Review: Batwing Vol. 1: The Lost Kingdom trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, August 27, 2012

It's the trade-waiter's dilemma that this glowing review of Judd Winick's second DC Comics New 52 series, Batwing: The Lost Kingdom, comes just after the news that Winick has quietly announced his departure from Batwing and from DC Comics in general. This, after Winick also left Catwoman and apparently turned down a stint on Green Arrow. More's the pity, in a week where DC's reputation for creator relations is already taking a hit in the form of Rob Liefeld's much more public walk-off from his DC titles.

Winick's first Batwing collection is cogent superhero comics with an international flair of the kind also found in Winick's later Outsiders work. His Batwing also has charmingly much in common with the adventures of former Bat-proteges such as Azrael Jean Paul Valley and Batgirls Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown; Winick does well imagining the new junior member of the Bat-squad.

Minds are made up quickly, but Winick's work on Batwing ought give anyone who dismissed his work on Catwoman as cheap or trashy a second thought. Batwing is a well-crafted book, and it's impossible to appreciate the thought given to Batwing without acknowledging that same thought must have gone into the Catwoman book as well.

[Review contains spoilers]

As with Greg Rucka's Batwoman, Judd Winick starts out with the basics for Batwing. He is, by day, David Zavimbe, police officer in the African city of Tinasha -- reminiscent not so much of Gotham's billionaire playboy, but maybe Dick Grayson's classic adventures in Bludhaven. Zavimbe has his own Batcave -- called, actually, The Haven -- and even his own "Alfred" in the form of former child-soldier social worker Matu. Armed such, Zavimbe is out hunting gun runners on the Tinasha streets.

Issue one ends with a fantastic cliffhanger, however, as the rampage of a villain called Massacre hits home, and Winick continues to build Zavimbe's distinct personality from there. He has an "Alfred," yes, but this Bat-character doesn't hesitate to shoot his assistant with a drugged dart in order to duck an order of bed rest. And further, Winick reveals by the third issue, Zavimbe is like Jean Paul Valley and Cassandra Cain before him a murderer, even if as a child and under duress. We have a Bat-character, once again, who sees himself as deeply flawed and sees his nocturnal activities as penance, and that's always a great dynamic.

J. T. Krul and company's first Green Arrow collection suffered from threats that, for the most part, didn't much relate to Oliver Queen himself; not every need fight their evil best friend, but neither should heroes be interchangeable in a conflict. The Lost Kingdom offers the best of both worlds -- Massacre attacks Zavimbe's fellow police officers, to start, and then he goes after The Kingdom, an African super-team that helped inspire Batwing. By the book's last chapters, however, the reader suddenly realizes that Zavimbe is not just threatened by Massacre, he also might've helped create him.

That Zavimbe might fight Massacre through two whole collections might seem too much, except that Winick alters the dynamic exceptionally between the first and second books. As the reader gets to know Zavimbe, Zavimbe gets to know Massacre; in the second book, all the personal conflicts will now be place, and in addition Batwing and Massacre each move out of Africa to Gotham.

Carefully placed in the post-Justice League: Origin "five year gap," Winick imagines a team of proto-heroes, the Kingdom, who came before Batwing. From their towering headquarters to their impressive names -- Earth Strike; Dawnfire; Steelback, the man-machine -- the existence of this team is immediately, entirely believable, and the other pity of Winick leaving this title is he won't be able to show any "Times Past" Kingdom adventures. One rough spot, however, is that Winick's Thunder Fall, with electrical powers, too closely mimics the established Black Lightning; rather than lessen Lightning's uniqueness, it seems Winick could have chosen another power set instead. Also, Winick glosses over how the Kingdom's toppling of a Congo dictator intersects with actual African history; this is an instance where DC New 52 and reality diverge, and it would have been more interesting and less confusing if Winick had given this more attention.

The dialogue in Batwing's fight scenes is not always perfect; for every great moment like "I am a monster," there is also wooden dialogue in the fight scenes, like Batwing to Massacre: "You will not win." At the same time, some of Batwing's awkwardness has a Stephanie Brown-like joy to it; in a world of infallible Bruce Waynes, it's fun to read about the neophyte Zavimbe learning the ropes.

Ben Oliver handles most of The Lost Kingdom's art, with one chapter drawn by ChrisCross. Oliver's is the more definitive, offering a shadowy, watercolored Massacre, and it's a shock halfway through when the book shifts to ChrisCross's more "standard" style. ChrisCross handles the flashback scenes with equal delicateness, however, and while some of the facial expressions seem overwrought, in total Batwing is a good-looking book -- not J. H. Williams's Batwoman, but far from ordinary.

In all, however, Judd Winick's Batwing: The Lost Kingdom immediately finds its place and some precedent among the Bat-canon -- more than just "a book about an African Batman," Batwing is the newest book about the underdog Bat-character, the one with a dark past and something to prove. The good news is that Winick gets a little over twelve issues, and another collection, to complete his part in telling Zavimbe's origin -- it's only too bad readers already know the end is in sight.

[Includes Batwing sketchbook by Jim Lee and Ben Oliver; Batwing cover mock-ups.]

More New 52 later this week, with the Collected Editions review of Men of War.  Don't miss it!
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10 comments:

  1. This title was one of the New #1's that I wasn't expecting much out of, but the first issue interested me enough to add it to my buy list, at least through the "Night of the Owls" crossover issue (#9). When you mentioned last week that you were going to review this, I spent my weekend reading the first 6 issues so I'd be ready! :-)

    I was pleased to see that the first issue wasn't an anomaly; I greatly enjoyed it all. When I read it, I was drawn into the political turmoil in this African country, and I really felt the characters "voices" in my head, which added to the effect. That modern-day policeman David Zavimbe, Batwing by night, used to be a child solider for an African warlord (who may or may not have returned) was an unexpected, interesting aspect of the character (although, as you point out, not a unique one - still, it felt fresh enough). I also really liked Ben Oliver's art, and was disappointed when I found out that he doesn't continue on after this book.

    I hadn't read about Winick's departure from DC until your mention of it. I'm pretty disappointed about that, considering how much I was enjoying this book, and, as you said, the potential for more "backstory" with The Kingdom characters. I'll probably continue with it until Winick's departure (issue #14 I think?), and then likely drop it, depending on the creative team in place. All of these recent creative departures (yes, I know one of them was Rob Liefeld!) has me a little concerned about the quality of the DC line, although the main characters I've been following (Flash, Green Lantern, the main Justice League) seem stable at least. Hopefully DC can rectify whatever situation seems to be driving people away, and keep building up a solid set of creative teams.

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  2. I have not enjoyed much of the new 52, but I was really enjoying this book. I thought that Massacre was one of the best new villains in a long time -- vicious and dark. I am sad but not surprised that Winick is leaving DC -- their whole attempt at this new continuity must be terribly frustrating for a writer; especially anyone involved with any of the Bat-books, which suffer the most under the new 52's mindbogglingly tight new timeline. (Five years? really? Isn't Damien 12? Timey-wimey indeed, Doctor.

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  3. This is one of those books I really wanted to check out, but really just completely forgot about...

    Will give another chance in TPB!

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  4. I like the sound of the Batwing book, enjoyed his presence in Batman Inc.

    To be honest, other than Snyder's Batman and some Nightwing and Superman, I've stayed away from the New 52. I've invested (and am still investing) lots of time and money into the Modern Age and am currently still picking up trades that I missed out on. I feel happier filling in the gaps in my Modern Age collection than trying to make sense of the semi-reboot.

    I know things change and DC must move on but I, like many others feel a bit put out by D.C's dismissive attitude to some of the characters and storylines prior to the relaunch. They don't seem to care that there are fans of Wally West, Cassandra Cain etc or that people who spent a lot of money on events Blackest Night or Infinite Crisis are now wondering what the point was.

    Stories that have been printed will live forever, we know that. But I visit this site daily because its devoted to both trade collections and continuity. At the minute I don't see any difference between the New52 and the shambles that was continuity immediately post-COIE.

    I've read that Batman and Green Lantern in particular can be read as if they follow on straight from Flashpoint without continuity being much affected. If that was the case I'd happily pick those trades up. Yet how can this jive when Superman is so vastly different?

    They need to come up with a History of the DC Universe-style book that sorts this stuff out. For now, I'll be reading my latest purchases, namely Superman: Emperor Joker, Knightquest and Ion: The Tocrhbearer :-)

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  5. I just want to say that I echo Paul's sentiments exactly. As a trade-waiter, I've been following closely as many reviews as I can in order to determine which nu52 trades deviate the LEAST from the old continuity. What this means is that I've avoided Justice League, Superman/Action, Red Hood, Suicide Squad, Teen Titans, and anything that smells of nu-flavored change for change's sake. The good news is that some of the nu52 that have been impacted by creator changes (specifically Frankenstein, Deathstroke, now Batwing) have me interested in them as they are somewhat closed arcs (as is the old DC continuity) that I can try in bite-sized pieces.

    And Jeff Lemire is the somewhat new DC talent that has impressed me the most, beginning with his Superboy trade.

    Also, congratulations to Paul on his acquisition of Superman:Emperor Joker, a tremendously fun book that isn't easy to come by nowadays.

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  6. Massacre really shouldn't have been such a good villain, rampaging around as he was and spitting some stock dialogue, but toward the end where Winick had that band of Massacres, and then how you come toward the end to realize Batwing and Massacre's relation ... good stuff.

    I understand Paul and Bob's sentiments and I don't begrudge anyone hard feelings over the DC New 52 relaunch. But I think there's some joy in jumping in with both feet, guys! There are some stinkers but there's also some really good books out there -- Batwing, Batman, Frankenstein, Batwoman, Mr. Terrific, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, even Justice League. And I'm going to crow about Batgirl next week.

    Yes, Wonder Woman dumps a lot of the good stuff that came before (Artemis, not the least), but as a trade off, Azzarello writes a really good Wonder Woman tale. And Justice League dumps the original Justice League International, Martian Manhunter, etc., but I dig the covert government operations/espionage vibe Geoff Johns is giving that title. I miss the old continuity, but the new continuity's no slouch, either. And hold out hope for Cassandra Cain; Stargirl just came back, so that's something.

    (On the other hand, Paul picked up three good "old" DC Universe books. Have Sinestro Corps on hand for when you finish Torchbearer.)

    Paul may have meant his question rhetorically about how Batman and Green Lantern can go on when Superman's continuity is changed, but I'll answer it anyway: selective continuity. Hal's about to face Black Hand again, so I'm guessing Blackest Night still happened, but obviously Superboy and the Teen Titans weren't there, nor Green Arrow with Speedy Mia Darden. It happened, but it happened differently -- Hal's scenes yes, Superman and company's scenes no.

    This is just like the post-Crisis change where Superboy was no longer a member of the Legion -- the Legion's adventures still happened, only Superboy wasn't there. Hawkman's immediate post-Crisis adventures were later changed to have involved either the Golden Age Hawkman or a Thangarian spy -- again, they still happened, they just happened differently. For now, it's up to your imagination how they happened; if DC tells the tale one day, then we'll know for sure.

    That's how I figure it, at least. (And when are they going to collect Hawkman: The Shadow War, anyway?)

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  7. I wonder if the fans reactions post-COIE was similar to the New 52? Are there people out there who are still only buying pre-Crisis books? :-)

    I was thrown off just as much as everyone else by the reboot; I grew up with the post-Crisis DCU, and I just spent the last 4-5 years trying to catch up to the current DC stories by buying trades of "everything" that I had missed after I stopped collecting as a teen. Even now, I still have to read War of the Green Lanterns and Flashpoint to finish off the old DCU; it rebooted before I ever caught up!

    I'm a huge fan of Wally West (always "my" Flash), and he's not around any more. But you know what? Wally's series had 200+ issues, and that's a whole lot of reading if I wanted to go back over them again (and I do - if I ever find the time!). I had fairly extensive knowledge of the "old" DCU, and most of that is "worthless" now, I guess. But really, the only thing that matters to me now is that the new stories are GOOD and worth my money. Sure, I miss Wally, but if the Barry stories are well-written, I can still enjoy them. And if they're not, I don't have to buy them.

    The old DCU used to do small reboots ("retcons") all the time. They just happened to do it all at once this time. It'll take some getting used to, and there'll be continuity hoops to jump through (like the 12-year-old son of a Bruce Wayne who's only been Batman for 5 years - I guess the Talia thing happened pre-Batman now?), but the most important thing is just putting out good quality comics.

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  8. The "Talia thing" has been mentioned a couple times. For me, a five-year-gap or a ten-year-gap is inconsequential. I've always figured, y'know, Batman RIP happens on a Monday, Batman and Robin happens Tuesday, Return of Bruce Wayne happens Wednesday, etc. etc. -- them heroes pack a lot of stuff into a week! And yes, five years as Batman and a twelve-year-old son doesn't quite match up math-wise, but (1) wasn't Bruce Batman prior to the Justice League forming (I think that's been established?) and (2) wasn't Damian's growth accelerated in a lab a la Impulse?

    Not so important, I know, but that's how I think of it.

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  9. On the subject of the art, I'm sure I remember there being an excellent issue pencilled by Dustin Nguyen?

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  10. Nguyen's issue kicks off the next trade.

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