Each week we review a new graphic novel or trade paperback release.
"I told Batman that a man dressed as a bat will not instill fear in the average criminal in Africa. They have seen too much. He told me, 'You just have to sell it.'"
It isn't often that we get to see a new Bat-legend being built from the bottom up. Sure, rewrites of the origin are one thing, but what about a wholly different take on the character that still respects everything that's come before? Judd Winick and Ben Oliver's new Batwing series is exactly that. It tells the story of David Zavimbe, a police officer who works in Tinasha, the most corrupt city in the Congo. Much like Gotham when young Bruce Wayne returned from his training, graft and corruption are the wheels on which Tinasha turns.
Zavimbe hungers to correct the ills of his homeland, and he's found a benefactor in America's Caped Crusader. So it is that Bruce Wayne outfits Zavimbe with the best technology and intelligence his considerable fortune can buy. David Zavimbe is thus turned loose in the Congo as Batwing, the "Batman of Africa," and he's going to put an end to the institutionalized killing and drug trade at any cost.
This first volume of Batwing, collecting issues one through six of the ongoing series, is a fascinating and intelligent look at how the Batman legend might operate in a totally foreign land. There were lots of ways that DC could've told the Batwing story, and it seems like Winick and Oliver have found the best one. Zavimbe doesn't fight colorful criminals like the Joker or Mr. Freeze; instead, heroin peddlers and militaristic warlords are his usual enemies. He's got to work a lot harder to make himself the symbol of fear that Batman embodies, but his commitment to his mission is just as strong as Bruce Wayne's.
Through the six chapters presented here, we come to learn that David Zavimbe isn't quite the hero Bruce Wayne was. His whole life's been subject to violence, and though he, too, lost his family to social ills, he also made himself complicit in an unjust system, even killing to stay alive. This past tortures him; perhaps more even than Bruce, he sees it as his penance to put on a bat-suit and clean up the streets of his land. There are some rich character moments here, and it feels like Winick only scratches the surface of Zavimbe's potential.
Ben Oliver's art has kind of a computer-generated feel; that's probably due mostly to colorist Brian Reber. Whatever's going on in these pages, it works really well; Oliver's characters look as fleshed out as the script demands, and his pages are strikingly composed. The art takes a bit of a dive in chapter four when fill-in artist Chriscross (yep, that's his name) has a go of things; it's not bad, but not up to Oliver's level. Fortunately, chapter four is set mostly in flashbacks, so we can kind of ignore the jump in art, and Oliver returns for chapters five and six to close out the book nicely.
The book doesn't actually close out, of course; Batwing's first volume is really an extended set-up for a rich world of African superheroics. In this book, a criminal named Massacre is tracking down the seven (previously unknown to us) members of Africa's first superhero team, the Kingdom, who've retired from service. Batwing, with some help from Bruce Wayne, do their best to save these aged heroes while they can, but in the course of his mission Zavimbe learns that even his idols may be complicit in the corruption of the Congo. This leaves the book on a pretty gripping cliffhanger; in the next volume, it looks like our hero's going to have to take a trip to the land of his wealthy benefactor.
Judging by this first book, that'll be a story worth reading. The quality present in this first collection of Batwing stories is surprising; other than a few art hiccups, it's really very good, probably much better than most would have guessed. Hopefully this is a character who has a little shelf-life at DC Comics. A-