There is a slightly uncomfortable peculiarity in the Batman mythos. Batman, though he wears a mask and makes an effort to present himself as frightening, is actually a very handsome man in peak physical condition. His adversaries are, with a handful of exceptions, ugly. They might be literally disfigured, like Two-Face and the Joker, or are simply strange looking men, many of whom get looked over if not outright bullied as a result of their unusual appearances, such as Mad Hatter and Scarecrow. When you think about it, then, Batman comics predominantly feature a physically fit, athletic and handsome man beating up awkward and ugly social misfits. Which, when phrased like that, seems decidedly not heroic.
Of course, I wouldn’t read much into it – this is broad fiction, something like a modern myth, and it’s pretty traditional to denote an interior ugliness with an exterior one. As well, it gives these ne’er-do-wells an immediate pathos, a shorthand reason for their villainy, because it’s well understood that most bullies were themselves bullied. In many ways, that’s the precise narrative of Gregg Hurwitz and Szymon Kudranski’s Penguin: Pain & Prejudice, which details the past of one of Batman’s oddest looking enemies. Oswald Cobblepot’s appearance sets the tone for his entire life, earning the immediate derision of his father upon the first glimpse of his infant son. While vanity is a theme played out in previous Batman books (the Two-Face centric Faces, in particular), it is particularly fascinating in the context of the Penguin, because even as one of the most powerful men in Gotham, his own appearance is one hurdle he never lets himself overcome.
Vanity also informs the beer which I’ve paired with this book, a dark ale from the UK’s Box Steam Brewery. Called Dark & Handsome, the beer’s label relates the story of one Isembard Kingdom Brunel. Like Oswald Cobblepot, Brunel was both whimsically named and notably short – “standing a whisker over 5 feet tall,” the beer bottle informs me. This, evidently, gave Brunel another propensity shared with the fictional Cobblepot: a love of top hats, to add a few inches to his overall stature.
Despite minor appearances in The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, we’ve not really encountered the Penguin much in our boozy reading of Batman comics, and despite his high profile, we really won’t see him much again for quite awhile. A miniseries released in 2012 following DC’s New 52 relaunch, Penguin: Pain & Prejudice seems to be set within that post-Flashpoint continuity, but its precise position is a little nebulous. This seemed as good a time as any to discuss the book as it establishes the Penguin as a real criminal power in Gotham, a position which he pretty well maintains in the background of many comics going forward. If one so chooses, it’s easy to insert the Penguin’s ascent to criminal dominance as a result of the eradication of the Falcone empire in Dark Victory. Wherever you place it, though, Pain & Prejudice is a pretty great examination of a villain who isn’t quite like any other of Batman’s adversaries. Because the Penguin isn’t a psychotic serial killer like the Joker. He isn’t someone with a mask and a gimmick. He has no fear toxins, hallucinogens, or freeze guns. His only power is, well, power.
There’s plenty of pain in this book and a fair share of prejudice, but the real p-word which dominates this story is power. As a child, within his own family, despised by his father, tormented by his brothers, young Oswald learns that there are other means of exerting influence without physical dominance. His only solace is the unconditional love of his mother (whose face is never shown throughout the entire comic, as though she is the only person in Penguin’s eyes whose appearance is inconsequential), and looks to earn her undivided affection by slyly orchestrating the deaths of his father and each of his brothers. These downright chilling scenes are shown only as flashbacks, as a “present day” story unfolds, in which that bullied little child has grown into a man of terrifying influence in Gotham’s underworld. The book leaves us to fill in the blanks between his childhood and adulthood, implying that Oswald’s appetite for influence, and his ruthlessness to obtain it, only grew as he did. As an adult, he has attained such power that he can destroy a person’s entire life just because they offended him.
For a character who can easily be portrayed as almost silly, this book does an incredibly convincing job of making him just as dark as the current comic book fashion demands, without altering him beyond recognition. Szymon Kudranski’s art is perfectly suited to this, with heavy inks defining every image as a striking composition of stark lights and shadows. This book is probably darker than this beer, and this beer is near black. Upon pouring it and seeing the colour, I wondered why Box Steam opted not to label it as a stout or porter – it’s certainly dark enough. However, upon drinking it, I think they were wise not to. Though some of those usual coffee and chocolate notes are present, there’s an unexpected fruitiness, as well as a persistent bitterness from the first sip on through to the aftertaste. At the risk of making it sound more unappealing than it is, I would almost identify it as a medicinal bitterness (the label does promise some blackcurrant and liquorice undertones).
The bitterness of the beer is appropriate to this book, however, because the Penguin certainly knows bitterness. Narrating an encounter with Batman, whom he calls out as “the masked bully,” the Penguin betrays his bitterness: confronted by the Batman, he feels powerless again, which is something he will not tolerate. Unfortunately, this is resolved by a fairly standard issue super-villain plot, not far removed from the one employed by Danny DeVito’s version of the character in Batman Returns, all for the sake of giving the book an action-movie denouement which is wholly uncalled for by the story preceding it. But that story which precedes it is pretty heartbreaking stuff.
According to the beer label, Isambard Kingdom Brunel got a happy ending: “Despite his lack of stature, Brunel successfully wooed the beautiful Mary Horsley.” This is where the similarities between Brunel and Cobblepot, tragically, diverge. Pain & Prejudice does offer the Penguin some romance, but Cobblepot destroys the relationship because of his vanity, assuming no one would love him looking like he does. As he ends the book, plotting an escape from his prison cell, one might wonder, even without a masked bully to put him in his place, if a character as irrevocably damaged as the Penguin could ever really win.