Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze #1 is notable as the first time another artist has tackled the world of Sean Murphy’s White Knight. Until now, Sean Murphy had written and drawn every issue set in this Elseworld where The Joker briefly regained his sanity and proved to be a far greater threat to the status quo of Gotham City as Jack Napier than he had ever been as The Joker. The story was revolutionary in many respects yet simultaneously a love letter to the mythology of Batman – even some of the more ludicrous and less-loved portions of it. It seems fitting then that Murphy’s second collaborator in shaping this world (the first being colorist Matt Hollingsworth) should be the legendary Batman artist Klaus Janson.
The story of Von Freeze is a flashback within a flashback, largely focused upon the night that Bruce Wayne was born after Thomas and Martha Wayne became snowbound in the lab of Victor Fries, who works for Wayne Enterprises in this reality. Fries takes command in caring for Martha, eventually convincing his employer that he is too out of practice and too agitated to safely deliver his own child and that Fries’ team is more than qualified to handle the job. Fries then distracts Thomas with a story of his own childhood and the two men he called father; his biological father, Baron Von Fries and his father’s business partner, Jacob Smithstein.
The story puts a spin on one of the many subplots from the original Batman: White Knight and one of the crimes which Jack Napier exposed – that Thomas Wayne had knowingly financed the work of the Baron Von Fries and used his work with cryogenics (which involved experiments on Jewish prisoners) to build his own fortune. The story paints the character of Baron Von Fries in a slightly more sympathetic light, revealing that he slowly slid down the slippery slope toward fascism in an earnest attempt to save the work of his Jewish business partner and the lives of his family. Still, there is a deep divide between the coolness with which Von Fries treats his own son and the warmth and affection which a young Victor receives from the Smithsteins and comes to return towards them.
Murphy’s story doesn’t seem to add much to the overall narrative of White Knight, though it is a fascinating character study on its own terms. A note at the end of the issue assures us this will be referenced again in Curse of the White Knight and a coda at the end of the story returns us to the modern day with Bruce Wayne transporting Harleen Quinzel home after she gave birth. Presumably this will all make sense in the future, but the story is still solid despite its seeming irrelevance.
Janson is in fine form and his artwork a good fit for Murphy’s aesthetic and story. Janson’s figures are larger and more traditional in appearance than Murphy’s, lacking the leanness and complexity of Murphy’s designs. Despite this, Matt Hollingsworth’s colors keep the final product adhering to the visual continuity of the earlier White Knight books. The final product is visually distinct, but not unpleasantly so.
The only real flaw to this book is that while it is accessible to newcomers who have not read the original White Knight series, you get much more out of the story if you have read the original. That being said, the initiated would do well to check out this one-shot, as would fans of Janson’s artwork.