Oswald Copplepot makes his stand.
As much as Tom King’s Batman run has found bold, ambitious new ways of highlighting the wounded man beneath the costume, it’s also worked wonders on several major and minor Bat-villains. The sad saga of Kite-Man in “The War of Jokes and Riddles” stands out as one clear example. There’s also the portrayal of Selina Kyle as a tragic mirror to Batman who sacrifices their romance for the greater good or Bane as a man whose fleeting dance with inner peace is shattered by the Dark Knight. With this newest story arc, it’s clear King and artist Mikel Janin are turning their attention to Penguin. And so far, the results are promising.
When last Penguin was seen in this series, he was revealed to be a member of Bane’s secret cabal, helping the villainous mastermind orchestrate his grand plot against Batman. This issue delves deeper into that alliance and Oswald Cobblepot’s motivations for allying with Bane. Needless to say, it’s not an altogether stable arrangement, and Penguin quickly emerges as a self-interested neutral agent in this deepening war between Batman and Bane.
King’s take on Penguin is somewhat risky. It’s all too easy to go overboard when it comes to humanizing this character and trying to justify his sadistic actions. There are a couple questionable storytelling choices in this issue. For one thing, King depicts Penguin as a frequent resident of Arkham Asylum, despite the fact that he’s traditionally depicted as one of the few Batman villains who’s perfectly sane. Then there’s the reveal that Penguin is motivated by his love for a recently deceased prostitute named Penny. It’s hard not to think back to the one-shot special Joker’s Asylum: Penguin #1, which explored how Penguin’s obsessive love inevitably devolves into a toxic desire for control. That darker take, frankly, is more plausible than this tender, sentimental look at a man mourning the loss of the one woman who accepted him for who he is.
That all being said, Penguin is a pretty malleable character. One need only look at how much his characterization varies in projects like Gotham, Batman Returns and the Arkham games to appreciate that. King’s more sentimental approach to the villain may be a bit of a stretch, but the script sells the idea all the same. You can’t help but sympathize with Cobblepot as he mourns and quietly fumes over his miserable lot in the life. King’s decision to insert a Shakespeare poem about the loss of idealized love helps enhance the tragic tone of this issue and Penguin’s role in the conflict.
There’s also a terrific sense of tension driving this issue. King touches base with Batman following his recent ordeals, subtly but clearly portraying him as a hero beginning to crack under the weight of so much trauma. The fact that this issue acknowledges the loss of Dick Grayson certainly puts it one up over the past couple chapters. And as the conflict grows, King and Janin build to a dramatic crescendo that leaves readers questioning whether even that tragedy was a prelude to something even worse for Bruce Wayne.
This series is rarely better than when Janin and colorist Jordie Bellaire are at the helm. Janin’s presence here is greatly appreciated given the moody, introspective nature of the script. Apart from Mitch Gerads, no artist on this series seems to air as well with King for those sorts of stories. It helps that Janin is able to shake up the series’ general storytelling approach. As much as King put the nine-panel grid to good use, it’s always good to shake up the formula and experiment. That’s something Janin does frequently here, alternating between tight, structured panels, more free-form layouts and big splash images. It’s also worth noting that this is janin’s first chance to draw Batman in his classic costume. It’s funny how such a minor change can make an already great take look that much better.
Bellaire’s colors are instrumental to this issue’s success. She heightens the mood on every page, bringing moments of energy and excitement to break up the otherwise glum, morose tone of the book. This is the best the series has looked in several months at least.