Batwing 1-6

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Batwing 1-6, originally released September 7th, 2011, October 5th, 2011, November 2nd, 2011, December 7th, 2011, January 4th, 2012, and February 1st, 2012.

Patrick: David and Isaac Zavimbe  were orphaned when their parents died of AIDS. They were kidnapped from the orphanage by Warlord Keita, who transformed them both into monstrous child-soldiers. As the Zavimbe brothers were impossibly good at killing in the name of the warlord, Keita took them on as his own sons – calling them his Dragonflies. The more atrocities they committed for Keita, the more he trusted them. When Isaac defied and order and refused to murder children, Warlord Keita gutted him with a machete in front of his brother. By way of revenge, David left Keita defenseless in an enemy village and vowed to never kill again. David grows  up to become a police officer in the Republic of Congo by day and superhero Batwing by night. This is canvas upon which the Batwing saga is painted.

Obviously, Batwing doesn’t operate in a world that leaves a lot of room for camp or fun or levity in any form. The corruption in the Congo’s government and police force are worlds worse than anything Batman has to face in Gotham. A common Batman villain may have selected a particular neurosis or affectation around which to coordinate their costumes, crimes, henchmen, catch-phrases, etc. Batwing’s main adversary is named Massacre, he wears a skull over his face – his general theme is “murder.” Batwing’s support network is usually one guy back at The Haven (his version of the Batcave), but occasionally Batman drops by. Even the central mystery of the series – why Massacre wants to murder former members of the superhero team “The Kingdom” – obscures the secret behind 50,000 lost lives.

While I’m normally bothered by this sort of narrative drudgery, Judd Winick has kept the storytelling fast enough and surprising enough to never make the material as unpleasant as it sounds. Part of this is achieved through sheer shock value. The first issue ends with our hero impaled on Massacre’s blade – THE FIRST ISSUE.

There’s also a good deal of origin story these first six issues, with the fourth devoted almost entirely to the story I relayed in the first paragraph. But unlike most origin stories, Batwing’s is neither about discovering his powers nor is it a story of being a victim. Certainly, David was dealt a shitty hand in life, but even as a child it is his actions that define him, not the circumstances he was born into.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sorta sounds like someone took a few buzzwords they knew applied to the African continent (“AIDS orphan!” “child soldier!”), mixed them together, slapped a Batman logo on it and called it a day. I assume you’re thinking this because this was my initial reaction as I read about David’s past. Literally the day after I read all six issues, I heard an interview with Winick on PRI’s The World where host Marco Werman takes him to task for the same reason. Winick’s defense is two-fold: a) that the Batman universe is a dark place and he wanted to reflect the darkness specific to this location and b) it’s an action comic for crying out loud.

That it is. And viewed as such, I’m happy to welcome Batwing into my rotation. Massacre’s mission to kill all surviving members of the Kingdom gracefully balances mystery and action, and manages to pepper in enough character work to make this one of the titles I really like. As an added bonus, you get this sense that you’re getting in on the ground floor of something new and dangerous. I know Batwing was technically introduced late in the Batman, Inc. story arc, but David Zavimbe’s character is about the closest thing to a brand new hero the New 52 has to offer.

Here’s something I just learned in my research: The Kingdom is not a superhero group that has ever been portrayed in DC Comics before. Add to that: the individual members of The Kingdom are also new as of this arc. While reading this series, I was vaguely aware of series called “The Kingdom” and “Kingdom Come,” so I had assumed Winick was operating with some established knowledge base that I didn’t have. That’s an assumption I make all the time when reading comics, so I didn’t question it. The idea that this mythology was invented whole-sale for an original “someone is killing superheroes” story thrills the ever-loving shit out of me. This brand new concept is exactly the sort of thing the New 52 should be attempting in all series, to reward new readers and excite the old.

The art is very striking in this series. Taking cues from Winick’s writing, artists Ben Oliver and Brian Reber deliver a style both realistic and grim. The coloring in particular is very moody and everything has a sort of dusty water-color feel to it. They also seem to like putting the characters in silhouette, especially during action sequences. Check out how they use it here in Batwing’s last fight with Massacre:

First the silhouettes, then the water colors, then finally a mixture of the two. I don’t know if it means anything or if it has any profound effect on how I read the series, but it sure does look cool. The only real visual stumbling block comes in the flashback-heavy fourth issue, which uses ChrisCross’ markedly more cartoony style. Especially given the gravity of those flashbacks, I just wasn’t digging the rubberier faces and frequent use of cheesy motion lines.

So, how’s all this going to tie into the Night of Owls? That’s why we picked this one up in the first place, right? Well word on the street is that the last two members of The Kingdom (that Massacre can reasonably hope to get his hands on, anyway) have been living in Gotham City. Batman all but tells Batwing to pack his bag and notes that, at least in Gotham, they’ll have a little help. Which sorta begs the question of why he needs to take Batwing away from the country he swore to defend, but whatever. Thus far, I don’t really see why Batwing would give half a shit about the fate of Gotham, but I guess when your mentor and sole financier says “jump,” you respond with an enthusiastic “how high?”

It’s nice how focused this title has been: six issues all dealing with the same basic conflict. I hope Batwing can bring Massacre to justice and bring this story line to a proper close before joining rank against the Owls. And after all that is said and done, I want to dig deep into the mythology of these African heroes. To hell with Bat-lore — we’ve got a billion other books in which to explore that — Batwing suggests a whole world of heroes just aching to be discovered. I like what we’re reading and I see a lot of potential for the future. What do you like about Batwing, Drew?

Drew: I’m always disappointed when comics take a “bigger is better” approach to grimness. On some level, the fact that a torso heap doesn’t phase our hero paints a very dark picture of the world he inhabits, but on another level, the fact that torso heaps are treated so glibly (there are two in the first issue alone) kind of diminishes the visceral impact that a pile of hacked up bodies is supposed to have. This is a common complaint I have with a lot of comics, which generally lands them in the “dumb but innocuous” category, but something about the treatment here actually offends me.

I suppose what I’m taking issue with is the “reality” of the horrors depicted here. I appreciate that these are still fictional events perpetrated by a masked man calling himself “Massacre,” but the ripped-from-the-headlines, buzzword-heavy feel you mentioned makes this feel much more real than the enslavement of all humanity or the genocide of an entire planet of manatee-men. I don’t mind fictional problems being solved by fictional characters (in fact, that’s kind of why I read comics), but a fictional character working to solve real problems feels at best cheap and at worst dishonest, as their victories aren’t real.

I don’t know what’s worse: the thought David Zavimbe will eventually prevail in cleaning up his fictional DRC, or the thought that Batwing as a title will have an endless sting of atrocities to mine by holding their version of the DRC closer to reality. In short, I feel like DC is cashing in on real life horrors in a way that I’ve never felt when the Joker gasses a crowd of Gothamites. The cynic in me wonders if DC’s “We Can Be Heroes” campaign to fight drought and famine in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya (the ads for which coincidentally appeared in all issues I picked up this month except Batwing) wasn’t conceived in order to counteract the bad press generated by such an exploitative title. (I appreciate that Batwing is set in the fictional city of Tinasha, but between his travels to Egypt and the general nondescript nature of Tinasha, he sure feels like the protector of an entire continent.)

Maybe this moral outrage is misplaced — this title does raise awareness of real-world issues in a way that another story set in another fictional city couldn’t hope to — but it’s definitely hard for me to get over when I’m reading this title. In the end, there is more to this title than it’s commentary on the current state of sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s clearly where its strengths lie. The world Winick creates for Batwing, where corruption and bribery are the rule, rather than the exception, feels very much like Gotham, but a Gotham that doesn’t seem to value the sanctity of human life. For all my complaining about the flippancy with which massacres are treated in this title, their abundance does effectively create a world where violent death seems like the likely exit for the majority of its characters.

You’re right to site Reber’s colors as a big player in the feel of this book — his painterly touches make the art look like nothing else we’re reading. While I agree with you that Oliver’s faces and attention to detail far outpace ChrisCross’s work on the issue 4, I do think Oliver could learn a thing or two from ChrisCross when it comes to layouts. In general, the layouts on this title don’t feel particularly meaningful, but check out the page borders in issue 4: the silhouette of a bat traces its way across the top border as the issue progresses, symbolizing David’s own journey from mindless killing machine to Batman-endorsed crime-fighter. Or maybe I was just bored with the heavy-handed moralizing of that flashback; anyway, I thought it was a neat detail.

Winick makes it clear that David suspects Massacre is Keita, but he also makes it pretty clear to the reader that it’s probably Isaac (who “died” by falling off a cliff, serialized drama’s favorite device for implying a death it will invariably show wasn’t a death at all). It feels a little dumb and predictable, but it also feels a bit like an origin story, which gives me hope for where this title might go. Now that we’ve got the broad strokes of David’s pre-Batwing history filled-in, we can focus on his ongoing adventures in cleaning up the streets of Tinasha. We may have to sew this arc up before that can start in earnest (which I suspect will take more than the two issues that will happen before David gets sidetracked by the Night of the Owls), but I’m willing to stick with it until that time.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

2 comments on “Batwing 1-6

  1. The claims of exploitation are not unfounded, but it does seem a little harsh. On the one hand, it can feel like DC is mining global atrocities for personal gain, but on the other, it is admirable that they’re bothering to present an African superhero at all. Also, for all the talk of torso heaps, they only really appear in the first issue – after which, Massacre seems more singly focused on his mission of killing off The Kingdom.

    Honestly, I don’t know how you tell a story about an African Batman that wouldn’t attract that sort of criticism. In that interview I linked to, Winick says he wanted to avoid African stereotypes (he cites “The Lion King”). I don’t know – it’s such a complicated issue, and if it offends, then it offends.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely a complicated issue. It steel feels exploitative to me, but you’re right, I’m not really sure there’s anything they could have done to make a story set in war-torn Africa not feel exploitative, so maybe my sensitivity needs to be adjusted. I do like the kind of distillation of the Batman myth down to its essence that this character represents. I think I could learn to like this title, but it’s going to take some time.

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