This is the latest in a series giving you the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.” To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of Seinfeld will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal). Here is an archive of all the Foggy Ruins of Time installments so far.
Today we take a look at the odd inspiration for Batman’s foe, the Penguin.
There are few things harder to pinpoint in comic book history than the origins of the early Batman villains and supporting cast, and this is because the two men most involved in the creation of the characters were a guy who didn’t talk a lot about his work and who died forty years ago and a guy who talked a LOT about his work but also tended to make stuff up with some frequency. I am, of course, referring to writer Bill Finger and occasional artist Bob Kane, the co-creators of the Penguin. The two men had two different takes on how the Penguin was created, and honestly, whoever is right or wrong the visual inspiration for the character remains the same, so it doesn’t affect this piece.
Bill Finger claimed to be inspired by seeing rich people dressed fancily in tuxedo, which made him think that they looked like penguins. Bob Kane, meanwhile, claimed to have been inspired by the penguin used to advertise Kool cigarettes. Whichever came first, I see no reason not to believe that Kane, who first drew the Penguin in his debut in 1941’s Detective Comics #58 (this was before Kane stopped drawing Batman comics), was, in fact, inspired by the then-popular cigarette spokespenguin, “Willie”…
Here’s the Penguin’s debut…
Willie was phased out in the 1960s (coincidentally, right around the same time Kane was phased out of his involvement on the Batman comics).
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