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.