Skip to main content

The Penguin: A guide to DC's Oswald Cobblepot ahead of The Batman spinoff show on Max

Ahead of the new Max series, get to know Batman's most underrated villain.

The Penguin (MAX)
Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery

Popverse's top stories of the day

What makes the Penguin such a big deal anyway? It’s hard to reconcile the fact that with the greatest rogues gallery in comics, of all the villains who could be getting their own live action television show this year, the role is going to the birds and umbrellas guy. How exactly did we get to this point? Well, the fact that it’s Colin Farrell reprising his character from the 2022 The Batman film is certainly a big part of it. But we wouldn’t have gotten Farrell playing The Penguin in the first place if he didn’t bring something special to the tapestry of Batman.

For all the chaos that The Joker brings to Batman’s order, or the puzzles that The Riddler unveils to sharpen Batman’s mind, it’s often The Penguin who stands most directly in the way of Batman’s overarching mission: to rid Gotham City of crime and corruption. Most of Batman’s enemies are just one figure in that broad war on crime. But as a man plugged into the infrastructure of Gotham’s underworld, The Penguin, in many ways, *is* crime in Gotham. The gambling, the bribery, the racketeering, the trafficking, all of it goes through the Iceberg mostly submerged beneath the city’s waters.

The question has been asked before whether Superman has his own Joker; but if we’re asking the opposite question, if Batman has his own Luthor, then there’s only one right answer: the man at the center of it all, representing a rotten status quo as he steers the helm of his city’s worst inclinations. And that’s the birds and umbrellas guy.

If you’re interested in learning a little more about who The Penguin is, where he’s coming from, the different flavors of the character we’ve seen, we’ve worked up a little guide for you.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice
Image credit: DC

The first book we’d recommend to anyone looking to understand The Penguin. This stand-alone six-issue series from 2011 captures the pathos baked into the character by adaptations like Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series without compromising his status as the most vindictive blackened soul in Gotham, simultaneously loathsome and pitiable. Pain and Prejudice is a desperate cry for love from a man who has never done anything in his life to deserve it; a hateful man who sees himself always as the victim long after he’s conclusively seized the power. A cautionary tale of what happens when great power is taken by small men.

Emperor Penguin

Detective Comics: Emperor Penguin
Image credit: DC

A bright spot in the early 'New 52' run of Detective Comics was John Layman’s unexpected turn on the 'Emperor Penguin' storyline, clashing Oswald Cobblepot’s massive ego against Bruce Wayne’s as an upwardly mobile underling snatched the Iceberg Lounge up from under him. As often as The Penguin seems to get away with pulling one over on Gotham City, it’s surprisingly refreshing to see his own tactics used against him by his own underlings. It just goes to show there’s no honor to be found among thieves.

No Man’s Land: Bread and Circuses

No Man's Land: Bread and Circuses
Image credit: DC

It was in the midst of Gotham City’s greatest crisis to that date, the catastrophe of 'No Man’s Land' which swept across every Batman title for a year from 1999 to 2000, that The Penguin’s now signature penchant for taking advantage of a chaotic state to seize a leadership role was defined. As a government-alienated Gotham fell into lawlessness, The Penguin marshaled his resources to rise up as a kingpin of the city, tending to the most vicious and decadent needs of Gotham’s citizens in exchange for power and influence. It’s a role Penguin would continue to fill in later stories like War Games and Forever Evil. But it was this chapter of 'No Man’s Land' which earned him his reputation as a natural leader whenever Gotham City turns its ugliest.

Birds of Prey: Endrun

Birds of Prey #3 (2010)
Image credit: DC

One of the best types of Penguin stories is when he finds himself on the same side of a team he has no business being a part of, with his unconventional personality and skillset offering surprising advantages just as often as it does liabilities. Take, for instance, his role in the '80s Suicide Squad series, or near the end of the Pre-Flashpoint volume of Secret Six. But the most delightfully unlikely of all of these is The Penguin’s role in the often-overlooked 2010 volume of Birds of Prey, where Oracle’s crack team of experts are forced to protect this miscreant’s life from a deadly assassin. To say personalities clash would be a gross understatement. And when it comes to The Penguin, you’re looking for a little bit of gross.

The Penguin (2023)

The Penguin #5
Image credit: DC

The most up-to-date story of The Penguin is still being told, in his own ongoing series by Tom King and Rafael De Latorre. It’s a rare honor for a DC Comics villain to score their own ongoing, and let’s not pretend that it was greenlit for any reason other than in support of the upcoming Penguin streaming series. But King and De Latorre have taken advantage of this unusual assignment to present The Penguin as he has always been, but rarely acknowledged before: as Batman’s strategic rival in competition for the heart of Gotham. Like Superman For All Seasons, the narration throughout the series stays staunchly opaque in its avoidance of The Penguin’s own thoughts of himself – he is only ever thought of, commented upon, and judged by those around him, from hot dog vendors to Batman himself. If Pain and Prejudice is about the distorted mirror through which Oswald Cobblepot sees himself, King and De Latorre’s The Penguin reflects how Gotham sees their underworld kingpin.

Batman, 'Hizzoner the Penguin'

Hizzoner The Penguin

No incarnation of The Penguin since his creation has ever been so influential as the one portrayed by Burgess Meredith in the 1960s Batman TV show. Where most of Batman’s brightly-colored antagonists spoke in puns and left telltale clues to lead Batman into a series of easily escapable death traps, Penguin’s episodes were always standouts. Never satisfied with a typical criminal caper, Penguin was often determined to beat Batman at his own game. Like “Fine Feathered Finks,” where he tricks Batman into planning his heists for him; or 'The Penguin Goes Straight,' where he earns the city’s trust as a rival crimefighter to Batman; or 'The Penguin’s Nest,' where, decades before The Joker would do the same in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Penguin hatches a scheme dependent on his own arrest. But the most memorable of them all was “Hizzoner the Penguin,” the start of Oswald Cobblepot’s political ambitions as mayor of Gotham City. Penguin’s skill in manipulating the voting public to his own ends is codified in this two-part episode, one which would translate into multiple comic book stories over the generations to come, and even form the bulk of his narrative arc in Tim Burton’s Batman duology. Everything we know about Penguin as an enemy who challenges Batman not in clues or riddles, but with strategy, can be traced back to here.

The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, 'The Case of the Stolen Powers'

The Case of the Stolen Super Powers
Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery

One of the most fun episodes of the entire ten season, many-named run of Super Friends is an unlikely escapade from their final season featuring The Penguin. In a twisted sort of predecessor to the infamous Emperor Joker storyline where Batman’s top-billed antagonist was granted cosmic power, here, a mix-up by Felix Faust attempting to steal the powers of Superman accidentally transfers them instead to his prison cellmate, Oswald Cobblepot. Check in for this adventure and you’ll believe a penguin can fly.

The Batman vs. Dracula

The Batman vs. Dracula
Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery

The unique nu-metal style of the 2004 animated series The Batman was divisive at the time among those who had come to love the timeless quality of the preceding Batman: The Animated Series, but its legion of younger millennial and Gen Z fans aren’t without valid points. One of those points is the brilliant performance of Tom Kenny as the sniveling, self-important Penguin, who gives his best performance as the villain in The Batman vs. Dracula animated film – standing in for the role of Renfield as the toady at the vampire lord’s beck and call. The Penguin is ultimately a survivor, and smart money is always on Dracula.

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman

Batman: Mystery of The Batwoman
Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery

Greenlit off the box office success of Batman Returns, the creators of Batman: The Animated Series had their flippers tied when it came to adapting The Penguin. As iconic as Danny DeVito’s performance was in the preceding film, it wasn’t quite a style of character which ever completely gelled with the tone Bruce Timm and Paul Dini would set for the show. With their follow-up series, The New Batman Adventures, Timm and Dini had the opportunity to redesign many of their characters. One of the greatest glow-ups, in that process, was Oswald Cobblepot: presented here as a “respectable businessman” who Batman and his allies would get tangled up in red tape whenever they tried to touch him. One part Golden Age, Kane and Finger 'Gentleman of Crime,' and four or five parts Burgess Meredith, The New Batman Adventures introduced an aristocratic savoir faire to The Penguin which would rank him among the coolest members in Batman’s rogues gallery. The animated film Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman does the most to showcase this particular version of The Penguin, placing him at the heart of the titular Batwoman mystery as he wrests control of Gotham from his rivals.

Batman Returns

Batman Returns
Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery

If you haven’t seen The Penguin in Batman Returns yet, what are you doing? In fact, even if you have seen it, has it been more than three years? Go back and watch it again. Tim Burton’s toy box approach to the mythos can be hard to swallow for the comic diehards, but it tonally strikes a chord that can only harmonize with Batman. That goes especially for The Penguin, a putrid, vile, rotten egg of a man cast into the sewers and raised by penguins as portrayed by Danny DeVito at his most unhinged. It’s a characterization with almost nothing in common with any other version of the character as he’s been depicted over the last 80 years, but like Ledger’s Joker or Michael Ansara’s Mr. Freeze, one which can never be extricated from the villain’s identity. You gotta admit: he played this stinking city like a harp from Hell.

He is vengeance, he is the night, he is... one of Popverse's favorite subjects. Learn how to do a Dark Knight movie marathon right with our Batman movie guide, and for the true World's Greatest Detectives out there, dive deep into the heart of Gotham City by getting to know Batman with Popverse.

Follow Popverse for upcoming event coverage and news

Alex Jaffe avatar
Alex Jaffe: Alex Jaffe is a columnist for DC Comics, answering reader-submitted questions about the minutiae of comic book history. He also hosts the Insert Credit podcast, where he's been asking the smartest people in video games the weirdest questions he can think of since 2012. ReedPOP is Alex's place to write about Star Wars, his "vacation universe" away from DC, but he may be persuaded to occasionally broach other topics. A powerful leg kick makes this goon the meanest guy in the gang.
Related topics

Let Popverse be your tour guide through the wilderness of pop culture

Sign in and let us help you find your new favorite thing.