Fans of Azrael Jean Paul Valley or Batgirl Cassandra Cain who haven't taken a look at Judd Winick's Batwing, should. In the second collection, Batwing: In the Shadow of Ancients, Winick continues to present a Batwing David Zavimbe who fights for justice not as Batman does, out of a sense of personal injury, but rather out of a sense of atonement. Zavimbe has blood on his hands, as Azrael and Batgirl did before him, and his struggle against evil is also a struggle for his own redemption.
Winick's stories here range from an issue that was so good it made me want to stand up and cheer, to some that are less notable, but the book is carried throughout by Winick's strong depiction of Zavimbe himself. More's the pity Winick only wrote two Batwing issues after this one; I'd have been curious to see what Winick would do fifty issues into Batwing and beyond.
[Review contains spoilers]
Ancients begins with a two-part story, illustrated by Streets of Gotham's Dustin Nguyen, which concludes the "Massacre" storyline from the first Batwing book, The Lost Kingdom. I read that volume over six months ago and all that time I thought, as the Batwing character did, that I knew the villain Massacre's identity -- boy, was I wrong. I'm happy to say Winick fooled me both with Massacre's identity and with the identity of the mastermind behind him; what had seemed like a too-obvious solution previously was actually a red herring. Real surprises in comics are rare these days, especially for trade-waiters, and Winick lands a good one.
What is especially fantastic about the revelation scene in the second chapter (Batwing #8) is that Winick bucks any number of super-villain cliches for some crushing emotional honesty. For as bloodthirsty as Massacre was in Kingdom, once Batwing reveals Massacre's identity and moreover when he speaks Massacre's real name, the villain becomes completely distraught. Winick could have chosen defiance, but instead he gives Massacre a childlike panic that fully embodied the trauma that Massacre has gone through. These are gripping pages, begging for a later followup that unfortunately, without Winick, probably won't ever come.
The seven-issue collection also includes two single-issue stories. The first is Batwing's Night of the Owls tie-in issue, which at the beginning builds up a disgraced Talon assassin for Batwing to fight, but ultimately the Talon's history doesn't affect the story. As with most Night of the Owls tie-ins, the story is basically an elongated fight scene, and of them all it's Batwing's least remarkable issue.
The other single-issue story, however, is the book's Zero Month issue. So far in other titles these issues have worked best when they offer some "secret origin" aspect -- not just the character's origin but some detail that reshapes the character's present. Winick's story doesn't necessarily do that, but it does reveal how Zavimbe's assistant Matu Ba lost his eye, something I'd thought had happened well before Zavimbe met Ba and I was surprised to learn it was more recent. I think Winick also works to smooth a bit of pre-/post-New 52 continuity vis a vis Batwing and Grant Morrison's first Batman Incorporated book, too. Winick calls out to Frank Miller's Batman: Year One in showing Zavimbe's early crimefighting, as is only appropriate, and this is entertaining especially since the issue comes as a coda at the end of the book.
The larger three-part story that finishes out this book is interesting but rough, suggesting perhaps that Winick's strongest Batwing idea might have been in the initial Massacre pitch. Batwing and Nightwing solve a mystery involving a kidnapped nuclear scientist, at the same time that Matu Ba's estranged family is killed in Africa. These are each cogent threads separately, but then sends Ba to his family's funeral in a mystical, isolated African nation ruled by a warlord called Lord Battle, and as Batwing continues to solve his mystery, it turns out not coincidentally that Lord Battle is involved in the nuclear warhead story.
I say "not coincidentally" because the difficulty here is that in the three issues, all the pieces ultimately fit, and too neatly. Ba's family had barely been mentioned before now and indeed he's estranged from them all, so the slaughter of an entire family comes mainly for plot purposes; it does not seem to resonate in a larger, more "real" way for Ba or Zavimbe. Also, Lord Battle, with his on-the-nose name and giant hammer, comes off as a silly villain (especially after the legitimately-frightening skull-faced Massacre), not to mention his immediately-forgettable henchmen, the "Blood Storm," who are there mainly for the Justice League International to fight. The story starts off compelling, but the end is basically just an exercise in superheroes versus super-villains.
No doubt writing about the Batman of Africa, and making Batwing's stories seem realistic and germane to an African setting may be one of the toughest tasks of the DC New 52. Winick makes the book both moving and believable when he's dealing with child soldiers and even the African Kingdom superhero team that stands between the government, the warlords, and the people's revolution. The Batwing title seems to depict Africa more stereotypically, however, with Lord Battle in his fur cloak, and here the African setting seems more of a detriment. I tend to like my Batman (or at least Bat-family) stories more realistic than fantastical, and the end of Ancients veers too close to the fantastical for my tastes.
The Bat-family's presence is strong throughout this book. Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing all appear in the first story (it's a joy to see Nguyen draw Damian Wayne again), and Nightwing remains for the second story as well as Batwing's Justice League International colleagues showing up. All of this perhaps makes Batwing feel a little less like Zavimbe's book, but it's nice to see how quickly Zavimbe has been accepted into the superhero community, and the JLI's presence in the last chapter ups the fun even if it lessens the seriousness (doesn't hurt to see Winick write some of the Generation Lost characters again, too).
With the Massacre story completed, Batwing seems to be evolving into a more superhero-y book; not necessarily where I'd like to see it go, but not a terrible direction, either -- and I imagine things will change after Judd Winick departs anyway. Again, Batwing: In the Shadow of the Ancients has some remarkably good moments and some that aren't so good, but Winick's David Zavimbe remains a riveting character throughout, and whatever legacy Zavimbe may have will be largely due to Winick's efforts.
[Includes original covers]
Later this week, the Collected Editions review of the second volume of Denise Mina's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.