Thursday, September 13, 2012

Detective Comics #58 (December, 1941)

"One of the Most Perfect Frame-Ups"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis:  Bruce has taken Dick to an art gallery to give him an appreciation of culture. While there they bump into a short, fat man wearing a tuxedo and top hat, complete with monocle, umbrella and smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Dick makes fun of the man's appearance, calling him a penguin, and Bruce chastises him, despite privately agreeing.
But then! The staff inform the visitors that two paintings, worth half a million between them, have been stolen, and that no one can leave until everyone has been searched. However, no one is found to have the paintings on them.
But that night, the fat man in the evening clothes meets with one of the biggest racketeers in town, offering to sell the stolen paintings. He announces himself as The Penguin, and shows the crooks that he smuggled the paintings rolled up in the hollow handle of his umbrella. The boss gives the Penguin a position in the gang planning their robberies, and soon a brilliant crime spree overtakes the city.
At the Stahl Auctioneering House, Bruce Wayne once again bumps into the Penguin. There's a power outage, and when the lights come back on the fabulous Columbia Diamond is stolen. When the Penguin returns to the Boss, he is squeezed out of his usual cut, and responds by shooting the Boss with his trick umbrella -- actually a concealed rifle. The Penguin takes over the gang by force.
In his disguise as a dock worker, Bruce overhears some of Penguin's men at a waterfront bar discuss the theft of a jade idol from the Stahl auction house. When the attempt is made, Batman shows up to stop the burglars. But he didn't know the Penguin would be there personally, who gasses him with a trick umbrella. As he leaves with the idol, Penguin hits the alarm, so that when the police show up all they find is the gassed Batman.
Batman is confused, the police only want to know what happened (remember, Batman is an honourary police now), as a gentleman named Mr. Boniface has reported a jade idol stolen. Just then, Mr. Boniface bursts in accusing Batman of stealing the idol, only Mr. Boniface is... The Penguin! Batman is confused from the gas, and doesn't have time to respond to the charges that Batman was using his status with the police to threaten Boniface for protection money. The police take Batman away.
Then a car, driven by the Penguin's men, rams the police truck, and Batman finds himself tied up in the Penguin's home. The Penguin has already called the police, putting out an alarm that the Batman has escaped, and now has the Batman trapped in an impossible scenario -- if he stays put, he's guilty and Penguin will kill him "in self-defence", if he escapes the police will shoot him down as a fugitive. Penguin wonders which trick umbrella to kill him with, finding one with a knife concealed in the handle...
But Batman has been tapping the heel of his foot while tied up, using the radio transmitter concealed within to communicate a Morse Code signal to Robin's belt radio receiver, and soon enough the Boy Wonder is crashing through the windows and rescuing the Batman. The Dynamic Duo retreats, and Penguin in his guise as Boniface sends the police after them. Commissioner Gordon is wracked with dramatic guilt -- was he wrong to trust the Batman? 
By following the Penguin's gang around disguised as a blind man and an urchin, Batman and Robin are able to burst in on their attempt to rob a diamond exchange by tunneling through a joined wall with another building. The police arrive soon after, and the Penguin covers his escape by firing a jet of acid at the Dynamic Duo from his umbrella and running off with the jewels.
Batman makes chase, but the Penguin manages to catch an express train passing through and escape. However, the Dark Knight recovered the jewels, which the fleeing bird dropped. In the Commissioner's office with the recovered gems, Gordon apologizes for doubting Batman, while the Dark Knight is merely upset that he failed to nab the Penguin.
My Thoughts: What a great little story for introducing the Penguin, one of Batman's most lasting rogues. In recent years the character has kind of fallen on the wayside as many writers and artists are unsure what to do with him, but I think going back to this conception of the character would be best. The Penguin is a criminal genius who cloaks himself in respectability. He wears the trappings of the aristocratic gentleman but in fact is a thief. It's unclear in the story if Finger intended "Boniface" to be Penguin's real name, but he states within the story that he has many aliases, so I am inclined to think that Boniface is merely his current "respectable" identity. Penguin talks of Shakespeare and quoting Keats, but then has an array of lethal trick umbrellas. He's all about the ugliness under the surface. He's a great character, and he's really fun here. He's also the first villain Batman's ever face whom the hero was unable to defeat at the end of the story. Penguin escapes! 
The Art: First things first, I have to compliment Bob Kane's character design of the Penguin. Kane stated he was inspired by Willie the Penguin, the mascot of Kool cigarettes, and the great thing about Kane's Penguin is that he actually looks like a penguin! He's fat, but it's all down at the bottom, and he's got short stubby legs, and his coattails stick out and his nose is held proud in the air and it really does give the appearance of a penguin, moreso than some of the modern redesigns. The line work is pretty good throughout, but the characters are often too small in the frame and the inking is thick and smudges their features together often.
The Story: Finger said he intended the Penguin to be a parody of the two-faced aristocrat, presenting one face to society but concealing another, and so like many of Finger's characters the Penguin is a great study in duality. He's also, like many Batman villains, a great mirror to Bruce Wayne, as they both imploy a high-society shield for their nightly activities. The notion of challenging Batman's status with the police, attempting to frame him, is really interesting this early into Batman's relationship with Gordon, as its actually realistic to think that Gordon could believe he was wrong about Batman the whole time, and one can imagine the strain this experience would put on their trust. So while most of the a-to-b plot elements of the theft, chases, and fights are pretty standard, they are given great new life by the new villain and the new status quo of the strip. Also, Finger remembered to keep Penguin alive, hell, not even in prison, to easily return in a sequel!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Penguin, first time Batman is framed following his deputization
Penguin Body Count: 2

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