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. 

Courtesy of DC Comics
A screen shot of DC Comics "Batwing."

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.

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.

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.

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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