Whenever you integrate real life events into comic history there’s always a lot of baggage that comes along with it. There’s the option to create a fake country or event as a stand-in for real life events to distance the real world from the fantastic. One exception to that option is perhaps the horrors Nazi Germany inflicted upon the Jewish people. There’s really no effective way to rely on mere metaphor to seriously approach this material. Writers often reduce Nazi based storylines to pulpy action or kitschy horror, but Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze has no interest in doing so. Sean Murphy tackles the horror straight on and doesn’t obfuscate the horrid details that accompany the subject matter. In doing so, Murphy and artist Klaus Janson create a harrowing tale about families being torn apart and the difficulty of moving on from past terrors, both inherited and committed.
Right from the start Murphy and Janson establish the bleak tone of the issue. We see Baron Von Fries (Victor’s father) in an SS officer’s uniform hold a smoking Luger while a man dies in the snow. It’s harsh and unpleasant. Janson’s pencils lend a sketchy texture to the proceedings and his facial “acting” is top notch. As the man bleeds to death on the ground, we see the pain and shock in his eyes. Matt Hollingsworth’s colors are also the perfect shade of icy blue to accompany the winter setting, but not overshadow the lighter tones of the character’s clothes and skin. As brutal as it is, it’s an effective opening.
The frame of the story is also riveting as it takes place on the night of Bruce’s birth in Victor’s laboratory. During a visit to the lab, Martha goes into labor early and requires both Thomas and Victor’s help to save herself and the baby. Most frame stories are simple set ups whose main purpose is to allow the characters to tell the main story. Here, Murphy’s frame could have been an entire issue on its own and shows his inventiveness as a writer and inability to take the easy way out. Janson’s art in these scenes is also effective and while his panel layouts are deceptively simple, he packs a lot of detail in each panel and makes the environment feel lived in. One panel has Victor order his staff to carry Martha to the operating room while Thomas follows along. There’s seven characters in this one panel and each one carries the appropriate detail and movement to create a chaotic scene in limited space. It’s impressive work. Also impressive is how Hollingsworth’s color pallet shifts from warm and pink to strikingly blue as Victor turns on his cryo tanks to save Martha and the baby. Amidst the chaos, Murphy even inserts a few great character moments. Thomas attempts to take over the surgery and when Victor allows him to insert the IV drip, Thomas’ hand shakes during the procedure. This moment shows both how Victor knows Thomas well enough to let him try and fail and Thomas’ initial stubbornness in letting someone else save the day.
As great as the frame story is, the real meat is in the story Victor tells Thomas about his father, Baron Von Fries and his friend Jacob Smithstein. Hollingsworth once again shifts gears in the colors and casts the flashback in gray and sepia tones with the only bold colors being the splashes of red anti-Semitic graffiti and Nazi iconography as well as the icy blues of the cryo liquid. Baron and Jacob are partners who research cryotech as a form of medicine, but the rise of Hitler in Germany threatens to upend their work as Jacob is Jewish. A sense of dread permeates through these pages as everyone knows what awaits Jacob and his relatives. However, Murphy focuses on how the circumstances affect young Victor whose turbulent relationship with his father makes him turn to Jacob as a father figure. It’s a tricky line to walk when dealing with such intense material. The rise of fascism mixed with an abusive relationship between father and son are two heavy themes to interweave, but Murphy successfully balances the two. Baron is complex, but his jealousy and hatred ultimately drive him to join the Nazis and seal Jacob’s fate which is shown on the first pages of the book. It’s dangerous material to delve into the motivations of a Nazi even with the small degree of empathy Murphy allows Baron. Whether or not he’s redeemed by the end is up to the reader. More thoughts on how Murphy handles Baron and his mixed motivations lies in the spoiler tag below.
As the tale of Baron and Jacob comes to an end, Murphy concludes his frame story with just the right amount of poignancy and relevance to the main plot. Victor watched his father betray his morals and take the easy way out by joining the Nazis to save his life and research. On the other hand, Victor sees firsthand how Thomas is “a man who was always willing to change roles” to help those in need. That theme runs parallel to the poor changes Baron undergoes under the false justification of helping others. It suggests that a commitment to others even in the face of death is what will create a better world. There’s no better or more relevant theme for a Batman book to end on.
- Blending real life events with the DC Universe doesn’t bother you.
- You can handle heavy subject matter.
- Learning more about Victor Fries and his father is of interest.
Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze is a heavy hitting book that doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of Nazi Germany. Murphy also doesn’t provide easy answers for the more vague characterizations in the book. His characters are complex and contradictory in the way real humans are, which stands to be troubling for some within its fascistic setting. Nonetheless, Von Freeze is a riveting read for those with the stomach and patience to wade through its murky waters and harsh material. In the end, Murphy calls for hope even when facing a hatred that knows no mercy. Whether or not that rings true lies within the reader.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with this comic for the purpose of this review.