Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Batman Annual #1 (2012) - A Review

It is a rare thing for me to come across a comic which is technically well-executed  yet leaves me wanting to throw it against the wall because of the story it tells  The last story I can remember having such a reaction to was Identity Crisis - a mini-series which had many wonderful character moments but ultimately proved to be horrible due to some ludicrous action sequences (i.e. Deathstroke takes on the entire Justice League single-handed), many gratuitous deaths and a climax that revealed the reader had no real chance of solving the mystery that was meant to be the core of the plot.  Yes, Identity Crisis was one such story.  Batman Annual #1 is another.

There will be spoilers following this paragraph so if you wish to be surprised but still want to know what I thought of the book, let me say this.  This book is surprising.  It is shocking.  It is well written and the artwork is wonderful.  Yet I fully intend to pretend this story never happened in my own personal mental continuity because the main conceit of the story is too far at odds with how I feel certain characters should be portrayed.  You have been warned.  Now read on if you wish to know the fine details.

First Snow, as this story is titled, details Mr. Freeze's activities during the Night of Owls.  We find out that it Mr. Freeze's technology was used by the Court of Owls to preserve and revive their Talon assassins.  Armed with the knowledge that his theoretical formula for reviving the cryogenically frozen works, Freeze escapes from Arkham Asylum and makes for The Iceberg Lounge.  His mission?  Recover his weapons and his cryogenically frozen wife, before getting revenge on the man who turned him into what he is today.

The artwork by Jason Fabok is quite lovely.  If I may wax poetic, it is crisp and clear as a cool winter's day.  The palette chosen by colorist Peter Steigerwald is perfect, full of muted blues, pale grays and off-whites throughout - all the colors of winter.  Every page in this book is a treat to look at.     

There are many wonderful scenes here, too.  Freeze's brilliant escape from Arkham Asylum is a wonderfully well-paced action sequence.  And Freeze's interaction with The Penguin is a treat, playing up the quite menace of both villains to good effect.  But everything starts to fall apart in the flashback sequences in which we learn who the heartless mogul responsible for ruining Victor Fries' life is... Bruce Wayne!    

Is it unbelievable Bruce Wayne, given the way he usually carried himself as a buffoon in the early days, would be so hands-on in running his business?  Yes.

Is it unbelievable that Bruce Wayne, as a business man, would turn his nose up at a revolutionary procedure for saving lives that could make his company millions... just because it wasn't what he was looking for?   Yes.

Is it unbelievable that Bruce Wayne, as a person who lost his loved ones through tragedy and knows full well the lengths one can go through to try and save others, would be so unsympathetic to someone who was driven to extreme measures in the name of saving a life?  Yes.

Thankfully, this turns out to be a fake out.  Or does it?  The final pages, in which Batman confronts Freeze reveal something shocking about Mr. Freeze's past.  Something that is meant to drive him from the realm of sympathetic villains and anti-heroes and push him firmly back into the collective of unreasoning Arkham Asylym inmates but only serves to make Batman into an even greater monster.


Even if we accept that the previous scenes are the imaginings of a mad Mr. Freeze and that he is an obsessed stalker who has been kidnapping the same cryogenically frozen woman with the hope of curing his "lost love"... how does this justify any of Bruce Wayne or Batman's actions?

The only word we have that Mr. Freeze isn't trying to save his wife comes from Batman.  Freeze's shrink at Arkham certainly seems to believe that Freeze is a married man trying to save his wife and that sort of delusion is precisely the sort of thing they would try to cure first.  And even if Nora Fields isn't any relation to Mr. Freeze, she had a family that froze her wanting her to be cured of the condition that threatened her life..  Who is Bruce Wayne to deny her a chance at life, even if her cure comes at the hands of an obsessive stalker?  There's nothing to stop him from taking Freeze's work and trying to use it to help others.  Nothing, save his own greed and disinterest.

Many Batman stories have suggested that, on some level, Bruce Wayne is as crazy as the villains he fights.  But to my knowledge no story has ever seriously suggested that Bruce Wayne was as callous as the criminals he has devoted his life to fighting.   With this story, Scott Snyder has done the impossible and the unthinkable - he has turned Bruce Wayne into a hypocrite and a being more cold-hearted than Mr. Freeze.

It is a well-written story and I hate it all the more for that.

If anyone needs me, I'll be rewatching Heart of Ice.

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