Annuals – BATMAN ANNUAL #1 and ANIMAL MAN ANNUAL #1

 

Whoops! Spent the whole day reading TV Tropes and not on updating the old blog. Oh well, here’s my thoughts on the two Annuals put out by DC this past week. It’s BATMAN ANNUAL #1 and ANIMAL MAN ANNUAL #1. Warning: might contain spoilers.

First and foremost, if you want to experience either of these stories for yourself, now is the time to get to it. Maybe not so much for the Animal Man one, but if you want to go into BATMAN ANNUAL #1 unspoiled, go off and read it for yourself. It’s worth it.

Everyone who wanted to read it done so? Okay, let’s begin.

[Exhales Deeply]

For those who didn’t pay attention to the Batman titles, this annual serves as the introduction of Mr. Freeze to the New 52. Doctor Victor Fries or Mr. Freeze is one of those Batman villains that has become quintessential to the mythos, and to the franchise in its various forms. Originally the character was just a generic ice villain with no real backstory to speak of. Didn’t even go by the name Mr. Freeze at the time.

Then the Batman Animated Series happened. For the Batman mythos as a whole there were few things that redeemed it in the eyes of popular culture, and to Batman fans, as much as the animated series. It brought Gotham back to its dark, pulp fiction and film noir roots. No shortage of praise can be heaped upon that series, but the praise we’ll focus on here is what the series did for Batman’s rogues gallery.

In addition to returning menace to many characters, it also added something even the contemporary comics versions struggled with: it made most of them sympathetic. Through a combination of steller writing, an iconic and stylized art deco design aesthetic, masterful voice acting, and (perhaps most importantly) a moving musical score, many of Batman’s villains came off as tragic figures. As if they’re descent into madness and evil grew from life simply being cruel to them.

Enter Mr. Freeze, possibly the greatest of these success stories, especially given that the show basically created the iconic incarnation we know now. Doctor Victor Fries worked at a cryogenics lab, attempting to find a cure for his wife Nora’s heart condition, but cruel and uncaring industrialists separated the two, also exposing Fries to cryogenic gases.

These altered his body chemistry so that he could only survive in sub-zero temperatures. His heart chilled and frozen in a state of bitterness and rage, he became the villain Mr. Freeze, intent on getting his revenge. And as we all know, Revenge is a dish men of distinction prefer served cold.

And yes, that is the original version of that saying.

Me personally, I rate his as the most tragic and most emotionally brilliant of villain origins and episodes, alongside those of Clayface and the oft-forgotten Baby Doll. Part of the strength behind this incarnation was in how rarely DC brought the character back since then. Unlike villains like the Joker, Penguin, Two Face, or Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze only appeared in three episodes of the original series run, as well as a movie. He also appeared in one episode of the series’ successor, Batman Beyond. Mr. Freeze is a guy who was best when his appearances were few, since it made those times he did come back all the better.

That being said, not all his appearances were golden. Excluding those versions outside the DC Animated Universe – like The Batman or Batman & Robin – late in the Batman animated series his character began to lose its luster. It was after two episodes and a movie that nicely tied up his character arc, and his third episode had him separated from his newly cured wife, and out just to cause pain for people. For kicks. The Batman Beyond appearance used his concept very well, by showing a much older Freeze given new life, yet saddled with guilt over all the misery he caused as a villain.

But at the end of the day, how far can the character’s concept really go? That animated series essentially told a complete story (and then some), so what to do with him for the rest of comics history? New story ideas need to be brought in – ones that don’t suck – and that might require a shift in dynamics.

Luckily for us, DC’s habit of changing character origins for its reboot actually comes in handy here, for once.

Might as well come out and say it. I told you there’d be spoilers, so here it goes. For starters, Nora isn’t Mr. Freeze’s wife. Oh he’ll insist to the contrary, but the truth is that, at the end of this issue where Freeze breaks out of Arkham and tries to get Nora (and get Bruce Wayne back because in this continuity the lab was owned by Wayne), we learn that Nora is not Freeze’s wife. She never was. The two of them never met, unless you count studying a cryogenically frozen body as meeting someone.

Turns out Nora has been frozen for decades, and Freeze was a student studying her. Due to a life-long obsession with the cold – born by an accident that claimed his mother – Victor deluded himself into thinking they were wed. He loved the idea of Nora, not the person.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is cruel. Even more cruel than usual with Batman villains. This went from tragic to abysmally sad and creepy. And despite my initial misgivings, I’ve warmed up to the idea.

Because warmed up is a pun on the ice thing. Get it? I love bad puns.

What we have here is not a simple victim of circumstance, whose problem could easily be solved if only people would work with him. We got the solution in Subzero. No, we’ve got a psychopath of a villain, combining elements of the old things but twisted into a more tragic and sick form. Mr. Freeze cannot ever be satisfied, not ever be reunited with his love because that love doesn’t exist. Yeah, it makes him more like the other traditional sociopaths among Batman’s enemies, but there’s a reason why that formula has held so long. And we now how a base from which more stories can be told.

At the end of the day, that’s what a reboot should be. It should happen when the number of stories able to be told would increase if the change is made. Not just for the heck of it. Retcons should expand the characters, strengthen the parts that worked, and create a new facet to the myth.

It’s why I’m only slightly mad at the change they made to Alan Scott. More on that some other time.

On the technical side, I have mixed feelings about the new Freeze suit. It’s better than the one worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the helmet, which might be some kind of energy based one, I don’t know, does look cool with the hexagons on it. But I may just be talking from nostalgia when I say I don’t care much for the Freeze vest and the exposed arms.

Besides, wouldn’t he risk his arms getting too warm if not insulated? Not to mention it means he can’t gain additional strength from the suit to lift and throw things. And the patch of hair on his head looks silly. Maybe they wanted a more lightweight Mr. Freeze, I don’t know.

Oh, and this issue joins the million other that tie into Night of the Owls. Admittedly, the connection makes perfect sense to explain the Talon’s weakness to cold. But then, if Freeze was instrumental to bringing the Talons back to life, how did they do it before he came around? The Court’s technique was ancient and almost alchemical in nature, so this just raises a lot of questions. And as nice a nod as it is, why did this book have to occur on the Night of the Owls? The fact that the events of this book occur on that same night add nothing to the proceedings. If anything, it makes it harder to reconcile the event as a whole since it ties several characters, like Batman and Nightwing and Robin and even Penguin, into more business during the already crowded timeframe. Nothing happens in this issue that necessitates it needing to happen during that particular night, except maybe it being an ideal time to escape Arkham (Jeremiah is alright by the way, and still there for some reason) when all the capes are fighting.

Not that that ever stopped Batman and company from being where they probably shouldn’t be logistically.

Other than that, I liked this issue. And despite the connections to this fast grating event, it’s still a fairly compact story that anyone can pick up and read. If anyone wanted an inlet to the Batman books, the Annual is a good choice.

I have significantly less to say about ANIMAL MAN ANNUAL #1, which is good because thanks to the last one this thing is running long enough as it is. Very soon we’ll be seeing the war against the forces of The Rot heat up in the Animal Man and Swamp Thing books. Rotworld is on its way, so this Annual serves to get people excited for a crossover between the two that, so far at least, haven’t interacted with each other in the New 52.

Not that they do so here, though that’s more a technicality than anything. Buddy Baker and Alec Holland, the current representatives of The Red and The Green respectably, don’t appear in this book really except in passing. We don’t get to see The Animal Man and The Swamp Thing team up. We get to see A Swamp Thing and AN Animal Man team up.

I’ve only read a few issues here and there of Animal Man, but right now Buddy Baker has taken his family on the road to escape the forces of The Rot, including his daughter and true Avatar of the Red, Maxine. While they’re stopped at a motel, Maxine wanders off with the talking cat that was once also an avatar of The Red, who tells Maxine a story of when last a Swamp Thing and (for lack of more expedient term) Animal Man fought together against The Rot.

Two Canadian dudes, one a family man and the other a hunter, awaken to their powers just in time to fight off two Rot-infested mounted police, and their putrefacted forces. They fight over a small town, and while many innocents died the fight ultimately came out Red and Green. That’s not really a spoiler, because that’s kind of obvious. What’s really important here is that the story also foreshadows events to come, which is really why we’re here.

Not being a regular reader of Animal Man, I can only guess at this. But I think I can safely say this isn’t essential reading to understand either ongoing series. Despite this, I enjoyed myself and it’s nice to see different versions of these characters fight it out. Especially since the fight can occur outside of the tangle of the current ongoing’s events, which can hinder how much either one can do.

After this, I wish more than ever I could be reading Animal Man. But my list is full as it is. Don’t let that stop any of you from reading both it and Swamp Thing. Both series come out this week, so go out and buy these wonderful works.

Me, I’ll fill the time between now and the next Weekly Pull with talks of SF and crossovers. Next time it’s the First Impressions of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION/DOCTOR WHO #1. Yes, it’s time again for the nerd awesome.

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