Hi there everyone, and welcome back to another week of Bat Signal, my ongoing quest to read every issue of Detective Comics in random order and with essentially no context. A couple of weeks ago my random number generator gave me the issue with the first appearance of the Riddler, making it one of the first origin stories we’ve had here on Bat Signal. And that trend is continuing today, because as it happens the random number gods have given us another origin issue. The first appearance of the Penguin! And it’s quite odd. I’m sure that very few character arrive fully formed, especially after seventy years of continuity and character development, but its certainly an interesting example of the Penguin we’re given today.
The story begins with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson wandering around the Gotham City Museum, appreciating all the art. Well, Bruce is appreciating it, Dick is mainly making stupid jokes. They look at a pair of paintings that are worth half a million dollars, and as they move along to the next exhibit they notice a short, fat man in a suit and top hat, twirling an umbrella. Both Bruce and Dick make fun of the little man, but continue on their way. Until security guards begin running around in a panic. Someone has stolen the two expensive paintings that Bruce and Dick were just looking at, and they need to search everyone. Bruce and Dick immediately consent, but after the guards finish searching everyone, they end up finding nothing. So, the various museum-goers are allowed to leave, and we follow the little man where he’s going.
So yeah, this is the Penguin, and he’s hidden the two painting inside his umbrella, only to give them as a sort of resume to a local mobster. The Boss is quite impressed with the man’s skills, and after he decides to call himself the Penguin, he becomes part of the gang. They then start a crime spree the run all through Gotham, pulling off more and more elaborate heists. And, as the Penguin plans his heists, he keeps being noticed by Bruce Wayne at museums, auctions, and other places where he can scope out his scores. But Bruce can’t believe that this little man can be behind them, so he doesn’t follow him. Which is a shame, because the Penguin is becoming more and more powerful in the underworld, even killing the Boss at one point and installing himself as the new head of the mob. Which is when things start to kick it up a notch.
Bruce is still plenty worried about all these heists though, so he ends up wearing a disguise and going to a dive bar, hoping to find someone involved in the Penguin’s gang. And, as luck would have it, he finds one. Bruce learns that some of the Penguin’s men are going to be robbing an auction-house for a jade idol. So, Bruce suits up as Batman, and heads to the auction-house, where he finds the men robbing the safe. Batman battles the goons, only to find the Penguin himself there. Batman’s a little shocked that Penguin is the one behind it all, and in that moment of awe the Penguin fires some knock-out gas at Batman from his umbrella. Which is where things get complicated.
The Penguin has gassed Batman, and then stolen the idol, before fleeing with it. He’s called the police, and made it look like Batman was the thief. And, to make it even more confusing, it turns out that this idol was recently purchased by the Penguin himself, calling himself Mr. Boniface. So the Penguin returns when the police arrive, say that Batman stole the idol from him, and they get Batman arrested. And, at this point, Batman’s too messed up on the gas to know what’s going on. So, the police arrest Batman, but as they’re driving away with him, the Penguin’s goons arrive, attack the police, kidnap Batman, and drag him back to their base.
So, now the Penguin has the idol that was already his property, has the insurance money covering its theft, he’s framed Batman, and made him a fugitive. Pretty solid plan Penguin. There’s only one problem, while the Penguin is busy monologuing to Batman and showing off his umbrella collection, Batman activates a small radio in his cowl that puts him in contact with Robin. Robin hears the Penguin admitting everything, and races off to find Batman. He succeeds, but the Penguin also escapes. But they aren’t going to let him get away with it all. So, Bruce and Dick wear disguises and start stalking the Penguin now that they know he’s calling himself Mr. Boniface. And, eventually, they find Penguin leaving his house, and follow him to a diamond exchange he and his men are trying to rob. Batman and Robin burst in, fight the goons, and the Penguin flees again. But this time he ends up on some train tracks, and he and Batman do battle. Somehow, the Penguin gains the upperhand in this conflict, and Robin has to make a choice. He saves Batman, but in the process lets the Penguin get away. But I guess they’ll catch him again some other time!
As I’ve been doing this project, and reading more Batman stories than I ever have before in the past, it’s been a joy to see the evolution of some of these characters. What started out as potentially one-and-done villains that came from Bill Finger’s infamous gimmick-book that became genre-defying rogues to harass Batman in the decades to come. And, one of the weirdest, and who has had the most changes, has to be the Penguin. Because I feel like they just couldn’t come up with the right gimmick. It’s like they came upon his design, and knew that it was too great to give up on, so they just kept throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes he’s fixated on crimes involving birds, sometimes it’s crimes involving umbrellas, other times he’s just gangster who likes birds and umbrellas. Honestly, I think the Penguin worked best when they stripped him of most of his gimmicks, and just made him a weird mob boss with a predilection for penguin theming and a truck umbrella or two for defense, more than someone who actually got his hands dirty. Which was almost what we got here. We had a fun little Penguin story where he was a master tactician planning some great heists. It was a lot of fun, it’s just a shame that the character spiraled around or a while until they finally landed on something that was honestly close to this original portrayal.
“One of the Most Perfect Frame-Ups” was written by Bill Finger, penciled by Bob Kane, inked by Jerry Robinson and George Roussos, and lettered by George Roussos, 1941.
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