I’m not even going to try to keep you all in suspense. I’m just going to say it. Batman: Kings of Fear, so far at least, is hands down my favorite Batman series on stands right now. With #5, we delve into Bruce Wayne’s psyche as he’s tripping out on Scarecrow’s fear gas. Scarecrow challenges Batman on a deeply personal level, attempting to make him doubt his purpose and his existence. The ideas and themes are great and the execution is on point. So, let’s get right to it and have a look.
What I appreciate about Peterson and Jones’s approach to the story is that they maintain such a fine balance between creating a deep character study and still keeping it light and easy to read. In other words, the creative team dives deep enough but knows where to draw the line. I think they could have easily turned this into a convoluted psychoanalytical book, but such a story is probably a tough sell. Instead, they create a fun and engaging narrative that has me on the edge of my seat all the way through.
I think that this fine balance and the overall quality of the story mainly comes from the chemistry that Peterson and Jones share. To tell a story in comic form the writer and the artist need to be on the same page, trusting each other to tell the story in such a way that the text and the art can’t be separated from each other. By extension, because there is such chemistry between the creators, it would be nearly impossible to replace the writer or the artist with someone else. I’ll give an example in just a moment, but first I need to explain a couple more things in order to really get my point across.
Whereas visuals have always been and always will be an incredibly important part of comics, I feel that this is especially true when it comes to psychedelic narratives. I briefly explained this in my review on #4, but for the sake of my argument here—and for those who came in late—I’ll explain again. The word “psychedelic” literally means “to make someone’s psyche/mind/ego visual.” In other words, a psychedelic experience—such as a dream, for instance—can reveal certain psychological aspects of someone’s mind by making these aspects visual. In the case of Kings of Fear, Batman is drugged with a psychedelic compound—Scarecrow’s fear gas. This idea of “visualizing the psyche” could be seen as the main element that drives issue #5.
This is where I’ll give you guys that example. Since visuals are so important especially in psychedelic narratives—and words perhaps less so—I just love how Peterson leaves enough room for Jones’s illustrations. Yes, there is quite a bit of talking in this issue. In fact, it might just be the most wordy issue so far. But still, there are moments in this comic where the visuals convey perfectly what we need to know and Peterson wisely takes a step back to allow Jones’s illustrations to shine in the spotlight. What’s more, there are also moments where the words and the art are married on the page: they are both equally necessary to tell the story because the visuals are what Batman hallucinates on hearing Scarecrow’s analysis. Or perhaps he is hallucinating Scarecrow’s analysis as well, and everything we see in the comic are projections of Batman’s own mind. Which brings me to my next point.
The hallucinations and Scarecrow’s analysis are terrifying in that they point to Batman’s major flaws and essentially make a case for why Gotham City would be better off without the existence of Batman. Scarecrow explains how the rogues would all live better lives in a world without Batman and how the city would be a glorious, glistening pearl under the sun. We see Batman crouching on the floor, hiding away from Scarecrow’s painful commentary. We have reached a point in the story where we see a Batman who is the complete opposite of the man we saw in #1. Not a mighty superhero, but a scared child. However, this by no means diminishes the character of Batman. In fact, throughout the issue we see him struggling against the fear gas that is almost taking over his entire mind. Where Batman was in perfect control in #1, it is now Scarecrow who is truly pulling the strings, even more so than in the previous chapter. The tables have turned and the one question that I find myself asking as I read this book is: how will Batman ever overcome this? I’ve seen Batman under the influence of various compounds over the years, but rarely have I come across stories where the dosage is so strong that even Batman, with his unbreakable mind and iron will, is on the verge of truly submitting to this nightmare trip. Breaking down the character in this way makes it possible to build him back up in the end, and it makes his inevitable triumph all the sweeter.
Furthermore, with this being the penultimate chapter in this 6 issue miniseries, Peterson and Jones have to focus on pacing. While the hallucinations are well rendered and Scarecrow’s analysis is very interesting because it completely turns the character of Batman upside-down, it is important to start building to the story’s conclusion in #6. In my opinion Peterson and Jones did an amazing job on this front. Scarecrow’s monologue and the artwork flow from scene to scene and there is a clear build-up. Every line that Scarecrow says to Batman and every panel that Jones draws adds a little more fuel to the fire, making Batman’s nightmare worse to a point where everything becomes so overwhelming that Batman has to seize back control or else he’ll suffer the dire consequences of inaction. Without giving away what happens on the final pages, I can say this much: it is a cliffhanger that literally had me jump up from my seat and throw my hands in the air. As the creative team manages to turn the character of Batman upside-down through Scarecrow, they also manage to turn this entire comic upside-down with that final panel.
Before I conclude, I’ll say a few more things about the art, as usual. I’ll start by saying that with this issue, I’ve actually come to really love Kelley Jones’s art. It’s interesting how my opinion of his work changed with this series. Back in #1, for example, I actually laughed at some of the panels because characters’ anatomies were completely off. So I had my doubts about the art going forward. However, Kelley Jones’s storytelling abilities should not be underestimated. The way that his art carries this book’s themes; visualizes the main character’s psyche; and is able to shift from horror to more lighthearted stuff and sometimes even hilarious visual jokes, I can honestly say that in my humble opinion Jones is perfect for this comic. I know that not everyone will agree, and that is understandable, because at the end of the day his characters’ proportions are still slightly off and occasionally he leaves out backgrounds which can make for a somewhat boring panel.
However, I find Jones to be an incredibly consistent artist when it comes to mood, atmosphere and even how the characters act. He knows what body language suits characters best in certain scenes. For example, seeing Batman on his knees in this book perfectly conveys his mental state. And besides that, there is also an amazing two page spread in this comic that shows the madness of Batman’s ordeal: we see a background filled with skulls, and one of these skulls opens its mouth and inside its mouth we see the dizzying rooftops of Gotham’s skyscrapers. Jones is an incredibly creative artist, and while I appreciate that his work is not everyone’s cup of tea, I have to give credit where it is due. His work here may not be flawless, but damn—it’s fun and imaginative and I can’t imagine anyone else illustrating this story. It’s a trip, dude.
- You are a Batman fan!
- You love psychedelic stories
- You like Kelley Jones’s work
- You’re ready for a crazy trip through Bruce’s psyche—even crazier than the previous issues
Overall: I have been enjoying this series so much, and this issue is my favorite so far. Scarecrow’s monologue is engaging, Batman’s struggles are intense, Jones’s visuals complement Peterson’s script perfectly and the cliffhanger does a complete 180 on the story that gets me excited for #6. Here’s to hoping that the creative team manages to deliver an outstanding conclusion to this rollercoaster of a story. And in the meantime I’m just going to reread this issue and then rave about how cool it is again on Friday in our This Week in Comics roundup with my Batman-News buddies. But really—you don’t want to miss this one. It’s just great comics fun! Enthusiastically recommended!
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.