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Batwing: an African superhero for an American audience

Batwing is an AIDS orphan and a former child soldier. Guest blogger Sipho Hlongwane says DC Comics's latest character is believable, but Africans seek a hero who reforms system from within. 

By Sipho HlongwaneGuest blogger / February 9, 2012



Johannesburg, South Africa

David Zavimbe is a young policeman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he harbours a secret. He is Batwing, a member of Batman Incorporated, the Dark Knight’s army of bat-like superheroes spread across the world. Having faced the wrath of rogue generals who recruited him to be a child soldier, he now battles a corrupt police system, as well as Massacre, a machete-wielding super villain hell bent on destruction. With Batman’s guidance, a high-tech bat suit, an underground lair, and a longtime friend Matu, Batwing fights Massacre in his own eponymous series by DC Comics.

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Batwing was first introduced within the Batman Incorporated series, and his story follows very closely on themes made familiar by Batman’s own epic battles in Gotham City. Tinasha, the city in DRC where Batwing lives and works, is about as real as Gotham is. Batwing has the largesse of his mentor Batman, just as Bruce Wayne himself has a vast family fortune backing him. Both battle improbable super villains. Both have secret lairs, and both must carefully manage the tension of having real lives within a corrupt system, and alter egos that operate outside of the rules and norms of normal people.

David has been "Africanized" by DC Comics. His parents both died of HIV/AIDS while he and his brother were very young. They were kidnapped from the orphanage where they lived by General Keita, and press-ganged into his Army of the Dawn – a fictional militant group echoing the very real Lord's Resistance Army – as child soldiers. Both David and his brother showed an exceptional talent for taking lives, which saw them gain quick prominence in General Keita’s army as assassins. After an assassination attempt goes wrong (David and his brother are required to execute an entire village of women and children to get to the enemy general inside of it) and the brother is killed by General Keita, David escapes to a rescue center for former child soldiers before eventually making his way to the DRC police force.

As a series, Batwing is gripping and well-paced. Even though Batman himself is largely absent, the introduction of his African associate to the DC universe shouldn’t present any challenges to comic book fans. It was a bold move by DC Comics to introduce an entirely separate series on an “African Batman,” given the suspicion which Western popular culture evokes in certain parts of the continent. We all have the exploitative and reductive portrayal of Africa in the West to thank for that.

The tradition goes back years: Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness portrays ivory trader Mr Kurtz as a Dionysian genius who lives as a demigod among simple natives in the Congo. Machine Gun Preacher opened in South African theatres a few weeks back, leaving a distinctly bitter taste in African mouths. Once again a saintly Westerner has ridden in from the dust to save bloodthirsty Africans from themselves.

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