries, Hurwitz preserves Batman and Gordon's heroism in this story, rather than portraying them solely as villains from the titular villain's perspective, as Azzarello did with Superman.

Unfortunately, the story begins to fall apart as it departs from gritty character study to superhero narrative. Although the motivation behind Penguin's plot -- manipulating birds into killing the children of Gotham -- is at least consistent with his character, it represents an alarming shift from realism into outright ridiculousness; Penguin even wields one of his signature trick umbrellas during his climatic duel with Batman. Prior to this, the plot had mainly revolved around the brutal robberies of rare jewelry, so one can't help but wonder if the over-the-top ridiculousness was simply pandering to fans of the Batman films. Regardless, most of the silliness takes place in the final issue, and by that point, Hurwitz has earned enough of the reader's goodwill to be forgiven.

Szymon Kudranski's art is effective for the majority of the series. The stark color palette -- mostly shades of grey and red -- is a good thematic fit for the material, as is Kudranski's photo-realistic style. There are some noticeable mistakes during the action sequences; characters get from point to another in a way that feels as if there is a panel missing. Additionally, the art really tends to break down in the final chapter. It's clear that conveying action is not yet one of Kudranski's strengths, but, overall, the art is strong enough so as not to distract the reader from the text.

Although none of the New 52 DC miniseries have sold well on a monthly basis, the content of Penguin: Pain and Prejudice was strong enough that Gregg Hurwitz was given the writing duties for Batman: The Dark Knight immediately afterwards. Based on his work here and in The Dark Knight, I look forward to seeing what else he has to offer the DC Universe.
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