With Batman: Kings of Fear, Scott Peterson and Kelley Jones set out to investigate the deeper machinations of Batman’s psyche. As a fan of introspective and psychedelic stories, and seeing as this six issue miniseries isn’t bound by continuity, I’ve been very curious about this series since its announcement. Now that I’ve read the first issue a couple times, I have a feeling of where the creative team might be going with this, and I think this book has the potential to be good. But, of course, only time will tell if the series as a whole will be a hit, so let’s have a look at #1 in the meantime.
For starters, this first episode is mostly setup for the series. While the solicitations have teased Scarecrow as the main villain, the character doesn’t actually get much panel time in this issue, and I think that’s not a bad idea. Not only does it allow for the creative team to have a build up to Scarecrow’s entrance, they also have some room to establish context and introduce the themes that will (most likely) be further explored throughout the series. The main theme that runs throughout the issue is introduced in the form of a question: what scares Batman? A secondary question that is asked is: to what extent is Batman responsible for the actions of the villains? These are, of course, age-old questions that have been examined and answered by various creative teams over the years, and while I personally think it remains a potentially interesting topic to explore in a Batman comic, I also think that herein lies the book’s greatest pitfall: at times the story hinges on cliché. I’ll explain.
For example, Joker and Batman have a brief conversation (or rather, Joker is monologuing and Batman occasionally grunts), and Joker begins, “You should really have some broody broodiness for when you’re back hiding all alone in your mancave. Your Batmancave.” He continues to speak about how many people have a dark place in their mind, and he uses the metaphors of a mansion and a cave to illustrate these dark places. This is the type of conversation that I have seen before in Batman books, perhaps most notably and extensively explored in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum. While it’s certainly too early to start comparing Kings of Fear to other Batman works in this way, all I’m saying is that these themes aren’t new and original. However, this is not something that I will hold against the book at this stage—it all depends on how it’ll be developed as the series continues. If the creative team can manage to take this discussion a step further, that might be interesting.
Furthermore, not a whole lot happens in this issue yet in terms of plot. The book opens with Batman stopping Joker from killing an innocent, and absolutely decimating Joker’s goons in the process. Next, Batman takes Joker to Arkham, only to end up being opposed by various members of the Rogues Gallery. This, like the themes in the book, also isn’t new territory for Batman comics, as we’ve seen plenty of scenarios similar to this one play out over the years. But even though it perhaps feels too familiar at times, not every Batman story needs to upset the status quo and do something that has never been done before. I feel that by embracing all these familiar aspects of Batman’s character, we get much closer to a, for lack of a better word, “quintessential” version of the character than when we, for instance, wipe his memory or write him as a fifteen-year-old boy whose first girlfriend just broke up with him. In a time where there is so much emphasis on breaking down the character, it’s great to see him get up on his feet and be victorious for a change.
Batman, in this comic, has a tactical mind, is capable of assessing situations, knows when to leap into the fray to save a life, and uses strategy and expert martial arts to overpower any foe that meets him in physical combat. It’s precisely because of this precision, this finesse, that the issue’s cliffhanger is as impactful as it is, because it appears to push the narrative away from an all-powerful Batman and into psychedelic territory that will pose quite the challenge to his mind, and perhaps his soul.
As for the artwork, Kelley Jones’s strength, in my opinion, is that he manages to really set the issue’s tone with his pencils and inks. The book looks moody and dark, and there certainly is an element of horror in his work. However, I find that a lot of his character models are strangely out of proportions. For example, there are instances where Batman’s knee is bigger than his waist, or where his entire leg seems to be almost twice the size as his other leg. There are also panels where characters’ faces look incredibly wonky, in particular a shot where Batman speaks to Joker, and Batman doesn’t seem to have a nose. I think that these inconsistencies do bring down the overall quality of the artwork, because none of this seems to be done on purpose. Had this first issue depicted a psychedelic headtrip, then the distorted proportions might have been excusable, because in such a scenario Batman’s perception of reality would be distorted. However, Batman isn’t hallucinating yet for 99% of this issue’s contents. Having said that, Jones does get to show off his artistic insight and capabilities on a few occasions. There are two examples that I’d like to briefly talk about. First, the book opens with a full close-up on Joker’s eye: it is an unsettling image to open the book with because the eye is bloodshot and full of madness, like it could peer into one’s soul if one isn’t careful. Another instance that I really like is the fight sequence on page 6. It’s true that I prefer fight scenes to be entirely sequential, whereas this one is more of a collage of images. However, since you could choose to interpret the art from Joker’s perspective in this instance, I think the jumbled collage adds to the element of chaos and the idea that Batman can be everywhere at once, and you never know where you can expect him, let alone where he might hit you.
- Your favorite Bat-suit is the blue and gray with the yellow oval!
- You are into psychedelic horror stories!
- You want to see Batman kicking ass!
Overall: While there are times that the art is poorly executed and the writing veers toward cliché, this is still a very fun read. If anything, Batman is as Batman as he can be—tactical, stealthy, powerful—and although this issue is almost entirely setup, it’s a good setup, because all the themes have been introduced and now it’s just a matter of kicking back, relaxing, and waiting for issue #2. Enjoy.