Seeing as how Black Panther, aka Marvel's Batman, is stuck as a New York retread these days, it looks like Judd Winick's Batwing will be our new fix for stories set in the sociopolitical nightmare that has engulfed parts of Africa, and it's got a good head start on filling that need rather admirably.
There's been some mockery of the idea of a "Batman of Africa," which would seem to indicate that no one in the west knows that Africa is a continent made up of a lot of different countries, but the original Batman seems to be covering several continents, serving time with both the Justice League and the Justice League International. It makes sense that he's delegating. Besides, in Batwing #1, Officer David Zavimbe of the Tinasha Police Department in the Democratic Republic of the Congo made a valid point about this new secret identity he has taken up. "A man dressed as a bat will not instill fear in the average criminal in Africa," he says. "They have seen too much."
Case in point, we open with a hulking, burly man wielding machetes who unsubtly calls himself Massacre beating the hell out of Batwing and pinning him down helplessly, forcing him to watch as he approaches an Egyptian tour bus full of people with intent to slaughter. Massacre is truly scary, and he has a Bane-like vibe, only much more bloodthirsty, prone to leaving piles of dismembered bodies for the police to find. One of which turns out to potentially contain the body of Dede Yeboah, who was once known as Earth Strike, a member of a team of seven African heroes known as The Kingdom. The revelation of that team is a 'hell yeah!' moment, as it's about damn time we get a Justice League Africa. Then again, this team vanished mysteriously after helping free the Congo, and now one of their founding members has just been killed along with a group of drug-dealing criminals, so maybe they didn't fare so well.
Winick does a good job in laying out just how difficult it will be for a superhero to operate in this setting, while at the same time setting up strong parallels to the traditional Batman set-up. Thanks to Batman, Inc., the story from which Batwing sprang, he has access to a lot of technological hardware, but the DNA, fingerprint and other general police-style recordkeeping we take for granted in America is virtually nonexistent here, so it's not like he has the option to search the NCIS database or just say 'enhance' and magically get the answers. However, he does actually work for the police force, and he's even got his own Alfred in Matu Ba, formerly of the child soldier rescue organization The Children's Harbor, so he's just as no-nonsense as Mr. Pennyworth.
No matter how good Winick was, though, you knew going in that this concept would need the right artist to sell it, and thankfully, Ben Oliver makes it rather than breaks it with his killer painted style, It's got a great and realistic feel along the lines of Mark Texeira, which brings to mind his stellar work on the legendary Christopher Priest run of Black Panther in the first launch of the Marvel Knights line. Oliver does great work with light and shadow, and while the action could stand to feel a bit more kinetic, that's a very minor nitpick. This book just looks good.
As much as I dread what Winick sounds like he's doing with Catwoman, I highly anticipate him doing great things with Batwing. The setting is a breath of fresh air, but it's got enough familiarity working for it to make it easier to get into. Now, it's just up to the world to support it, and it damn well better be ready for a successful book set in Africa. It's about damn time.
CRAVE ONLINE RATING: 8.5/10