A lone, dark figure begins to come into view, still largely shrouded by the thick snow.
The blistering winds whip a long, black cape back and forth. The frigid temperature, which is no doubt well below zero, likely feels even colder.
This is not a place for man, this cold, dead place.
Yet a man is here, seeking the ends of the Earth.
If that sounds like the opening of a pretty bleak and brutal story, well, you’re not wrong. After the zany hijinks of the “My Own Worst Enemy” arc, Scott Snyder is shifting gears completely, focusing on different villains in this arc rather than one primary antagonist. It’s a good choice, I think, allowing Snyder to work with both different characters and different artists to tell his story, using the strengths of the latter to spin some truly unique yarns about the former.
This issue is pretty standard stuff, plot-wise: Batman travels to the Arctic Circle to confront Mr. Freeze, who is threatening to destroy an ice core that contains a long dormant bacteria. Freeze is flanked by an army of followers, all of whom were cryogenically frozen and are now “indebted” to Freeze for waking them again. With the bacteria, the Earth will be razed of all organic life, allowing Freeze and his army of formerly frozen followers free reign.
It should go without saying that Batman does not like this plan.
The “virus that wipes out humanity” threat isn’t one I’ve ever really been a fan of before in any medium, so I was a little leery here. Typically, I find the best literature about that type of threat to be the ones that focus on the fallout of the virus, how humanity has to pick itself back up and rebuild society. With a virus or bacteria as an eminent threat, though, there are two outcomes: either everyone dies (not likely to happen in a Batman story) or the threat is contained. Not an awful lot of wiggle room there.
I think it can work here, though, especially given the villains who will be involved: there’s Freeze here, Poison Ivy next issue, then Mad Hatter (?), and finally Ra’s Al Ghul. I mean, I guess three out of four isn’t bad, and I’m sure the Hatter will fit? Either way, Freeze’s plan has some decent real-world grounding to it, Ra’s is always looking for a tool to cleanse the Earth, Ivy has the smarts to counteract it and the motivation to do so when she finds out it will also affect plant life, and Hatter… well, there haven’t been many great Tetch stories lately, so I guess he’s due.
A lot of Snyder’s favorite storytelling devices are on display here: a parallel narrative that reaches into a character’s past; ridiculous (and ridiculously awesome) Batgadgets and their accompanying explanations (“the Batarangs are pure copper for maximum heat conduction. Two-hundred and twenty-three BTUs.”); and a reworking of a classic character, to name a few. Thankfully, the reworked character in question is Mr. Freeze, who went from tragic to almost pathetic thanks to his revised backstory from Batman Annual #1. If you don’t recall, Freeze’s story was relatively the same in this retelling save for one big twist: Freeze still seeks a cure for his Nora, but instead of the two being married, he is simply infatuated with her. In fact, the two had never even met, as Nora was born in the Forties and frozen before Fries even began his studies. It was a change that altered the fundamental core of the character, taking him from a man who could at the very least be sympathized with and making him nothing more than a delusional psychopath. And really, if you’re trying to one-up the heartbreaking brilliance of “Heart of Ice” you should realize it just can’t be done.
I won’t go so far as to say that Snyder completely undoes that change here, but the dialogue between Batman and Freeze can at the very least be taken both ways. Bruce acknowledges Nora as Freeze’s wife, and while you can certainly read it as mocking him, it isn’t necessarily presented that way. I appreciate that, and think this was the best way to go about it: slowly phasing out a change that wasn’t exactly welcomed rather than outright saying “yeah, just kidding, that story doesn’t matter.”
What this issue does best of all, truth be told, is set a particular mood. Jock’s style is very distinct and quite frankly terrifying, and there are times when this feels like a genuine horror book. It’s fantastic synergy between the visuals, the words, and the way the words are visualized; every piece fits together to make this a truly terrifying piece of fiction.
There aren’t any speech bubbles, and all of the dialogue and narration is just laid out on the page in varying sizes, styles, and colors. Steve Wands does some absolutely incredible work here, getting creative with his placement: the introduction of Freeze and his threat is almost a wall in itself, taking up a large chunk of the page, and other dialogue and narration snakes around wires and other bits of the environment. With that detached nature of the written word, there were times this story came off as unsettling. And I loved it.
It’s very similar to the approach taken on Snyder’s own brilliant A.D.: After Death, which is frankly the best thing he has ever written. With Batman he has to play inside certain boundaries and has limitations on how far he can take the character, but this is one of the best examples of him using his skill for writing horror and applying it to the superhero genre. Things do kind of fall apart in the last few pages, with a twist that… well, it might play out ok, but right now seems a tad silly and convenient. Considering how excellent the lead-up to the end was, that’s pretty disappointing.
Regardless, this is a well-crafted issue. There are panels here that are absolutely gorgeous and could easily find a home on someone’s wall or as phone wallpaper (which is the new standard of artistic excellence, as we’re all aware), and Snyder’s prose makes me want to see what kind of novel he has in him. It’s not quite perfection, but it’s still pretty great.
The second cycle of “The Cursed Wheel” backup is off to a good start, too. Like the main story this backup is pretty expository, setting up the rest of Duke’s training and a conflict with the Riddler. While there’s little to discuss in the way of the relatively short narrative, what is here is well worth a read.
As to be expected, this is largely set-up for the rest of this arc, but I really enjoyed the visual inventiveness Francesco Francavilla brought to the table. There’s a double-page splash of the Riddler’s newest trap that is really clever, and I like the reeled in nature of his plan. Sure, lives are still at stake, but Nygma has never really been a mass murderer. He’ll put lives on the line, there’s no question there, but his ultimate goal is to prove that he’s smarter than everyone, not kill a large portion of the city. I loved Zero Year, but that’s one thing that keeps me from thinking it’s a true classic, so I’m glad Snyder has his deathtraps be a little smaller in scale.
I’ve been tough on Duke in the past, but I might be turning around here. It’s been promised that he’ll find his place in the family and get a codename soon, and I’m pretty intrigued to see where this goes.
- You like Batman stories that feel a little different.
- You’re a fan of Scott Snyder’s prose style.
- You like Jock.
- Steve Wands is a treasure, too, and might just be the MVP here.
Overall: Hands-down the best issue of this series so far. The oppressive mood, stylized visuals, and disconnected lettering create a truly haunting atmosphere. A goofy ending and “just” pretty good back-up keep the issue from perfection, but I loved this more than I thought I would. It makes me a little sad to know that Jock isn’t doing this whole arc, though I’m sure interested in seeing how the disparate parts fit to make a whole. And really, “Batman versus ice zombies” practically writes itself. Pick this up.