His eyes widened as he stared at the television.
This caused his monocle to pop out. His left hand opened automatically, the monocle dropped into it, and the Penguin put it back in place without taking his eyes from the screen.
He couldn’t believe it. They were making a film about the Joker.
About that loser, he raged. A failed comedian who fell into a vat of chemicals, giving him a face like Jack Nicholson wearing Bette Davis’s make-up, and a homicidal rage. Just how dumb do you have to be, thought the Penguin, to leave an open vat of chemicals lying around, never mind how dumb do you have to be to fall into it. Yet for some reason people were now making this documentary about him, presumably making him more sympathetic, offering the rationale behind his actions, depicting him as the real victim.
They were going to tell his back-story or, as it used to be called, his story.
What about my story, yelled the Penguin at the TV. Lost as a child, raised by penguins – how would that be for an opening.
It was true. His parents had been scientists, and the type of parents who believe that having a baby should in no way affect your life-style, the kind who go to football matches with infants wearing ear-protectors and think this is endearing. Therefore they had eagerly signed up for an Antarctic expedition just weeks after their son had been born. The rest was all too predictable – the vessel had sunk, the baby’s cot had drifted onto the ice, and a mother penguin, acting out of the deep-rooted maternal instinct that has protected the tiny new-born of all species since the beginning of time, had fed him tiny scraps of fish.
The colony had accepted him, and he had grown up, effectively, as a penguin, the Tarzan of the Tundra. It had been an idyllic childhood. He had learned the thrill of sliding along the ice on his tummy. He had learned how to catch fish in his mouth. He had learned how to walk, though in the manner of a penguin, so he looked like he was trying to perform Riverdance in a sleeping-bag.
Then, when he was five, his parents had showed up.
The vessel-sinking had taken deep-root in his psyche, a way of coping with his situation. The truth had been even more poignant. His parents, engrossed in their work, had laid his cot beside them on the ice, and then forgotten about him.
Now they were back – whether they had been actively searching for him or just happened upon him while studying ice migration he was never sure. What he was sure of, though, was that he was taken from his huge playful family, where he was called Hu-hu-hu-he-huh-hoo (he never knew that the name is penguin for “baldy”) and installed in his small, severe one.
Where his name was Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot.
He was bullied at school. This was only to be expected, given his name, his singular walk and his strange eating habits (he used to put his sandwich horizontally into his mouth, like a harmonica, then work it in a series of gulps down his throat), and his classmates came up with the nickname they thought would hurt him most.
They called him the Penguin. He was secretly thrilled.
He inherited his parents’ work-obsessed scientific thought processes, and after school he set to work as an inventor. His chief creation was inspired by the fact that he had been snowed upon for three hundred days a year while growing up. He invented an umbrella, but no ordinary one – the ferrule could spurt nerve-gas, stun-darts, or coffee, the canopy acted as helicopter-blades, bullet-proof shield or Sky Sports satellite-dish, the handle could serve as an exercise pulley, a knuckle-duster or a lunch-box for your banana. He launched it at a gala event at which he wore for the first time, and fell in love with, evening dress, since it reminded him of home.
His invention was not a success. The reason was that each umbrella would have retailed at two million dollars, but he took it personally, feeling again an acute sense of not really belonging. It was this that drove him toward crime, along with the fact that he wanted money. It was his tendency to over-elaboration, though, that drove him toward ludicrously compex plots, and thus to the attention of Batman.
It was never a contest – the Penguin was so strapped for cash that he had to employ henchmen so dim that they had the word “henchman” on their shirts to remind them of their job, while Batman had a seemingly infinite supply of resources, equipment and sheer good luck. The Penguin was arrested, did his time, and upon his release, stayed away from crime.
Not because he had reformed, though. It was simply that while he was in jail he invented another umbrella – one that would fold away to fit into a handbag, one that would blow inside -out in the gentlest of breezes, one that would survive about two outings before collapsing like a drunken, kilt-wearing spider.
One that brought him in more money for a rainy day, every rainy day.
And now he sat in the mansion where he had lived quietly for many years, eating fish fingers (a food, he reflected, that bore as much relationship to fish as buffalo mozzarella did to buffaloes) disconsolately watching the news report about the upcoming Joker film. They were saying that it was wonderful, the film of the year, a possible Oscar winner.
Make a film about me, he thought, then we’ll see who gets to the Oscars. I wouldn’t even have to hire a tuxedo.