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Willie the Kool Penguin: The Cigarette Mascot That May (Or May Not) Have Inspired the Creation of a Batman Villain

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The origin of Batman villain The Penguin is disputed.  According to comics historian Les Daniels in Batman: The Complete History, The Penguin debuted in Detective Comics #58 (December 1941); writer Bill Finger (uncredited for his co-creation of Batman with artist Bob Kane) claimed that The Penguin – with his signature top hat, monocle, tuxedo, cigarette holder, and umbrella – was inspired by emperor penguins and was intended to be a caricature of aristocrats, while Kane claimed that The Penguin was inspired by cartoon mascot Willie the Kool Penguin, who was used in the advertising for Kool menthol cigarettes.

This article won’t resolve the dispute over The Penguin’s origin (although I’m personally inclined to believe Finger’s version of the character’s origin, given the growing evidence of Finger’s strong involvement in creating the early Batman characters, as well as Kane’s tendency to distort the truth.)  However, regardless of whether or not Willie the Kool Penguin inspired The Penguin, Willie has his own interesting history in comics.

Willie the Kool Penguin was created in 1934 by the Ted Bates Advertising Agency on behalf of its client Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company.  Beginning in 1933, Brown & Williamson began selling menthol cigarettes with the brand name “Kool”.  Menthol cigarettes use the chemical compound menthol to trigger cold-sensitive nerves in the skin; even though no actual drop in temperature occurs, the menthol provides a “cooling” sensation to smokers.  An anthropomorphic cartoon penguin was an ideal mascot to call attention to the “cooling” sensation of Kool menthol cigarettes.

As a cigarette mascot, Willie was used to advertise Kool from 1934 until 1960 in various media.  The character appeared on billboards, in short comic strips and cartoons for print advertising, and in animated television commercials in the 1950s.