Review: Batwing Vol. 4: Welcome to the Family trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, June 08, 2015

If you knew nothing about this character except the name "Batwing," you might think of some cross between Batman and Nightwing; indeed, a modern incarnation of Robin could conceivably be "Batman and Batwing." It's appropriate that a classic Nightwing character even makes her debut New 52 appearance in Batwing Vol. 4: Welcome to the Family, given the extent to which the relationship between Batman and the new Batwing reads, in a nostalgic sense, as somewhere between Batman's relationships with Nightwing Dick Grayson and (Red) Robin Tim Drake.

But writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray tell a story whose main focus seems to be action, not story or plot or characters, and so what's a promising idea in the identity of the new Batwing eventually just peters out. A strong character is important -- and the new Batwing is in many ways a strong character -- but I also believe a character is only as strong as their supporting cast, of which Batwing's are surprisingly bland, and as their villains, who also aren't very notable. Throughout, Batwing has some gorgeous cover art, but the issues within never live up to the hype.

[Review contains spoilers]

Indeed, it's easy to see the heritage of many other of Batman's "sidekicks" in the creation of Batwing Luke Fox: Nightwing, Robin Tim Drake, and perhaps especially Batgirl Barbara Gordon, who poses a similar dilemma for Batman. Luke, like Barbara, is the child of one of Batman's friends, making him hesitant to put the young hero in harm's way; at the same time, Luke, like Barbara, wears the Bat-mantle not due to loss or childhood trauma, but out of a sense of right and wrong and, not a little bit, because it's fun and thrilling, and also each seems intent on being a hero with or without Batman's permission. In this, too, Luke is a bit like Tim -- a super-smart athlete who simply excels to the extent that he deserves to be "a Bat"; in Luke's quips, his occasional defiance of Batman, and his flirtatious bent while wearing the Batwing armor, there's Tim Drake and a good helping of Nightwing.

With all of that, I'm not sure Palmiotti and Gray give it all enough time to breathe. Batman had been hesitant to employ Luke, but given the needs of the story, he just goes ahead and does. What interested me most about the Luke-Fox-as-Batwing concept was not Luke Fox, a new character to whom I had no attachment, but for the possibility that the writers might flesh out Lucius Fox and his family, Fox often being not so much a character as a plot device to generate technological doohickeys out of thin air. But the familial relationships are boilerplate -- dad and son don't get along, mom plays peacemaker, bratty younger sister, etc. -- and the audience is given no indication that the characters have internal lives apart from Luke (indeed, Batwing offers nary a subplot at all). Far from finding Lucius Fox less plain, Batwing basically makes the Foxes out to be just as plain as they've always appeared.

By far the two most interesting issues of Family are #22-23, in which Lucius is kidnapped and Batman and Batwing have to rescue him, because the stakes here are higher for Luke. In comparison, there's interesting visuals in the armored Batwing fighting the grotesque Lion-Mane toward the book's beginning, but the writers spend almost thirteen pages on this action sequence that's neither interestingly choreographed nor relevant to the story as a whole (Lion-Mane later escapes in supremely gruesome fashion, claims he's going to take revenge on Batwing, and then never appears in the story again). Again, it's appropriate that Batwing faces Nightwing villain Lady Vic, but he ultimately defeats her toward the end of the book with exactly the same fear-toxin weapon he used against a villain at the beginning of the book, making it feel like the same thing over again. In the Batman: Zero Year tie-in, at least the bad guy has some ties to Luke, though with a silly costume and a power-set reminiscent of Bane.

Artist Educardo Pansica and inker Julio Ferreira's work is strong at the beginning of the book, with clearly defined figures, and there's also good colors and shading from one of the book's three colorists. But by the end, the colors are flat, and the art has lost a lot of its detail, becoming sketchy and less defined overall. Also, none of the creators' faults, but my copy of this book was often printed blurred, where a black line and then another colored line are slightly out of sync, making the sketchiness of the art even worse.

If I could have made two suggestions for a Batwing Vol. 4: Welcome to the Family do-over, the first would have been to make Tamara Fox, not Luke Fox, Batwing. Inasmuch as Palmiotti and Gray make me like Luke Fox and his interplay with Batman, I'm not persuaded we needed to add in a son retroactively for Lucius Fox when he's historically had a daughter or two all along. Second, I'd like to have seen the Batwing armor utilized more strongly. It has a lot of cool features, including an invisibility mode, but we don't ever get any big moments with it; to make a "Batman in armor" title worthwhile, I think it needs to be more like Iron Man or Knight Rider's KITT, whereas instead it's often just a costume (though drawn beautifully by Darwyn Cooke on a couple of covers). The writers have a good protagonist, but there's no question here why the next volume is the last.

[Includes original covers and gatefold "WTF" cover, sketches]
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2 comments:

  1. So I think you might get why this change to Batwing really infuriated me. They took one of the most interesting character concepts--a former child soldier with the mandate of protecting an entire continent--and replaced him with... a race-shifted Nightwing/Robin hybrid. Had Luke been interesting, the loss of David wouldn't have stung so much, but as you pointed out, he's rather bland.

    Could no one at DC figure out what to do with David Zavimbe after Winick left the title? Piracy, war crimes, sex slavery, genital mutilation, inter-tribal tensions, religious warfare, the dark past of colonialism, and that's the themes I can come up with before getting into any actual supervillains. For instance, you know what else is in Africa? Gorilla City. Batwing vs. Grodd! Plus there was a whole past with Vixen that we never really got to see.

    Of course, only four months later, the same situation happened to Grifter. At least Batwing got handed to a pair of good writers... Grifter got stuck with Liefeld.

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