The Penguin #1 Review: Oswald Cobblepot Molts Into a Truly Terrifying Figure

The Penguin presents readers with a frightening new vision of Gotham City's avian-themed kingpin ready to rival Wilson Fisk.

The current run of Batman began by shifting Oswald Cobblepot—the Gotham City crime lord better known as The Penguin—away from his familiar perch at The Iceberg Lounge to be replaced by his bastard children after faking his own death. The Penguin uses that disruption to examine one of Batman's longest-standing villains who, much like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, finds that just when he thought he was out, they'll drag him back in. What unfolds in the first issue repositions the rotund mastermind from being a criminal with a silly schtick to one of the most fearsome figures in DC Comics lore.

Writer Tom King utilizes a wide array of DC figures, but largely skirts around the trappings of the superhero genre in this first issue, preferring the framework of a spy thriller and knowing how to capture those beats well in serialized comics. In fact, the framing sequence featuring both Batman and Penguin in dire straits is the issue's weakest element as it pulls away from the grounded tension that provides this debut with surprising power. 

It turns out Cobblepot is most intimidating when seen through the eyes of those around him. Throughout the issue he is never seen in his iconic garb—top hat, monocle, tuxedo, and umbrella—and often speaks only when necessary. Instead, readers are invited to consider the perspectives of those approaching him in each new sequence. Internal monologues offer the thoughts of longstanding servants, interested operatives, and even unaware passersby. Each of them serves to define the small, quiet figure into an exceedingly capable individual – the only one who could consistently maintain a criminal empire under Batman's watch.

It's a sharp spin on Penguin's longstanding history and one that builds on past portrayals by King in series like Batman and Killing Time. Penguin may be the most sane of Batman's top rogues and that provides an entirely different form of threat. It also makes the interest of government agents in using his stature as cover for their own operations make perfect sense. That pitch defines The Penguin as a crime comic before anything else and there are sufficient moving pieces to make that criminal conspiracy instantly intriguing, even as it's just introduced.

The mundane frameworks established in The Penguin #1 are well defined by artist Rafael de Latorre and colorist Marcelo Maiolo. A tailor shop, flower store (and front), and Metropolis apartment are prime locales that lay out the villain's routines and concerns. De Latorre defines them clearly but doesn't heighten the atmosphere unnecessarily. There is nothing inherently extravagant about Cobblepot's current life and it makes everything around seem more fragile as a result. The only action sequence featured in the issue unleashes violence that's made more frightening by its simplicity, resembling an issue of Criminal more than Batman. Maiolo differentiates these sequences with colors that reflect the time of day and mood, including a particularly effective depiction of an interrogation room defined by harsh lighting and sparse details.

The Penguin #1 promises DC Comics and Batman fans alike a story grounded by elements of crime and subterfuge not requiring any superhero hijinks to function, and in doing so discovers what makes Oswald Cobblepot such a compelling anti-hero. Rather than leaning into idiosyncratic eccentricities, it stresses the control and competence required to manage a vast criminal conspiracy; Penguin has more in common with figures like Gus Fring or Stringer Bell than The Joker. In doing so it not only redefines the often overlooked rogue as a terrifying opponent for Batman, but an individual whose story is worth following on its own, especially because it offers no heroes.

Published by DC Comics

On August 22, 2023

Written by Tom King

Art by Rafael de Latorre

Colors by Marcelo Maiolo

Letters by Clayton Cowles

Cover by Stefano Gaudiano and Scorpio Steele