Klaus Janson is a legend in comics. He’s so big that he’s best known for seven different things – he’s the guy who co-created Micro in The Punisher; or the one who drew “Gothic,” one of Grant Morrison’s first and moodiest Batman stories; or the comics storytelling professor at SVA; or the guy who finished Frank Miller’s pencils on Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns. But on everything he does, his art is immediately distinct: it’s moody and heavy in a way very few new comic artists can successfully accomplish.
One of the few who can pull it off is Sean Murphy. Murphy, who rose to fame working Morrison on Joe the Barbarian, then took off working with Scott Snyder on American Vampire, and now has been given his own alternate Bat-universe to play in, telling an extended story about late career Batman and the Joker in Batman: White Knight and Curse of the White Knight. He’s another immediately recognizable artist: you know right away when you’re looking at a Murphy Batmobile, or a Murphy Batgirl costume design, or Murphy Gotham rubble. He’s less atmospheric and more frantic, stuffing ideas into every square inch of the page, but he’s super stylized and uses heavy inks to help set the mood around the craziness of his stories. So how do two gifted inkers and stylized artists challenge themselves with a Batman story?
Snow. Lots of snow.
Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze is out in November. It expands on the backstory of the Mr. Freeze we met in the pages of the first Murphy-verse Batman tale, White Knight, and gave us the opportunity to talk shop with these two talents. It’s rare to get a chance to sit in on two exceptionally talented people talking shop the way we did with Janson and Murphy, but push them on all the snow in Von Freeze and they get going. “To me, using white is, in a very simplistic way, the opposite of using black,” Janson says.
“When I ink snow, I ink shadows across snow. Even if it wouldn’t look that way in real life, I just take creative license,” says Murphy. “It was just interesting to, for me as an artist, to deal with the shadows that are cast on the snow,” Janson responds.
The project isn’t just a chance for two outstanding storytellers to nerd out about craft. White Knight is in several ways a spiritual sequel to Batman: The Animated Series, and in keeping with the first book’s propensity for expounding on TAS’s universe, Von Freeze digs into Victor Fries’ backstory using the cartoon’s lonely widow characterization as canon. “I looked through the DC archives and I didn’t really see a whole lot of bolstering of Mr. Freeze as far as what had happened in his past,” Murphy says. “So I thought it was a great opportunity to tie it to the real world and give him a different sort of origin story.”
That origin story ties him much more closely to his beloved Nora, and plants him square in the middle of Operation Paperclip, the US Government program that secreted a gaggle of Nazi scientists into government research jobs after World War II. It turns Fries’ father into basically Wernher von Braun, the Nazi V2 rocket engineer who later played an instrumental role in putting humans on the moon from his desk at NASA’s Space and Rocket Center in Alabama. Only instead of putting people in space, von Freeze’s father wanted to freeze them. “It is essentially the origin story of Mr. Freeze and how the influence of his father created that that person,” says Janson. “When [people] read the story, they’ll certainly feel sympathy for Mr. Freeze and why he is the way he is and why he’s so cold,” Murphy adds.
The original plan was to add this backstory into White Knight, but the first miniseries got too big, and it had to be cut. Fortunately, it was popular enough to give Murphy a chance to go back to it in this one-shot. “I really wanted to put in volume one of White Knight, but I ran out of space. I really wanted to nail down this idea that [von] Freeze is like Von Braun with Operation Paperclip,” says Murphy. “And I was so afraid someone was going to take this idea, that I thought I need to get this out. Maybe I’ll just get another artist draw to it and I’ll just write it, and maybe I could pitch this to Dan Didio at DC and it have him approve of it as a one shot.”
He ended up doing better than just “another artist.” Janson is an instrumental artist to comics’ boom in the ‘80s, and kept upping his game as time passed. Murphy says, “in a way I’m a student of Klaus’ because I grew up reading his stuff as well. And becoming friends with him and having to write a script for him was definitely a dream come true. I never thought that I would ever be able to use such a talented person to draw my script.”
And landing such a talented artist meant Murphy got to challenge him. The most exciting part of this project, Murphy tells us, is “…taking one of my favorite artists and bringing him back into the spotlight and me using him the way I think he should be used. Not just as an inker, but as a penciler, inker, story teller, and really helping me out with the script in some ways too.”
For Janson, the best part of the project is getting to dive into the research of the era, immerse himself in old growth German forests and architecture. “I think that the environment, for me, no matter what the assignment is, is a very big deal. New York as Daredevil is concerned, Gotham as Batman is concerned,” he says. “I really enjoyed the reference that I needed to accumulate, and the design that was involved in trying to nail that down and create a credible environment.”
Murphy, on the other hand, was most excited to see what Janson would do with a talking head page. At one point, von Fries gets called into a meeting with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and arguably the most dangerous man in Europe at the time. The meeting takes place in a tank factory, “and [Janson] even does some of my favorite panels,” Murphy says. “The tanks are having treads be applied so the treads are unraveled and I don’t know, he must’ve found a great photo for that because that didn’t come from me. But I loved it.”
“Tanks are hard. Tanks are hard, Sean,” Janson replied. “Tanks are hard”
Batman: White Knight Presents von Freeze is out November 20th. For more exclusive preview art, keep scrolling! For more on the Murphy-verse, stick with Den of Geek!