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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. 

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The temptation to draw parallels between Machine Gun Preacher and the Batwing series is large, but the compassionate and thoughtful way in which DC Comics plants the ideals of Batman into Africa makes this story different. The almost complete absence of Batman from the story, save as a background detail, certainly helps. While the (largely) negative portrayal of the DRC chafes, the reality is that all too many children in Africa live as orphans thanks to HIV/AIDS. In large areas of eastern DRC, Uganda, and southern Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army runs amok, spreading chaos and death on a scale few of us can imagine. David Zavimbe’s story is that of all too many Africans.

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But make no mistake – this is a story for Americans, even if it is set in Africa. The idea of an all-powerful superhero rising up to save the day is distinctly American.

If DC Comics is chasing an African customer by creating Batwing, it's not an uncanny move. In most major cities in the 54 countries on this continent of 1 billion people, you'll find a well-educated, bookish, nerdy, technologically savvy, and increasingly confident young elite niche audience who would definitely be attractive to a publisher like DC Comics. This is arriviste elite that are only just starting to make its financial clout felt. In Africa, this often means unmet entertainment needs. The opportunity is there for the publisher.

Sub-Saharan Africa is in the third decade of a change of heart. We have only just begun grappling with rapid economic expansion, and along with it, freedom of speech and democracy. In every single country where this is happening, no single man reached down and granted the people their freedoms (and despite what Clint Eastwood might want you to think, this is not what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa). It was thanks to a combination of factors, the least of them not being popular anger turning against dictators. As much as we have super villains, we don’t do super heroes here.

Batwing’s mask and extraordinary powers in Africa therefore leaves one with a slight sense of dissonance, like a picture on a wall that is not centered correctly. If Africa needs superheroes at all, it needs ordinary men and women who inspire by leading exemplary lives within the confines of democratic power. We need honest businesspeople, sportspeople, politicians and religious leaders.

As such, Batwing might have served his country better by unmasking himself.

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