Batman Annual #1 is one of those issues that had me, right up until the end. I was really excited to see a story about Mr. Freeze, a woefully underused member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. The character debuted in 1959 under the name Mr. Zero and, from humble beginnings, has managed to grow into a formidable and layered antagonist. Batman Annual #1 attempts to revamp Mr. Freeze’s origin for the New 52 universe and while it adds some really interesting ideas, it takes away a hugely important element.
The story opens with Freeze as a child. Walking with his beloved mother, Freeze watches her fall through a patch of thin ice and almost die. Jump ahead to present day. Freeze is in Arkham Asylum being interviewed by a psychiatrist about the Court Of Owls. Turns out the Court stole Mr. Freeze’s formula that would allow them to bring their Talon soldiers back to life. The shrink begins delving into the topic of Nora, the love of Mr. Freeze’s life and the one he has tried to save with all of his research. Instead of answering, Freeze promptly kills the doctor and escapes.
From there, the story flashes back to when Mr. Freeze was the brilliant scientist Dr. Victor Fries attempting to work on his cryogenic formulas in secret. Wayne Industries had been funding Dr. Fries to help save organs for transplant. Instead, the good doctor has been trying to use his work to save his beloved Nora.
Bruce Wayne discovers what he’s doing and tries to terminate the cash flow. In the struggle, an accident turns Freeze from a scientist to the mutated master of cold and ice. He blames Wayne for the accident and for taking Nora from him. Jump back to the present. Freeze launches an attack on Bruce Wayne that sees him battle Nightwing, Robin and finally Batman. In the final assault, a new detail emerges about Freeze, one that, as far as I’m concerned, castrates the character.
When writer Paul Dini brought Mr. Freeze into Batman The Animated Series, he created a back-story that has become canon for the character. Part of that canon was Freeze’s dedication to his frozen wife Nora, the only woman who ever loved him. It’s everything to the character, it makes him who he is and gives him a drive that we can all relate to on some level. In Batman Annual #1, writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV take that motivation away. In the New 52, Mr. Freeze never knew Nora, she was some test subject he wrote a paper on and became obsessed with.
Why? What’s the point in removing the one thing that helped to raise Freeze above the typical character? Now, instead of a flawed and tragic villain, he’s just a nut job. To their credit, Snyder and Tynion do build another back-story. In the New 52, Freeze first becomes obsessed with the cold when his mother falls through the ice. Later, seeing the effects the exposure has done to his mother, Freeze dumps her back into the freezing river. It’s never explained if he does this to preserve her or kill her but based on his actions as an adult, I’m guessing he thinks the cold will hold her forever the way he has always known her.
The idea there is cool, and would have made a great addition to the legacy of Mr. Freeze. As a replacement for the Nora story, it fails. Sure, the idea of doing something for a love you’re trying to save is an age-old plot device, but it works with Freeze and his whole identity. The new origin reduces the character down to a boring cliché of a disturbed boy who was driven over the edge because of mommy issues. What’s worse is that, rather than leave the Nora story out of the new origin, Snyder and Tynion's use of it is really forced, as if they wanted to make sure they didn’t upset the Batman fans too much.
Jason Fabok’s art is nicely done, with the exception of the flashback to Wayne and Freeze’s first meeting. The lion’s share of this book is solid comic book fare. Strong lines, a nice sense of pacing and action, and Fabok’s talent with the faces of the character. I enjoyed how he used brighter tones to show the flashback of Freeze as a child and then left the rest of the story dark, almost noir. The scene where Wayne and Freeze first meet steps outside all of that and attempts a painted fine-art feel, which just hangs there with no punch to it. Batman Annual #1 is a great story, but this new origin for Mr. Freeze sets the character down a road fraught with boredom.
(3 Story, 4 Art)