Bat Signal

Issue 87 – “The Man of a Thousand Umbrellas”

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Ah another goofy as hell Golden Age story where we’re introduced to a defining villain. So far we’ve met Clayface, Riddler, and Poison Ivy in this series, and now we get one of the weirder and harder to get right characters, the Penguin. Good old Oswald Cobblepot, one of the most recognizable villains in Batman’s rogue’s gallery, and also the one that is maybe the hardest to get right. I said in a previous one of these that the Riddler is a super hard character to handle, since you need to actually create a litany of riddles that both make sense and move the plot along, but Penguin may be harder. In recent years the character has had a real resurgence, and I think works better now than he ever did, as the sleazy nightclub owner who has his finger in all the criminal pies in Gotham while remaining one step removed from them. I think that works perfectly for the guy. It’s the older version that we get here that is a little wonky. Actually having a little dude who commits either bird or umbrella themed crimes is way too gimmicky, and feels even sadder than any of the other villains when Batman inevitably beats the hell out of them, since he’s a tiny waddley little man. So let’s see what the first Penguin story I’ve drawn on this project has in store for us. I bet it involves umbrellas!

The story starts off in possibly the strangest way possible. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are lounging around on a beach that Gotham apparently has, while wearing little speedos, and just chatting away. Conversation awkwardly makes it’s way to the Penguin in a very strange way, and the two start talking about how weird it is that Penguin hasn’t committed any crimes since he escaped prison a while back. And instead of assuming that Penguin has turned over a new leaf or something, they come up with an insane plan to entrap the Penguin. Dick wonders how they’re going to come across Penguin’s hideout, and the plan Bruce comes up with is insane. Bruce and Dick are going to go around Gotham in a horse-drawn buggy while posing as mobile umbrella repairmen. Because that logic is flawless

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Unfortunately in an outcome that no one could possibly have predicted, this does not go well, and really only leads to the Dynamic Duo fixing a bunch of weird people’s umbrella’s, because apparently the people of Gotham hang onto broken umbrellas just in case a repairman happens by. But just when Bruce and Dick are thinking about giving up, things start to go their way. Because across town Penguin is busy pulling an incredibly odd crime. He wanders into a jewelry store, asks to see all of their emeralds, and then uses his trick umbrella to gas the clerk into unconsciousness before using another gadget in his umbrella to active an acetylene torch to get into the  safe and steal all the emeralds. But as Penguin is leaving he trips over the unconscious body of the clerk and ends up breaking his prized umbrella. The Penguin, despondent over breaking one of his incalculable umbrellas, wanders outside with his haul and notices the repair-wagon. But the Penguin knows that he’s a wanted criminal, and probably shouldn’t be patronizing an obvious trap, so he sends a little boy over with a note with his address on it, asking the repairmen to come to his hideout and fix all his umbrellas.

So the next day Bruce and Dick head over to the secret hideout of the Penguin, and get to work fixing all of his massive trick-umbrella collection. The butler, who is obviously a criminal, then pays them and kicks them out, which isn’t suspicious at all. So the two suit up and head back to the hideout as Batman and Robin, ready to beat up the Penguin. Yet when they get to the Penguin’s hideout they find him just reading a book about Owls and Bats doing nothing. So they burst in to kick his ass, only to find he’s dropped a screen of bullet-proof glass in between them, and has sent in some gun-toting goons to destroy the Dynamic Duo. But as usually happens, the goons never actually fire their guns, and just get handily beaten by Batman and Robin. But when they’re done taking care of the goons they find Penguin is long gone. They really screwed the pooch on this one.

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Batman and Robin head back to Wayne Manor to complain about their gaff, and decide to go out as Bruce and Dick and just start looking for people with umbrellas. Because the umbrella is the most recognizable aspect about Penguin. But this wonderful plan falls apart when they head out into Gotham and find that everyone in town has umbrellas, since there’s a new umbrella store giving them away for free. Which not only is a terrible business model, but a pretty awful place for the Penguin to be laying low in. So that night they break into the umbrella store, only to fall directly into yet another trap. Penguin has what are essentially bird cages fall over Batman and Robin, trapping them. Penguin comes in and lets them know that in a couple minutes the cages are going to be electrified, killing them.

And then, like every terrible villain in history, he leaves and just assumes his plan works. And as soon as he’s gone Batman grabs one of the umbrellas that are just strewn around the floor, and uses it as a lever to bend the bars. The two get out of their cages right before midnight, and are saved! Meanwhile, the Penguin has been pulling off more robberies, just walking into rich people’s homes and gassing them so he can steal their belongings. And once that’s over, he heads back to his umbrella store, assuming he’s going to find Batman and Robin’s electrocuted corpses there. But instead he finds a very pissed off Dynamic Duo, who start fighting with him immediately. And things don’t go well for Penguin when he grabs one of his umbrellas, only to find Batman had already taken out all of the weapons when they were “repairing” them. So Penguin panics and flees, grabbing one with a little helicopter in it to escape. And for some reason that one works, and he’s able to fly away, that is until Batman hucks an umbrella at the rotors, causing him to crash into an ally. Penguin then tries to escape back to the umbrella store, which is a terrible idea, and ends up tripping over all the damned umbrellas somehow getting trapped in one. So Batman and Robin show up, grab the Penguin, and march his ass down to the police station. The end!

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So there we go, the Penguin’s incompetent umbrella-themed crime spree is at an end. And man was it dumb. As with all the Golden Age books that I’ve read so far for this one had some seriously goofy moments, but overall it was pretty bad. And really, I think the blame lays squarely on the Penguin. Because man does this characterization of the character fall flat for me. Being obsessed with umbrellas is even lamer than when he’s obsessed with bird related crimes. I love the faux-gentleman criminal that he’s become in recent years, in a constant search for control. And that’s just not the character that we get here, which is understandable because I don’t think the Penguin really became that guy until the 90’s. The whole plot of the issue was just a little scatterbrained, and didn’t hold up that well. Especially the third act, where the characters just kept leaving and coming back to the same damned umbrella store, over and over. There were some saving graces, mainly the whole bonkers beginning with Bruce and Dick sunbathing before deciding to become umbrella repairmen, but once the Penguin finally shows up, the thing kind of falls apart. Plus any explanation that requires I write the word “umbrella” a thousand times is pretty flawed.

“The Man of a Thousand Umbrellas” was written by Joe Greene and drawn by Dick Sprang, 1944.

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umbrellas, umbrellas, umbrellas, UMBRELLAS

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