Batman has always lent himself to horror tropes with relative ease, thanks in large part to a rouges gallery filled with murderers, madmen and literal monsters. Even the Dark Knight himself dresses up in a ghastly outfit to frighten criminals, determined to be the biggest thing that goes bump in the night in whatever alley he prowls.
Of course, Batman’s history with horror has had its ups and downs from a narrative standpoint (much like with any genre the Caped Crusader is dropped in), but when some of the more gothic elements of the character are riding high, more often than not, artist Kelly Jones is acting as one of the pillars atop which the Dark Knight sits. Now, Jones is setting up a new nightmare in the pages of Batman: Kings of Fear #1, and boy, is it good to have him here.
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For those of us who were teenagers in the ‘90s and were reading Batman comics at the time, Kelly Jones was our artist. He drew about thirty some odd issues of Batman from 1995 to 1998. He was also the artist behind Batman & Dracula: Red Rain and its subsequent sequels. In short, if you saw an image of Batman with claws and insanely long ears jutting like spears out of the top of his mask at any point during the ‘90s, you were probably looking at Kelly Jones' art.
His character designs for Batman's rogues gallery are also second to none. The hulking villains look like titans, looming over the Dark Knight on each panel. All the angular features of characters like the Joker and Scarecrow are exaggerated in grotesque portions. His style certainly hearkens back to the gothic aesthetics made popular by Tim Burton's 1989 film, Batman. Love it or hate it, there isn’t anything else like out there quite like Kelly's artwork.
Okay, enough gushing over Jones' return to Batman. Aside from the art, was this issue any good?
In a word: Yes. It's actually quite good.
Batman: Kings of Fear #1 dials in on what makes Batman ripe for horror by giving us just enough to pique our interests with the promise of potentially terrifying events unfolding. Now, nothing outstandingly gruesome happens in this first issue, at least not by Batman standards. But if writer Scott Peterson (Batgirl, Scooby-Doo) is planting the seeds the way it appears he is, this miniseries promises to really get creepy. All the elements are here: Arkham Asylum (inherently terrifying), the monstrous members of the Rogues Gallery, the Joker being, well, the Joker, and a mysterious case the world's greatest detective will have to solve sooner or later.
All of this, coupled with Jones' return, screams "Batman Halloween Special" in the best kind of way. The only problem is that early on, the comic seems to want to pay homage to scenes from works like The Killing Joke, in which Batman and the Joker engage in philosophical discussions regarding their positions in life and how well they truly know each other. Unfortunately, it all comes off like heavily traveled territory. This is really is just a quibble, but for readers who may not be in awe of Kelly Jones' work, it could be a bit off-putting.
The story within the this issue is a bit slim, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, this is the first chapter in a six-part miniseries where anything could occur. As to not to get too spoiler-heavy, the issue begins with Batman apprehends the Joker in the middle of committing some sort of mysterious robbery (?) and winds up dragging the clown price of crime to Arkham Asylum. While there, Batman engages in a brief tête-à-tête with one of the staff members of asylum regarding the merits (or lack thereof) of his vigilante justice, setting the table for the main course of the meal to arrive.
Batman: Kings of Fear #1 could shape up to be a horror (or at the very least psychological thriller) genre piece just in time for Halloween. Kelly Jones' art certainly elevate the issue, but Scott Peterson is doing an admirable job in doling out just enough information to keep our attention. When it comes to miniseries, a good setup and the promise of something bigger is all we really ask for.