Apologies, Mr. Zero: Rethinking "Batman Annual’s" Victor Fries

Michael D. Stewart

Nothing lasts forever, nor should it… The careful art of writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV make a bone-chilling stand for creativity, by articulating a newer, deadlier Mr. Freeze.

Nothing lasts forever and nothing can go on indefinitely without experiencing some sort of change. Similarly, the stories told before cannot be retold without some differences. As perhaps an indictment of the remake culture that has persisted for generations now, when a narrative is presented in such a way to create a definitive story, to rehash them again and again does a disservice to the creative spirit. Even if it’s not to everyone’s taste, do something new, add a new layer, create.

If for nothing else, DC’s New 52 reworking of their narrative universe demonstrated yet again the ability of publishers, writers and artists to rethink their characters. This is nothing new by any means.

Certainly fans of the original Batman comics have their thoughts and feelings on the adjustments made to the character in the 1950s. As too fans of the Silver Age Batman, when the character was rethought again a generation later. Comicbook characters, as with most fictional character no matter what medium, are typically reflections of the time in which they are published. Batman was a dark force for justice in the later '30s and early '40s; he was a morally upright force for justice in the 50s and '60s; he was a tragic and obsessed force for justice in the '80s and '90s; and today he is a pathologically motivated force for justice.

While certain elements of Batman’s story are recognizable to almost any generation since his creation, his characterization has been molded and remolded over and over again.

With the most recent Batman Annual, current Batman writer Scott Snyder and newcomer James Tynion IV had a choice to make. Present the villain Mr. Freeze as he was or remold him for the new period? Their choice, while simplified in the last sentence, may seem easier than what it actually was. To begin, which Mr. Freeze do they present?

The many revisions to the Mr. Freeze character are a history lesson of how other mediums can influence each other. First appearing in 1959, and originally called Mr. Zero, the character that became Victor Fries would eventually be renamed and popularized by the campy '60s Batman TV series.

That version of Freeze would transfer over to the comics of the time as his backstory was revised. As a Silver Age villain, Freeze was a rogue scientist whose own character flaws lead to his subzero existence.

It was the landmark Batman: The Animated Series and the seminal work of writer Paul Dini that reinvented Mr. Freeze as a tragic and sympathetic villain. Victor Fries and the story of his terminally ill, cryogenically frozen wife, Nora, replaced the older version of the character. As it had happened previously, TV influenced the comicbook direction for Freeze. It was the same on TV as in the comics except for some slight differences. Nora on TV had the chance to still be alive, but in the comics Nora is killed and Fries, in his grief, goes insane.

The comics also added another dimension to the Freeze character. In his youth he had a fascination with freezing animals, a perversion that would dictate his life to come. A perversion that would be reexamined, and while changed for the New 52 version, still creates a pathology linking this new version to the previous incarnations.

The Snyder and Tynion’s version of Mr. Freeze, presented in “First Snow” in Batman Annual 2012 is in a way an amalgamation of the previous versions. While heavily concentrated on the Dini version, this version of the character has deeper pathological roots for his eventual criminal madness and obsession with Nora. She is no longer his wife, although he thinks of her as his spouse. She was frozen in 1966 in the hopes a cure would eventually be found for her terminal disease. The eventual Mr. Freeze wrote his doctoral thesis on her and became obsessed with her case.

“You never knew her, and yet you come back, time and time again,” Batman says to Freeze. “Mr. Freeze out to save his dying wife from the cruel businessman who took her away. But we both know that’s a farce, Victor. She’s old enough to be your grandmother, for God’s sake.”

This is part of a new layer added by Snyder and Tynion, with the other part of the new layer explaining his thinking. The roots for his obsession with Nora are revealed to relate back to his mother and the events of her falling through the ice when Victor was just a boy. The relation of that event and his dedication to Nora are obvious to even the most novice psychology student.

Criticisms of this new approach to the Freeze character vary among critics and fans. For one, perversion of Freeze’s motivations could be interrupted as a slight to the sympathetic Dini version, whereas the romanticism of Victor’s motivation to save his wife is the product of juvenile idealistic fantasy and have no place in the modern understanding of comics.

Another criticism is that why does everyone in the Bat-universe have to have a pathological reason for their actions? Why must they all be so completely psychologically damaged? Is that the only type of motivation that exists? This pathological motivation that borders on narrative cliché?

Yet another criticism is why does it all have to relate back to Bruce Wayne, the new catalyst for Victor’s condition? Why do the villains have to circle back to Batman’s alter ego like some perfect circle of narrative symmetry? Whatever happened to happenstance in the Bat-universe as to the creation of his adversaries?

There are of course many more criticisms that have been leveled, but putting them aside, Batman Annual by Snyder, Tynion and artist Jason Fabok must be praised for its excellent pacing. It is a well constructed narrative despite disagreement over the Mr. Freeze characterization.

In a similar vein, the creative team must be given proper credit for not rehashing what had been done. The version of Mr. Freeze presented in Batman: The Animated Series was perfect and complete. Why should Snyder and Tynion redo it when it’s already been done to such an excellent degree? That story has been done and to bring it back exactly as it was would border on the type of remake thinking that stifles creativity. The creators did something new, added a new layer, they created and should rightfully be given credit for attempting something new.

Snyder and Tynion’s new version of Mr. Freeze is a reflection of our current culture, this type of obsession flanking the addiction dramas so prevalent in celebrity and society news. Perhaps much of the criticism of this new version of Victor Fries relates to the unflattering mirror he’s become that the writers unknowingly presented?

Regardless, the Mr. Freeze presented is not your grandfather’s Mr. Zero. Nor should it be. While the characterization may or may not be disappointing, the intent of the creators to stretch the creative boundaries and not recreate what had already done so aptly is worth noting and praising. The debate is the result, not the work. And it’s open to interpretation.

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