After the success of Batman: White Knight, writer/artist Sean Murphy came back to his alternate Batman universe for the current mini-series Batman: Curse of the White Knight - but it doesn't end there.
This week, as Curse of the White Knight takes a break, DC has released the one-shot Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze by Murphy and artist Klaus Janson.
Von Freeze takes readers on a journey through the childhood of the White Knight version of Mister Freeze, exploring how his father’s history as a Nazi informed the decisions Victor made later in life.
Newsarama talked to Murphy and Janson to find out more about their team-up in the White Knight universe, why flashbacks are important to the storytelling, and how the artwork was informed by the emotions in the family-focused story.
Newsarama: Sean, out of all the great characters you’ve introduced in the White Knight universe, why did this one emerge as one that needed some extra space for his story?
Sean Murphy: I’ve always been a massive Mister Freeze fan, because out of all the villains, he didn’t strike me as someone who wanted to be a villain.
So when I was putting together the White Knight story, I came up with this new backstory for Mister Freeze that was sort of based off of Baron Von Braun, who started the rocket program here in the U.S. after World War II.
Unfortunately, I ran out of space. So I told my editor maybe we could do a one-issue spin-off of this.
So I was able to sort of give people the secret history of Mister Freeze without letting it ingest Volume 1 too much.
Nrama: People have been used to your artwork on the White Knight story, so what was it like working with another artist on this story?
Murphy: Klaus is a close friend of mine. He was one of my heroes growing up, and of course, his work on the Dark Knight is legendary. And I think we have a similar sensibility. I know we don’t draw the same, but I think we’re in the same wheelhouse, so I think that readers who are used to my stuff on White Knight won’t find it too hard seeing it drawn by Klaus. I think it has a similar feel to the stuff that they’ve already been reading in this universe.
I wrote this as sort of a two-act play. It’s very flashback heavy, but I’m hoping that by the end, you get this third chunk of the story that also involves Batman, and you’ll see how it ties in to the rest of White Knight.
Nrama: Klaus, when you got involved in this story, what did you think of the alternate universe?
Klaus Janson: Sean used to live in Brooklyn and I lived in Manhattan. And when Sean started doing Batman: White Knight, the first volume, I was aware of it, through my friendship with Sean. He would talk about it, and I would tease him about it.
So I became aware of his version of Batman through that friendship. We always wanted to do something together. We had discussed that, even that far back. I admired his work tremendously, and I think he’s a fan of my work, so when this opportunity arose, I jumped at it.
We started talking about it at the beginning of his second arc - on the Curse of the White Knight. And this is where it happened.
Nrama: Let’s talk about this story. Can you describe who Mister Freeze is in this universe and how it informs the story and the art?
Murphy: Yeah, he is the child of a man who did some pretty horrible things during World War II. But his father wasn’t all bad. His father worked very closely with his Jewish business partner. They were very close at one point. But as the events of World War II unraveled, so did their relationship, so did their families.
I wanted to tell a story where the villain who’s seemingly all bad wasn’t all bad - I wanted to have some redeeming qualities.
And toward the end, you see Victor Fries’ dad start to make the right decisions to fix everything that he sort of messed up. It leaves a lasting impression on Victor. He’s forever embarrassed about where he came from, and ashamed. But it’s also produced this amazing technology, which he wants to use for medicine, for good.
He’s sort of thinking he can find forgiveness by becoming a force for medical exploration rather than as a villain.
Janson: It’s a story that really fleshes out the background of Mister Freeze and his family. We get to see a sort of origin for him, and how the chemical process of the freeze gun and all that kind of stuff developed and came into being.
The stories that attract me the most, and that I feel the most emotionally connected to, are stories about families and relationships. And to a great degree, this story is about that. We get to see Mister Freeze as a child, and how that contributed to his adulthood and the choices he makes as an adult.
So the art is determined by this family situation. I try to draw in a sort of expressionistic way, and I don’t think that any decision you make on a page is arbitrary. So even positioning characters in a panel, and the distance between them, is significant. It’s about storytelling. It’s about being able to communicate information and character and texture and their thoughts through the visual decisions, without the text - so the text on top of it just enlarges the storytelling, but doesn’t define it.
Nrama: Klaus, I’m looking at the preview pages, and I’m wondering - do you take advantage of digital these days?
Janson: I do. As a matter of fact, this is the most digital I’ve done up to now. I’m very competitive and ambitious. I don’t really believe in resting on my laurels, for lack of a better phrase, even at this late stage of my career (because I’ve been doing this for 45 or 50 years).
I needed to learn digital. So I spent a summer - actually, a little bit longer - learning how to work on the Cintiq and work digitally, and I was really happy because this project gave me an opportunity to apply what I was dealing with and learning digitally.
And the process that I use is almost made for digital, which is - it’s all in layers. I use tracing paper. I’ll do the layouts on tracing paper. I might do the figures separately. I might do the background separately. And whether it’s on paper or done digitally, the process of putting one layer on top of another is very much the same, whether it’s traditional or digital.
Nrama: Looking at these preview pages, is there something you can point out that is an example of how you used digital and layering?
Janson: Well, definitely the texture - the Zipatone. You know, the dot patterns. That’s all digital. None of that appeared on the original artwork.
So what I would do is ink the pages on paper, traditionally, the way I would do it. And then I’d scan them in to the Cintiq and play around with it.
I mean, I find digital amazing. There’s a part of me that wants to say I don’t know how anyone did good work before digital. But I’m being hyperbolic and exaggerating. But there’s an element of truth to it.
It’s made me respect the great artists of the ‘50s and the ’60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s that much more. Because if you look at a page that, like, Wally Wood did for EC Comics, or Steve Ditko or any of these masters, and you realize they did not have the ability to zoom in on the little face and make it better. They were able to do that on paper!
It’s amazing to look at that work and realize that, regardless of how - and I would put this in air quotes - how “primitive” the technology was, because it was just paper and brush or pen, they were able to do work that stands up and will continue to stand up and withstand the test of time.
So digital is amazing. It does have drawbacks. The line can be a little dead. So that is why I really tried to use both - start out on paper and then go in digitally and make corrections.
One of the things I really like is being able to draw in white, because it’s difficult to draw in white using wash or White-out or any traditional tools. You can get certain effects that you can’t get traditionally.
And it’s fun using that technology. I want to be able to get to the point where I can start coloring again. I miss coloring. I used to color Daredevil and some of the other projects I did in the ‘80s. I would like to get back to that. Coloring my own work, and getting a painting effect, which is the next phase of my learning curve.
Nrama: Sean, the White Knight universe has been a success for DC. What do you think it is that has captivated your readers about the White Knight storyline overall?
Murphy: You know, I wrote it to be like a movie in a comic. So I don’t want people to have to read a lot of previous comics to be able to jump into mine - just like a new Batman movie that comes out or a new Batman series. It’s a little bit of an Elseworlds, it’s a little of a re-invention. It’s not asking the reader to do a deep dive into the 70-year history. I try to make it very accessible for people that aren’t necessarily Batman fans.
So I think that might be part of the reason why. ‘Cause DC is doing these great stories that are very continuity-based, and a lot of readers love the deep connection with things that have happened in previous decades, but I think it’s smart to have a new kind of book that keeps in mind that not every reader is like that. A lot of readers are more casual than that.
And just like they watch a new Batman movie with open eyes, they’re willing to read a new style of Batman with open eyes.
Nrama: What about this one-shot? Can a reader pick it up without having read any of White Knight?
Murphy: Yeah, they can just pick it up. I think having Volume 1 would give it more context, but you can read Volume 2 without reading this one-shot, if you choose. There are some Easter eggs for people who decide to read both, so I’m hoping my readers will go ahead and pick it up, especially since we’re taking a break this month from the normal White Knight.
I’m hoping my readers will stick around for this one-shot here, then pick up where we left off next month.
Nrama: Beyond the current eight-issue volume, can you talk about what comes next for the White Knight universe?
Murphy: I’m taking a year off to do some of my own creator-owned work for awhile and give Batman a rest for a bit. But I definitely have plans to come back to this universe, if DC is up for it.