The Story: Pain and Prejudice, written by Gregg Hurwitz, is a graphic novel from the Batman universe that’s actually a compilation of five issues. (The issues, in numeric order, are “Cold World,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Blind Love,” “Practice Run,” and “Touch of Death.”) Here, readers are treated to Oswald Cobblepot’s origin story, from his troubled childhood to his rise as a king of crime in Gotham under the infamous moniker the Penguin.
To the more recent, less campy yet delightfully dark young adult incarnation portrayed by Robin Lord Taylor in Fox’s drama series “Gotham”…
In all of these instances, each actor has presented his own take on this iconic villain yet manages to retain some of the Penguin’s signature personality quirks.
Such as Oswald Cobblepot is one seriously sociopathic dude…who also just happens to be completely sane.
as paradoxical as that sounds. But it’s certainly true, and this truth is explored here in Pain and Prejudice.
I suppose I have to preface this review by saying that’s why I enjoy the Penguin as a villain: unlike the Joker or other Batman adversaries who are just flat-out (bat?) crazy, Cobblepot retains his sanity, utilizes mob-inspired tactics, and exhibits a gangster’s business sense. Yet despite these criminal schemes, he has been known to serve as a snitch at times (to Batman and/or Jim Gordon); thus, Cobblepot does some good that he doesn’t purposely intend, which keeps him from being utterly despicable as far as bad guys go. Make no mistake – the Penguin is not a charitable man nor does he commit good deeds for the sake of moral propriety. Instead, he does what he feels will benefit himself and his aims; and if that means ratting out another baddie, then that’s what he’ll do. Thus, his moral compass isn’t lost but it is sorely off-kilter.
But back to the graphic novel. I’ve never been a graphic novel reader though I take no issue with the medium nor do I view graphic novels as glorified comic books. I just never found one that retained my interest or that wasn’t some kind of socio-political sermon (I’m looking at you, V for Vendetta!). But thankfully, Pain and Prejudice did hold my interest and didn’t preach. Granted, there are interesting themes that are covertly addressed here, from revenge to the nature of love; but this graphic novel’s intent, first and foremost, is to entertain and enlighten readers as to the origins of a DC super-villain.
The novel begins with Cobblepot’s birth, which is met with fanfare only by his mother. In this version of his story, Penguin is despised by his father, who eventually dies from pneumonia, leaving Oswald to be raised by his mother along with his siblings. Oswald is clearly the runt of the litter as he’s mercilessly tormented. Unlike some villains who are bad simply because that’s the way they’re written to be, you feel (and see) little Oswald’s rejection and pain, which he uses to his advantage when it comes to plotting revenge. The abuse he suffers isn’t justified, but when one act serves as the final straw, he goes after those who have hurt him deeply.
Even from an early age, Cobblepot proves why it’s unwise to mess with him as, case in point, he actually murders his own brothers in various way, all cleverly designed to look like accidents. Hence, Oswald teaches himself that the best way to combat those who slight you is by striking back, and it’s a habit that follows him into adulthood.
This graphic novel skips ahead of his teen years (heaven forbid what those were like!) to Cobblepot’s adult self, which is colder and more calculated than his younger self, as he proudly reigns as one of Gotham’s kings of crime. At the heart of his operations is a desire to exact revenge upon those he feels has bullied him, no matter how small the infraction. This brings a far crueler color to Penguin’s character that I hadn’t encountered before yet I think his personality grows because of it. These portions are often juxtaposed with scenes of Oswald’s childhood or him tending to his ill mother in the present, showing he can be a man of deep cruelty as well as sincere compassion, and he can easily swing back and forth between the two like a pendulum. This creates a paradox that, for me, makes a great villain: Oswald Cobblepot is both black and white (no penguin pun intended…well, maybe just a little) as he can devise devious, sometimes murderous, schemes yet his heart isn’t entirely dead. Thus, he avoids becoming a stock villain who is bad “just because.” There is a reason to the Penguin’s methodology, as morally flawed as it is.
But as dark as Pain and Prejudice can be – both in its visual execution and its overall story – there is a bright spot through the introduction of the character Cassandra, a blind woman whom Oswald falls for. Yes, this sort of “blind love” plot has been done before, but I enjoyed it as Oswald seems to truly care for Cassandra and he struggles to understand the concept of love or devotion devoid of strings. For instance, Oswald lavishes expensive (and usually stolen) gifts upon Cassandra, but she’s more interested in getting to know him as a person than in accepting trinkets. She tries to explain to Oswald that, if I may quote from the Beatles, you “can’t buy me love;” and while Oswald listens to her, he never completely understands this concept.
Furthermore, Oswald’s care for his ill, aging mother reveals a tender side, showing that he is capable of love but the ability has been buried deep. Similarly,Oswald still tries to please his mother by giving her gifts, polishing her nails, and even building a robot penguin to tend to her needs while he is away. It’s sad in a way as it shows that Oswald’s only tie with any sense of humanity is his mother as he has no friends, no other family, and no significant other (besides Cassandra). His attempts to care for his mother show how he also tries to seek her approval even as an adult though she’s in no position to give it. Overall, Oswald’s interaction with Cassandra and his mother avoid becoming saccharine and, instead, generate sympathy for his character while not making him look pathetic.
The novel’s latter portions pit Penguin against Batman as the former concocts a scheme to spread chaos and terror throughout Gotham; thus much of the earlier, subdued dramatic tension is replaced with bombastic action and fight sequences. True to form, some of Oswald’s inherent camp value is retained here as it’s an army of robot penguins that brings most of the melee, but it’s not in a childish or cartoony sort of way. Overall, it plays out as a Batman drama should though, to be fair, the Dark Knight is not the focus of this piece, so his scenes are minimal considering the full scope of the narrative. In the end, Oswald learns his lesson so to speak, and everything wraps up as you might assume it does without me unleashing spoilers.
Concerning the illustrations (this is a graphic novel after all), the color scheme is dark but makes good use of a respectful palette that isn’t colorful and cheery like a Sunday comics page. I also thought the idea to use sharp lighting for the present day scenes and a muted style for Oswald’s flashbacks was a good move and visually enables you to tell the difference as to whether you’re witnessing the action in “real time” or as part of a flashback. It also bears noting that all of the scenes from Cobblepot’s childhood are rendered in a muted, softly illuminated style. I really liked this as it adds a good bleeding between light and shadows as well as an interesting contrast between the gentle color and lighting scheme and the often emotionally dark scenes.
My only real complaint was, oddly enough, with some of the artwork. As stated, I enjoyed the airbrushed/watercolor-looking style; but during some moments, especially close-up action scenes or character confrontations, the images became a bit blurred and hard to decipher. Overall though, I thought the muted, dark style was suitable for the story and transforms Gotham into a dusky realm that’s not entirely dark but isn’t a place of heavenly light. In the same way, Penguin is a man of the shadows, possessing both darkness and light. Thus, it’s a good, fitting symbolic contrast.
Overall, as far as my first foray into graphic novels goes, I really enjoyed Pain and Prejudice both as a narrative and as a work of art. The tone might not be for everyone and possibly only Penguin fans (such as myself) will be attracted to it, but it avoids becoming a socio-political sermon and, instead, serves as a subtle morality tale about one of Gotham’s supreme super-villains.
Language – Minimal with only a few PG-level words sporadically used.
Violence – Cobblepot often orders gangster-style violence committed against his “enemies.” Some scenes depict blood splatter, especially during gunfights, but it is in no way as gory as, by way of comparison, The Walking Dead graphic novels. In the end, this is a better fit for older Batman fans, particularly teens and adults, due to its tone and thematic elements, and is not a good choice for younger readers (for them, I would recommend something a little more colorful, such as the Batman comic chapter books).
Sexual Content – There is some mildly suggestive dialogue (but it’s not pervasive) and some panels depict women in revealing clothing or bikini-style “stage wear” as it’s no secret that Oswald hand-selects girls to work at his clubs. Yet his relationship with Cassandra remains surprisingly chaste. There is an implied sensual scene between Oswald’s parents that occurs while he is a baby, but the artwork is so dark and blurred, that it’s a bit indeterminate. Lastly, there is a scene where Mrs. Cobblepot’s doting on her son is a bit odd as she kisses (or licks?) his ear for giving her a present. Some readers have cited that isolated act as being incestuous though no where does Oswald reciprocate nor does anything further happen between them, so I disagree with that theory.
Overall, this was a fast-paced narrative; and if you’re new to the Penguin, then Pain and Prejudice is a good place to get acquainted with him. While the artwork can leave a little to be desired at times, it’s soothing to the eye while retaining the narrative’s despondent tone. Overall, I’m happy to have it as part of my collection.