Few Batman’s Rogues Gallery members have seen as many radical changes as The Penguin. He first appeared in Detective Comics #58, co-created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Like many new villains of the time, he had no secret identity and was simply The Penguin. Creators would come up with concepts for adversaries for their title heroes without any real plan for them to come back. They would merely gauge how the audience felt through letters or how the creators themselves felt after the fact. While most villains had an apparent gimmick (The Joker uses deadly pranks, The Riddler leaves riddles, Catwoman is a cat burglar, etc.), The Penguin was a bit of an odd duck (no pun intended). His crimes were often bird-themed, but he was also known for using gimmicky umbrellas…you know, like a penguin.
At first, The Penguin used an umbrella gun and was able to roll up stolen paintings and hide them within the device. Next, he got involved with mobsters but turned on them and was dealt with handily by Batman and Robin. A while later, the villain would pop back up running a scam in Mississippi where he would break criminals out of jail only to turn them in for the reward. After that, he was found running a gambling ring in Florida with bird-themed partners, Canary, Buzzard Benny, and (sigh) Jim Crow. After these escapades, The Penguin was brought back to Gotham and started using birds in his crimes. This would solidify how he’d be used by writers for the majority of the Golden Age, but eventually, he’d retroactively have an origin written for him.
When the Silver Age of the 1950s rolled around, readers would learn that The Penguin was really Oswald Cobblepot. He was the child of Gotham socialites who was bullied for his roly-poly appearance and developed a love of birds. During the Silver Age, The Penguin would expand beyond the pages of Batman and Detective Comics, teaming up with villains like Captain Cold and Mirror Master. Through the manipulations of Doctor Destiny, he even switched bodies with Batman for a short period. The Penguin was also a main recurring enemy in the 1966 Batman series played by Burgess Meredith, who set the standard for the villain. You’d also be able to see The Penguin in various Batman animated appearances at this time. As the 1960s brought cultural upheaval, creators at DC began moving away from sillier fare and focused on more socially conscious stories. This meant characters like The Penguin would be shelved for a time.
In the latter part of the Silver Age, The Penguin partnered with other Batman foes and was even the villain that brought Batman and Talia al Ghul together. In the final Silver Age Batman story, Ra’s Al Ghul busted all of Batman’s foes free from Arkham and the state penitentiary. The Penguin was one of those hordes and formed one group of villains that went up against a team made by The Joker. Once Crisis on Infinite Earths was done, reboots were in order, and after Frank Miller’s revolutionary Batman: Year One, his villains got the same treatment.
Here we got a more nuanced and detailed backstory for Oswald Cobblepot. Most of the basics were the same: He was an outcast from a high society family, which drove him to crime. In a mockery of his aristocratic upbringing, Oswald wore an outfit that made him look like one of them: top hat, monocle, tuxedo. This origin made sure to emphasize that, unlike The Joker or Two-Face, The Penguin was completely sane. He was a part of Gotham’s organized crime families, and his gimmick nature was slightly de-emphasized. This new origin was written by Alan Grant & illustrated by Norm Breyfogle, two crucial creators in Batman’s post-Crisis period.
At this same time, Batman Returns had hit theaters bringing Tim Burton’s interpretation of the character to the screen. Once again, the basics were there, but the difference lay in the details. Oswald Cobblepot was tossed into the sewers by his wealthy parents as a baby. This version of the Penguin, played by Danny Devito, is physically disfigured and a mentally unwell villain. He was (somehow) raised by penguins who had been abandoned at Gotham’s closed zoo. I don’t think animals are left behind if a zoo closes, but in Burton’s Bat-verse, they must be. Also, likely due to multiple drafts of the scripts being combined, The Penguin is allied with a criminal circus or a circus-themed gang. This is never explained in the film. Plus, he puts in a bid to run for mayor of Gotham, but it’s secretly a plan to kill all of Gotham’s firstborn children. While there is a lot to love about Batman Returns aesthetically, it presents a highly confounding version of The Penguin.
In the comics, Grant & Breyfogle’s reboot of the character proved to be the most long-lasting portrayal of The Penguin. During Bruce Wayne’s absence in the Knightsquest storyline, The Penguin figured out the Batman running around Gotham was not his usual foe. He kidnapped Commissioner Gordon’s wife Sarah but is taken out by the brutal new Batman. This led to Oswald shifting his m.o., dropping the gimmicks, and starting The Iceberg Lounge. This Arctic-themed nightclub was part of his effort in feigning that The Penguin had gone straight. He would be arrested for brief amounts of time and then let go when there wasn’t enough proof to pin him. In some instances, The Penguin would even act as an informant about other criminals in the city, garnering him a slightly friendly view by authorities, and they would allow his criminal exploits through his business to continue.
Though there have been brief periods that put Oswald Cobblepot back in conflict with Batman, he simply isn’t that type of villain anymore. The Joker, Riddler, and others still play the same fundamental roles, but The Penguin exists as an antagonistic supporting character in Batman books. The Batman film appears to be creating a blend of previous versions, making him a criminal in direct conflict with the Dark Knight while also having status in the Gotham families. Colin Farrell has been the most shocking part of the film’s promotional materials looking unrecognizable, almost like a take on Tony Soprano. If the new film presents Oswald as a play on that mobster trope, I think it will be great. It’s probably one of the few ways to place The Penguin in a grittier Batman adaptation.