THE BAT SIGNAL: Judd Winick on "Batwing's" Dark Past

In September, DC Comics unveiled a brand-new comic series, spinning off one of writer Grant Morrison's "Batman Incorporated" characters into his own monthly book -- the Batman of Africa, "Batwing."

Written by "Justice League: Generation Lost" scribe Judd Winick and featuring art by "Ultimate X-Men" artist Ben Oliver, "Batwing" follows the adventures of African policeman David Zavimbi, citizen of the Democratic Republic Of Congo by day, masked vigilante Batwing by night. Funded by Bruce Wayne as part of Batman Incorporated, over the course of the first three issues, readers slowly got to know David, as well as his main nemesis, a machete-wielding madman named Massacre.

Readers have also been given a taste of the tragedy lurking behind David's decision to become Batwing as issue #3 dropped the bombshell that David is an AIDS orphan and an ex-child soldier. The tragedies and mysteries around Batwing only deepened as Winick and Oliver then hinted at a greater mystery behind Massacre's mission to wipe out the members of The Kingdom, Africa's first superhero team.

Swinging THE BAT SIGNAL over the night skies of the Democratic Republic Of Congo, Winick stepped into the light to speak on the mysteries of The Kingdom, the realities lurking behind Batwing's fictional past and his long term, international goals for Africa's only Batman.

CBR News: You've got a lot going on in the book right now, and in issue #3 you jump right into the politics of Africa with the fact that David is an AIDS orphan and ex-boy soldier. In your eyes, is issue #4 his real origin story?

Judd Winick: Yes, that's going to be the big reveal -- it's the origin issue, finally. We tease it a little bit in #3, but #4 is pretty much the big back story, what got him almost there. It's not so much the creation of Batwing as it is his time as a boy soldier -- we get to see that play out.

As the AIDS epidemic and children soldiers are very much a part of the reality in Africa, is that why you wanted to make them part of David's dark past?

Yeah, there are certain aspects for me that I wanted to hit upon because he is a Batman. I really wanted to embrace the aspect that he has a dark past. I didn't want it to be, "Oh, whatever, he was a policeman for a while and it wasn't quite working out and he got frustrated with the system and slapped on a costume and went for it!" Considering that he's coming from the content of Africa and the culture of being an African, and it is both an unbelievably beautiful and brutal landscape and culture, it was important to embrace that he comes from great strife, from something terrible he had to overcome. It was something that made him into Batman.

That's what a lot of us really like about Batman, that Batman wasn't something he decides to do it was something that happened to him. It was the things around him that made him into Batman. That's what I wanted to do for Batwing.

And both Batman and Batwing's tragic back stories are things that were of their control as kids.

Yeah! It's that nurture versus nature, and also embracing that idea that maybe they had these certain qualities within them, but they had to be awakened by some great trauma. For Bruce, it was watching the murder of his parents before his eyes. For David Zavimbi, it turned out to be both the loss of his parents through this plague that is crippling his entire land, his entire culture, and then being kidnapped and being made into a boy soldier. It's awful! It's a terrible way to grow up, so he's become this hero with a very, very distinct moral code.

Though these are realities in Africa, were you worried about alienating American readers by throwing them headfirst into two such big and sensational political issues?

To give the readers their props, first and foremost, comic book readers are a pretty sophisticated bunch -- and I include myself among them! For starters, we're among the small percentage of people who actually read! [Laughs] I'm not even being facetious at all, there's a pretty small amount of our population who reads for pleasure on a regular basis, novels or comics or what have you. So our folks are smart, they're readers, they take to a good story more than anything else. Would they be alienated about the fact that this is a little more fact based? I don't think so. I think the contrary would be true. I think if it was all mystical and fictionalized and didn't feel at all like Africa, they would have a greater problem with it.

We live in a smaller world than we used to, we're exposed to more fact and more world culture than we ever did before, almost solely because of the Internet. A decade ago or fifteen years ago, it was sort of hard to contact someone who lived on a different continent. Now we can. We're a sophisticated bunch. I think these things I'm hitting upon -- AIDS in Africa and warlords and boy soldiers -- this is not sort of inside baseball. These are, unfortunately, day-to-day experiences that people are living with. I think they're ready for it.

Going back to characterization, how is David a different Batman than Bruce Wayne? How has Africa shaped David into Batwing differently than the way in which America shaped Bruce Wayne?

It's interesting, I wouldn't necessarily put it to their culture shaping them -- but I guess it has. Part of the deal with creating new characters is, you don't want them to be a cipher. You really want them to be someone who is not just reacting to everyone around him, you want to know who he is. For me, it was a little bit of a slow burn, it took a couple of issues to really get to know him and know the character, simply because it was a decision on my part. I didn't want to tell the origin right away, and you can't necessarily get a feel for who he is in the first two issues. He's battling his way through it. You get a little bit of sense of who he is. But in issue three and four on you really get who he is.

The difference between him and Bruce Wayne and Batman is that David is infinitely more emotional. He's self-aware. I think that because of a lot of what Batman is and who he is, he kind of lives in a heightened state of denial, just because he has to do what he has to do. Batman and Bruce Wayne are fairly hard to write sometimes because he is a fairly emotionless being -- but he gets the job done. He's very cold and calculating and he's all about right and wrong and justice and solving a crime. For him it's about the clues. It's the detective, finding out how all the pieces fit and bringing them down.

David is different from that. He is emotional. He feels it. He has had to examine who and what he is and I'd say he's a little more conscious of the fact that he might not like himself very much. He was a boy soldier, and as we get into it we see part of what he's doing is in response to that. Where Bruce Wayne is avenging the murder of his parents, David's reasons for becoming Batwing is entirely different. Again, one has to be self aware to embrace his reasons or his motivations. Which I'm being cagey about because I don't want to give away our next issues! [Laughs]

In these first issues, you also introduce the series' villain, Massacre. What is the inspiration for Massacre? Is he also coming out of that that Congolese war/soldier mentality?

It's a little bit of everything. I really wanted to create a character who first and foremost was terrifying. With these early stories, I didn't want a throwaway villain. I wanted someone who would be in there for the long haul, for the initial story as well as throughout the history of Batwing. I wanted for them to be able to go head to head with [Batwing], someone who had the strength and the savvy and also seemed somewhat terrifying and unpredictable. A controlled madman, if there is such a thing. He's on a mission.

The other piece of it is, there's a mystery around him and what he's doing. So I wanted to satisfy all those things; I wanted to create a true villain, someone who speaks to him. As Joker is to Batman, Massacre is to Batwing. The more we get into him, the more we'll understand that.

Going along with that, Massacre is also tightly wrapped up in the mystery surrounding the Kingdom. What can you tell us about The Kingdom?

It's pretty much what we discussed. This was a superhero team of Africa. We've been putting it out there -- we as in the collective we of DC -- that the heroes of Earth have only been around for about five years. So not long after the first appearance of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, heroes start popping up. Around that time, the second wave of them popping up. There were these heroes of Africa who formed and dubbed themselves The Kingdom. The first thing they did was help end a massive, massive war that was occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- which before that was just the Congo. So that was their big mission to save their country, and it took years of them fighting alongside the people and leading the charge to free their nation, which they did, and then they disappeared. And no one knows what happened to them or why. So part of this is this mysterious Kingdom who they owe everything to, and now some of them are showing up and Massacre's killing them. So there are many, many questions: why is he doing this? Where did they go? Now we find out from Thunder Fall that they're guilty of something, that they deserve to die, so we'll slowly learn what that is and why.

This mystery, that's what I really wanted to do. In doing Batwing, we did so much research in trying to get this right and trying to get it to feel as close to Africa as we can and not feel like a social studies class. We wanted it to feel like a superhero book. This guy in this crazy costume fighting this guy in this other crazy costume. And we did that. I think we succeeded with that. I think it really feels somewhat genuine, in our very, very fictionalized world. I wanted to pull people into a mystery, I really wanted them to learn about Batwing, learn about this country, but also just tell a straight-up story. It's going to take a few issues. We won't wrap this up until about issue #8 as part of the ongoing story.

So you're taking a long view on this, where you are establishing not just David but all the components of his world.

It's a big arc. We're trying not to do arcs as much as we used to. We want them to feel a little more fluid, and it will. One thing will open to another thing, and we'll hop off from there. But, I mean, I'm a reader, too! I know getting into a new character and a new book is hard! There are elements of this that are familiar because it's part of the Batman universe, but then again, it's an entirely new character. I wanted to tell as deep and rich a story as we could. Also, we've got Ben Oliver delivering the goods each month, and that's just stunning; he's a super star.

That's a good segue into talking about the art. In contrast to the brutal attacks and child-soldier background, you have Oliver's softer, almost painted, photorealistic style. Is this juxtaposition something you guys consciously emphasize?

I think it's a really perfect marriage. I think we got really, really lucky that Ben is onboard, because it is a book that's based in reality and we want it to feel real, and Ben does that. Batwing in the wrong hands, everything down to his armor can look a little goofy! Done by the wrong people, it can look a little goofy and a little outlandish, even Massacre. Ben brings such weight to it all. It feels like you're watching a movie. It's a little bit of that Alex Ross thing going on, but then Ben has a different sort of stylized flair to it. It feels that much more brutal, that much more dramatic; you can see the scars and the sweat coming off everybody. I shudder to think what the book would be looking like with someone else doing it month to month. I relish when the pages come in, I relish when the book gets put together. I just finished reading the lettering proof on issue five, and it's just stunning. I can't give away plot points, but there are certain dramatic moments that can only come through with your artist absolutely delivering the goods, and he just does it 100 percent and beyond.

With issue #4, ChrisCross is subbing in for Ben. Ben is amazing, but, as you can tell from the work, it takes a little time. We were lucky that one of my old running buddies from "The Outsiders," ChrisCross, could come in here. Issue #4 is a fairly landmark and important issue, unveiling the origin of Batwing, so it was important we get someone who could really tell the story, and ChrisCross is amazing.

You've obviously done a ton of research on Africa -- how much do you share with Ben Oliver, and how much do you guys talk about the accuracy of how the landscape should look?

Ben and I had to dig in from the get-go, together and individually. Ben's a Brit, he's over in the UK, so us going out to lunch and discussing it wasn't going to happen! [Laughs] So two things happen: one, when I write my scripts I write them to the artist, I direct them to the artist. We're trying to work hand in hand; it's a visual medium, so we're trying to get the images out as specific as possible, whether its moments from videos on YouTube or a link to something I was thinking about. Ben did a lot of research on his end because I made it very clear this is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is an actual place -- there are actual cities we're basing it upon.

At one point, I said, "I think we need a school bus, here," and Ben said, "I don't think they have school buses." And they don't! [Laughs] They don't use school buses in the Congo; they use these kind of transport vans. It was little things like that -- we want to try and use the right looking van, find what do the policemen wear, what do their cities look like, how rural is this, is it a village or is it a town, because those are two different things. How westernized should this look? Ben is looking up people, constantly, and he's very photo reference heavy, he uses a lot of references. He just had to make sure to pull lots of people who look authentically African on many levels, from what they wear to haircuts to types of glasses! Things that, for us, jumped out and looked and felt like we're faking it -- we never wanted that to happen. We want people to read this and feel like they're looking at a different comic. In these initial issues, we wanted to spend as much time in Africa as possible, for as global as Batwing will become, an international hero who goes around the world just like Batman does, we wanted to establish in these three issues how much of this is going to be in Africa.

It's interesting that you bring up that he will be moving around as in issue #7 we've got David coming to Gotham. Is this the start of him being a global force?

I would say, yes and no, but it's more like yes and yes. It is absolutely where the story is going to take us -- going to Gotham is sort of part of the route we need to go for the story. For #7, #8 and #9, he'll be in Gotham. There will be other times where he'll be going elsewhere, less James Bond-ish and more -- I don't want to say "Indiana Jones-ish," but it isn't about him being a slick spy, it's about him being who he is, putting on body armor and having to go where he needs to go. We'll see him around the world. But Africa is a pretty big continent! [Laughs] There's a lot to do just right there!

But that said, it's odd. Our readership is primarily western. Mostly United States and very, very Western, so the perception of what Africa is, is somewhat limited sometimes. Ben has a better sense of Africans than most Americans do, which is helpful. But to jump to my point, we don't see Batman kicking around Canada just because he can. He lives in the United States on the continent of North America, but he's not going to South America too much, he's not going to Canada too much. It's a big continent. For the most part, David will be trying to save his city, just like Batman does. But, as a part of "Batman Incorporated," he's a soldier of Batman, and now and again, it's all hands on deck and he's needed elsewhere. That's what will take him away. He's a soldier in Batman Incorporated.

I know when you started out, you said you had fan reaction ranging from, "It's great that there's an African Batman" to, "Why is he at the pyramids? There aren't pyramids in Africa!" What has been reaction been now that the first issues are out?

I think in general they were very, very pleasantly surprised! [Laughs] We had to defy expectations, which were low. The criticisms ranged from, why this character from "Batman Incorporated," I think some of the other Batmen were cooler, why do one in Africa -- it was just a big why, why, why? In that case, you just have to get on stage and shut up and just present the story so people can read it and get it in! Then, everyone got past the why really quickly and said, "This is pretty cool."

I give a lot of that credit to Ben. From the opening pages, when you crack open the book you go, "Wow, this is crazy beautiful!" And that helps -- that helps a lot that someone as talented as him is in the forefront! [Laughs] Ben provides the visuals and the actors and the players that we're rolling out here, and the fact tat they were utterly knocked on their butts with what it looked like first and foremost was a great help.

Then, they began to check in with the story. I think they saw that we weren't going for stereotype, we weren't going for, as I joked many times, this wasn't going to be "The Lion King" or anything like that. We're not taking a trip on an African safari. This was trying to take this unreal trope of the superhero and put them in the most realistic settings that we could, trying to take advantage of what it was to understand and be a superhero in Africa. I think they got that and I'm thrilled how often I hear that. For the most part they've said, "I've been pleasantly surprised, I thought this was going to suck!" Well, thank you! Thank you for, maybe not saying that to me originally! [Laughs] But thank you for coming around.

"Batwing" #4 hits stores December 7.

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