From the moment that Batman: White Knight first released, it was clear writer/artist Sean Murphy had struck a chord with comic fans, presenting a new, re-imagined take on the Batman universe. That story also carved out a new role for Mr. Freeze, suggesting a more personal, more complicated, and less villainous history with the Wayne family. Now that chapter is going to be told in Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze, a special one-shot coming to DC this November.
The original White Knight story stunned readers with the suggestion of Thomas Wayne's ties to former Nazi scientists, before explaining his commitment to medicine, and not weapons or Nazi ideology. That link between Thomas and the new 'Baron von Fries' will now be fully explored in the standalone Von Freeze #1. Written by Murphy, comics legend Klaus Janson (Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns) will provide the art as readers return to the night Bruce Wayne came into the world--and learn how Victor Fries saved both Martha Wayne and the future Batman.
While fans are still reeling from the follow-up Batman: Curse of The White Knight's first issue, Screen Rant is pleased to offer the first preview of Von Freeze #1, and allow both Murphy and Janson to explain how this merging of worlds--Gotham City and Nazi Germany--took shape. Beginning with the official synopsis, which readers can find below.
On the night of Bruce Wayne’s traumatic birth, Victor Fries must intervene to save the lives of Martha Wayne and the future Batman. As the evening unfolds, Victor distracts Thomas with the incredible tale of his own father figures—one a Nazi, the other a Jew—and their complex connection to Wayne Laboratories.
As the Third Reich roars into power, the deep friendship and working relationship between the Baron von Fries and his research partner, Jacob Smithstein, is in crisis. Ordered by Himmler to speed development of their cryotechnology in service of world domination, Smithstein is forced to go into hiding and compromise his moral code in order to save his wife and infant daughter, Nora, from persecution and certain death. When the S.S. ramps up surveillance over the project, young Victor begins to question his father’s true allegiance. Both families are driven toward an impossible choice and a sinister standoff, and Victor makes a pact with Smithstein that will ripple through generations.
Fans of Batman: White Knight still have the new Curse of The White Knight to read as a follow-up, but how much is going to be required reading for this larger dive into your take on Mr. Freeze?
Sean Murphy: Yeah, I try to write everything so that you don't need to go back and read some stuff. But it would help if you've read the first volume. In Batman: White Knight we set up the idea that Mr. Freeze's father was a Nazi, and there was something that happened in World War II that involved Nora's family, who were Jews. So I wanted to expand on this story by doing a Romeo and Juliet type of thing, but cast against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. I wasn't able to fit it all into my White Knight, so I begged DC to really let me have a one-shot, let me do a deleted scene in a way, that bolsters the relationship between Mr. Freeze and his wife. But because I didn't have the time to draw it myself I begged them to let me use Klaus.
I've been wanting to work with Klaus for a while. He and I are legitimate friends. I used to live in New York and we would hang out a lot, and compare notes about what's going on in the industry. I grew up reading his stuff, of course, so the chance to work with him is just something I've always wanted to do. So I was thrilled when he said yes. I was surprised to learn he never drew a World War II story, which is kind of on a checklist of most artists, I'd say.
Ahs so this was a bucket-list type thing?
Klaus Janson: Well, in the sense that it was a bucket list that checked off a couple of things, not the least of which was to work with Sean. I think Sean is one of the best people working right now. You can't--
KJ: He's laughing! You know, who knows if we'll ever get to work together again? This was a very rare kind of event, and you don't say no that that. You just grab it and do the best you can.
I'll ask you since you're no stranger to mildly controversial Batman stories, what was your response to Batman: White Knight before getting the invitation to work on this take on Batman?
KJ: Well mostly jealousy, I think that pretty much sums it up. Listen, I have--and I don't want this to sound too obsequious, but I have the highest regard for Sean's work. I would never tell that to him to his face, but he's an amazingly talented guy. Any opportunity to work with somebody of that caliber, like I said, you just don't say no to that. I was surrounded by the first volume of White Knight while I was doing Von Freeze, and my opinion of the work only increased. It only got better. I don't know how Sean does half the things that he does, it's really impressive. As an artist to an artist, I'm truly blown away by what he can do.
SM: Oh, I learned from the best. Meaning you. I think Klaus and I come from the same school of storytelling, and rendering. Kind of a crime noir sensibility. Even before I met Klaus I had a feeling we would get along, because if you look at our artwork you can see that we're clearly coming from the same place in a lot of ways.
Both during White Knight and since then, you were very open about your commitment to write as well as pencil and ink, as opposed to illustrating for a different writer. So in that context, how does this experience fit into that change in perspective?
SM: It was definitely a learning curve. I consider myself a B+ writer, but I can draw it into an A-. So without being able to draw the script I really had to trust that Klaus saw where my head was at and put it down on paper. Then it's simple things like: he would have questions for me and I wouldn't have looked at the script for a few weeks, and I completely forgot what scene he was talking about. Things like that, that I think quote-unquote real writers in comics have to deal with all the time that I'd never really had. Stopping what you're doing, going back, looking at scripts, getting on the phone, trying to give Klaus exactly what he needed.
So my hope is that people will see this and go, 'Oh this is great, what a great job these two did.' What I don't want to see is, 'Oh, clearly Sean is only good at writing for himself.'
SM: And if they do say that, I'll just blame Klaus.
KJ: Feel free, Sean.
SM: One thing I wanted to mention was that during this process, I know Klaus has... what he might call 'German guilt.' When I asked him if he had ever drawn any Nazis or anything like that, and he said no I thought, 'Oh this will be great.' He told me about what his experience was post-World War II, I mean obviously he wasn't around, but he had a lot of stories from his family. Talking about what happened in Germany, when they fled, why they fled, when they might have fled sooner. Seeing it unroll slowly in his eyes--Klaus, were you talking to your grandmother about this? I forget where those stories came from.
KJ: Yeah my grandmother, and my mother of course. She was, I think, seventeen when the war ended. So she experienced quite a bit of it. And my grandparents were there. But I used for reference, I dug out a lot of the old pictures of my relatives from the old country, from Germany. So I had a feel for it. That was an interesting experience to channel that into the work. I don't know if anybody can see the difference regarding channeling that heritage, or that background. But it made a difference to me, so I thought it was a really interesting experience that way, yeah.
SM: It was interesting hearing the stories about... in hindsight we can ask, 'Why didn't you just leave Germany?' Of course leaving everything you know and moving to another country isn't easy, but knowing what we know now about what happened, it might have been worth it. But at the time it slowly rolled out, what was going on. It helped me understand why some people didn't want to leave. And then when they did it was too late.
KJ: That was the key thing that I took away from talking to my mom, was that it was a slow roll. Nazi-ism was, apparently according to her... I mean they were farmers. you know, my mom lived on a farm, so it wasn't an urban environment. They were, in some respects, disconnected from the politics of the time. But it caught up to everybody, obviously. And I forgive no one. I absolve no one. I think my mom--you know like I say, she was seventeen at the end of the war. What does a seventeen year old know? Not that much. But I've thought a lot about this obviously. I absolve no one.
That glimpse at the von Fries family in White Knight, and Victor's role in it, ended up being almost a microcosm of the reactions around it. He says "I can forgive some things, but not others." Obviously it's hard to draw the line between real history and giant ice rays, but for this one-shot you're bringing in Himmler, Operation Paperclip... Was the goal to bring in that real history?
SM: I wanted to really base it off of Baron [Wernher] von Braun, who was an SS officer, and who was a scientist. It's sort of unclear whether he really considered himself a Nazi loyal to Hitler, or if he was just a scientist looking for an opportunity. And how we brought him over to the US, gave him his lab, gave him a pass sort of, just to help us out. To me, I'm stunned no one ever thought of doing that with Mr. Freeze before. I mean 'von Fries, von Braun.' It's right there, you know? I wanted to throw in the laser cannons and the ice technology, but my worry was that it would be too comic book-y, and it wouldn't respect what happened. So I was trying to be careful about keeping it comic book like, but not disrespecting the events that occurred.
KJ: My portal into the story is familial, in the sense that it is a story about a family. And Sean's characterization of Jacob, who is the leader and head of the family, and the rest of the family I thought was moving and very sympathetic. I think Sean and I have spoken about this in private, about how both of us are attracted to stories about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, that whole kind of family dynamic. That was my doorway into the story: it's a story about a kid and his family, and what's happening to him. Like all kids they don't know what's going on, they have no control. I found that to be really an incredibly sympathetic and emotional construct.
SM: I have my own father issues, and I know Klaus does. We can't have a few glasses of wine without something coming out.
SM: I remember meeting with Klaus one-on-one in New York, and I just started bawling talking about something about my father. I remember holding his hand and just trying to get my shit together. I don't have that kind of relationship with very many people in comics, so I think that trying to get some of that into the book, because we both connect to it--
KJ: That's so funny! You know--
SM: No it's awful! But it's funny [Laughs]
KJ: Our criteria for a successful meal is that one of us needs to be weeping at the end of it.
SM: But yeah, the father-son stuff was my way in as well. I thought more about Thomas Wayne, and how he is a father figure to Victor. And what it might mean to Bruce at the end of the book, when you see Batman come into the story. Wanting to know more about his dad through the eyes of Victor Fries, who is one of the only people alive who might remember him in that way.
My goal with writing villains is to make them empathetic, in a weird way. Even the Joker, I wanted him to come across as sympathetic, empathetic. With Victor Fries I think it's probably a lot easier. Then you get to his father who is the villain of the story, who actually has a shining moment at the end. Von Freeze basically tells us what we already know, what we are quick to forget: there are evil men in history who were capable of bizarre good things, every now and then. It's hard to square. No one is truly evil, no one is truly noble. It's all grey, it's all in the middle somewhere.
I think that's where Von Freeze really pushes it, hopefully in similar ways that Batman: White Knight pushed it. The idea of, is Batman all good, or does he enjoy hurting people to some degree? I don't want to give the readers any easy answers. And I don't really want to preach what they're supposed to think either. I like people to come away with their own opinions of each character.
I know asking you to judge your own work might be too difficult, but what can you say about the other work being done, that fans can look forward to seeing?
KJ: In terms of a job that requires me to pencil and ink, it's certainly among the best, if not the best pencil and inking job that I've done. The story had a lot of opportunities for interesting visuals, and I hope that I capitalized on each opportunity. Matt Hollingsworth is doing an amazing job on the colors, and I think the book looks pretty solid to me. I have to say, I feel privileged to have been the first one to enter the Murphyverse, and play around in your interpretation of the characters.
SM: I think it is some of your best work. I sent Klaus a bunch of references and photos I found online of facilities and German towns and technology. He used almost every one of them. Just the amount of detail he goes into just drawing a laboratory, the amount of beakers he's drawn in this story way in the background. Stuff most people aren't going to see, but I see them. and I know that it's not easy to do. I like to think that because I'm an artist I can appreciate Klaus in a way most people can't. Other than the guy who usually cries across the table from me when we're drinking.
KJ: [Laughs] I'm starting to cry right now, Sean.
SM: Let me get some wine!
Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze #1 will arrive this November. Batman: Curse of The White Knight #1 is available now.