The story "Stag" in "Batman Annual" #1 has Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo introduce several characters into the DC Universe. But while the names are new, the roles that several of them play feel rather familiar. And in looking at these characters, it's hard to wonder if there's more going on than meets the eye.
Gotham's Newest Billionaire Benefactor
The first of the three new characters introduced in "Stag" is Barry O'Neill, a billionaire who is described as someone that gives wonder and hope to kids every year. He helps disadvantaged youth, he sponsors a winter wonderland for children to enjoy every holiday season, and comes across as someone who hasn't let his vast fortune go to his head. In short, he's Bruce Wayne minus the secret identity. He's not a Johnny-come-lately to Gotham City, either. Bruce refers to Barry as being, "nearly a hundred years old," although Barry is depicted as quite mobile and in quite good shape in Rossmo's art. He's also clearly an associate of Bruce; the two stand next to each other for the latest opening of the winter wonderland, and later in the issue Bruce muses about the good that Barry does for the city.
Orlando is, at least initially, drawing a strong parallel between Barry and Bruce. Both have devoted their lives to helping those who need help the most, and both have a ridiculous amount of money with which to do so. The fact that both of their names start with the letter "B" is clearly not a coincidence, with one more similarity drawn between the two. With Barry's fate at the end of the issue (and more on that in a bit), though, the question quickly becomes if Barry's reputation will remain untarnished by the time the proverbial dust settles in the 2017 storyline that promises to follow this story.
Not That Ice-Related Batman Villain
Thanks to the 1997 "Batman and Robin" film, most people know all about Batman's foe Mr. Freeze. He's already appeared in the New 52 continuity, being reintroduced in 2012's "Batman Annual" where Victor Fries is a man obsessed with a woman on the point of death in cryogenic storage (Nora Fields) whom Fries has become obsessed with. When Bruce Wayne shut down Fries's obsessive project over thawing out Nora, the resulting scuffle transformed Fries into the cold-manipulating Mr. Freeze.
With that in mind, why is it that when Orlando needs an ice-based villain to attack Barry O'Neill, we don't get Mr. Freeze at all? Instead we're introduced to Minister Blizzard, a strange man wielding a freeze-gun and riding an ice bull who proclaims himself to be the prime minister of a fantasy world built out of ice. In his attack on O'Neill, Minister Blizzard refers to, "[his] life's struggle, packaged as a children's trifle!" It sounds like whatever the truth is behind Blizzard's origin, he believes that his homeland is the same one that's depicted in some sort of popular young adult series like the "Harry Potter" or "Narnia" novels. It's certainly full of possibilities, if nothing else. But leaving the future stories aside, it does make the reader wonder: is Mr. Freeze (who's shown up in several storylines over the past couple of years) being set aside for use elsewhere in DC Comics? If nothing else, he wouldn't be out of place on a title like, "Suicide Squad." For the moment, though, Mr. Freeze is merely conspicuous in his absence here.
Last but not least is the introduction of the Stag, a brand-new foe for Batman to face. Showing up on the final page of the comic, the final panel promises that we'll see more of the character next year. Here, the Stag makes its first kill by murdering Barry O'Neill while stating the enigmatic phrase, "I am an honest signal." A catchphrase or a statement aimed at Barry O'Neill? For the moment, it's uncertain, even as it's hard to ignore the red-accented speech balloon used by letterer Deron Bennett for the Stag's dialogue.
The Stag's look is an eerie one, with a frozen porcelain mask that could easily double as a mannequin's face. Its black cloak is almost diaphanous, its legs and shoes bring to mind a ballerina's tights and flats, and the headdress is a strange mixture of horns and what appears to almost be raven wings. The Stag's appearance comes across as female, although it's hard to tell if the name of the character has to do with the horns on its headdress (a stag beetle, perhaps?), the name for a male deer, or the phrase used for when men are out on the town without a woman. Considering that Orlando has not been afraid to invoke sexuality and gender in his comic book writing, the disconnect between the female appearance and the male-implied name could very well be, and most likely is, deliberate.
With a victim near and dear to Bruce Wayne's heart -- Barry having evoked a full page's worth of musings from Bruce Wayne to Duke Thomas -- the one thing that's certain is that the Stag's presence is going to stir up a lot of emotions in the caped crusader. Going stag will definitely be dangerous in 2017.