Batwing Vol 5: Into the Dark is a trend upward for the series, even if the volume is still largely unsuccessful. As the title suggests, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray take the usually-upbeat Batwing into darker emotional territory this time around; that's unfortunate, because the lack of tragedy was what differentiated this Batwing from the rest of the Bat-family, but it does mean that the conflicts in Dark affects Batwing's life to a greater extent than those in the last book. That gives us a story that really matters to Batwing, and in that way it matters to the audience as well.
[Review contains spoilers]
There's a one-off issue late in the book -- probably intended for a follow-up had Batwing not been cancelled -- in which Batwing uses the technology in his suit to track down and identify a serial killer; tries, in his inexperience, to bring in "Gruesome George" nonviolently; and eventually apprehends him (almost) after some fisticuffs. It's a great issue of Batwing because Luke Fox's armor is on display; also Palmiotti and Gray demonstrate that Luke is still learning his way around superheroics, and also the story has some appropriately "gruesome" horror.
It suggests the direction Batwing could have gone -- young hero with a futuristic suit of armor -- and that it might have been successful. The writers can surely be forgiven for the weird goblin-demons that appear at the end of the story, which are never mentioned again. Despite my pet peeve of the fantastical in Batman stories, the reveal of the demons is wonderfully gross and weird, and I've no doubt, again, that the writers would've explained it all eventually.
The problem is that most of the rest of this book takes place in Gotham Underground, my least favorite thing in Bat-comics right now. Between Catwoman, Batman Eternal, and Batwing, I have yet to see the Gotham Underground used well and only seen it used poorly. Gotham Underground is a sprawling city under Gotham -- which all the bad guys seem to know about but remarkably Batman doesn't have a clue -- composed of essentially anything any writer can imagine, which is how in Catwoman Ann Nocenti could posit that Dr. Phosphorus "just happens" to have been created by the Gotham Underground, and in Batwing there "just happens" to be speaker-headed slavers and a cult of Anubis, none of which makes any sense aside from the fact that it "just happens" in Gotham Underground.
Admittedly, again, I like my Bat-stories realistic, or at least dealing with superheroes and supervillains and not fantastical underground societies. So, that about five issues of Dark take place in or around the Underground generally guarantees this won't be to my liking. At the same time, I won't take all the blame; there's about an issue and a half where the writers have Batwing stumbling around the Underground, getting into this or that trouble, before main bad guy Menace simply shows up to fight Batwing and bring the story to its conclusion. I don't tend to like Gotham Underground, but neither is it more than a crutch here.
As I said in my review of Batwing Vol. 4: Welcome to the Family, I like the villain Menace on paper because he's an old friend of Batwing Luke Fox, which makes their conflict more personal than Batwing versus Lion-Mane. I also liked how the writers handled Menace vis a vis the "Gothtopia" crossover with Detective Comics, letting Menace observe the mass hallucination from the outside while Batwing and company are on the inside, similar to how Christy Marx handled it in Birds of Prey. At the same time, by and large I found Palmiotti and Gray's conception of Menace's grand scheme completely inscrutable. Supposedly Menace aims to take down Gotham by selling a super-drug on the streets, which makes no sense if you posit at least some population of Gotham aren't drug users (as opposed to the Scarecrow's "Gothtopia" airborne virus) and also this idea is never mentioned again after about a third of the way into the story.
Though his target is ultimately Luke, Menace kidnaps Luke's sister Tamara instead, learns from his minion Rat Catcher that Batwing is looking for Tam, and then gives Tam back, not because Menace knows Luke is Batwing, but seemingly "just because." Menace then kidnaps youngest sister Tiffany Fox, proceeds not to harm her at all, makes no move against Luke whatsoever, and is eventually taken down by Batwing (who finds Menace because Menace left Tam right outside the entrance to his Underground hideout). The guilt Luke feels over the harm done to his sisters endears us to him, but Menace himself is a forgettable device that moves as the plot needs him.
I've found it curious before when writers posit that a Bat-family member -- Nightwing, Batgirl, and here, Batwing -- is going to be "more violent" than Batman or use methods Batman wouldn't approve of, when short of killing I'd think arm-breaking, dangling-crooks-off-rooftops scary Batman is supposed to be the baddest of the bad. But Palmiotti and Gray use gore well here, there's a interrogation scene that could be out of Netflix's Daredevil that convincingly depicts Batwing going over the line, and a good, tense scene with Batman later -- left unresolved, due to the book's cancellation -- that brings this to the fore as well.
Palmiotti and Gray also delve a bit into Luke and the Fox's family's religion. This isn't something we see in most DC Comics outside Wonder Woman's mythology, rightly so as neither to preach nor to favor or alienate any audience group. But, I found the writers "going there" to be interesting in some regard precisely because of its transgressiveness; we don't (and likely shouldn't) see Superman and Batman having conversations with God in their heads, but I would have been curious to see where the writers went with it using Batwing Luke Fox.
The Futures End tie-in included here is no worse and maybe a bit better than some of the ones we've seen in other titles. For one, the writers get to gather Batwing's nascent rogues gallery for one last hurrah; for another, ending the book with a Batman, Incorporated mission is a nice way of bringing the Batwing title full circle. I rather wish Palmiotti and Gray might have included one of Batwing David Zavimbe's foes, and I'd have liked even more if the story speculated on David's fate or even introduced David to Luke, but the story itself capped the book fine, even if a bit formulaic in the manner of these tie-ins.
Though I am disappointed Batwings old and new never met each other, I'm glad Batwing Vol. 5: Into the Dark picked up a bit in the home stretch. I also continue to appreciate that though Batwing is over, the character is not forgotten, as he's appeared almost immediately in Batman Eternal (though, unfortunately back in Gotham Underground). Judd Winick started Batwing off well, and then the title faltered and fell; still if someone saw fit to resurrect Batwing down the road, I'd likely give it another shot.
[Includes original covers, Futures End alternate cover]