Dark Knight, Dark Continent

Batwing had the potential to be so much better than it was. Take all the psychotrope-enhanced  noir archetypes of Batman and then transfer them to a completely new setting, a reflection of Africa as dark and paranoid as Gotham’s reflection of New York. They could’ve made a whole new corner of the DC universe and instead they came up with one of the blandest comics in the New 52, where blank characters fight on a blank backdrop and the only way you’d know it’s set in Africa is because everybody keeps mentioning that it’s in Africa. There is more than one country in Africa, did you know? This is a fact you won’t learn from reading Batwing.

Possibly the first mistake was to try and pin Batwing to the Democratic Republic of Congo, because Congo is very much a real place and that creates all kinds of problems when a white dude who presumably has little experience with the country tries to write about it. It doesn’t really feel like Congo, it’s just generic Africa, land of child soldiers, driving jeeps around savannas, and policemen in kicky berets. Why not just set it in some made-up country so you can do whatever you want? But this is the Batwing we got, and we’re stuck with him. Doesn’t mean we can’t try and imagine things different.

Batman practices his trade in one of the most distinctive fictional cities ever. Without a place as dark and weird as Gotham, the Batman could not exist. So Batwing’s Congo needs to be just as distinctive. Let it be a land where the light is harsh and hostile and contrasted with the darkest shadows. The cities are dangerously overcrowded, the poor stacked in ramshackle buildings at the edges of the city. Downtown itself is a superficially clean place kept that way by heavily-armed private security forces. Of course, there’s a thriving nightlife, people dancing and drinking and doing drugs because their world’s going to shit and they don’t have anything else to do but party. It’s a place where human predators thrive.

And at the top of the food chain are the global megacorps. They’ve got the real power and money in Batwing’s Congo, and they do everything in their power to keep the people down so they can stay on top and strip the land of its resources. The Congo’s the world’s largest producer of coltan, and coltan goes in virtually every piece of electronics. Everyone wants a piece of that pie and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it, whether it’s backing guerilla groups to raid rival mines or hiring hitmen to off the other corporate heads.

Every bad thing you can imagine about corporations is true here. In addition to strip-mining everything in sight and supporting genocidal militias in exchange for minerals, under the guise of charity they use the Congo as a testing ground for experimental pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. There’s military-grade monster drugs loose on the streets, turning good people into vicious things, and the corporations watch the killing sprees and take notes.

There’s plenty of evil out in the country too, where the jungles are just as dense and impenetrable as the depths of Gotham. Crime bosses, drug growers, smugglers, and supervillains on the run from the Justice League all make their hideouts here. Violent conflict still rages between some of which are arming themselves with superweapons and superhumans. And that’s not to mention the lost temples and ancient horrors, plus there’s rumors about a hidden city of psychic gorillas…

In short, it’s a place that needs a hero badly. And that’s why Batwing is created. Picture David Zavimbe as a more desperate Commissioner Gordon, one of the few good cops left in the country, frustrated by his inability to take a stand against the evil he sees. When Batman offers him the funding of Wayne Enterprises, he’s not really sure how much he can trust the guy – after all, Wayne has holdings in the Congo like everybody else, and a rich white man coming in and helping the poor Africans smacks of paternalism – but he accepts because he knows that even a little bit of justice can make a difference.

Zavimbe and Wayne are both men who lost their innocence as children. The difference is, Wayne lost his innocence when he discovered the existence of evil. Zavimbe had to become evil to survive. He’s killed many times before, and he struggles with whether he should or shouldn’t kill again. If giving in to his past means getting rid of a true monster, isn’t that a necessary sacrifice?

Picture his story as being like a different take on Batman: Year One, building his network and reputation from the ground up, bringing justice to his world little by little. He has a few allies in the police force, and of course his old mentor who helped him escape his life as a child soldier. Start by taking down some of the more brutal gangs and militias, only to see them released from prison due to a corrupt justice system. Soon he realizes the only way to make real change is to take down the worst of the corporations and expose their nasty secrets to the world. Unfortunately for Batwing, the corporations are rich enough that they can afford superpowered hitmen to try and silence him forever.

Batwing, of course, needs an assortment of villains, how about, instead of some generic guy named Massacre…

Emile Sanguine, leader of one of the most vicious rebel groups. He loves nature in all the worst ways, idolizing predators and wearing zebra-skin coats he hunted himself. His militia have been personally responsible for the near-extinction of many endangered species in order to sell their organs on the black market. He’s an exceptional marksman and a highly skilled trapper, though he prefers to have his elite guards, the Hunting Pack, do all the nasty work of killing people for him.

Aegisource International, one of the biggest pharmaceutical corporations in the world. Their bioweapon testing division is in the Congo, and they’ve been unleashing monsters on unsuspecting citizens, or making the citizens themselves into monsters, all in the name of profit. But they’ve got deep, deep pockets, and more than enough resources to cover it up.

Barrage, a former Rwandan soldier who has the nasty superpower of being able to fire explosive charges from his hands like living artillery. He serves as a mercenary, dealing out death to the highest bidder and burying all the corporations’ secrets in rubble.

The Ghost, a mysterious killer haunting the streets, who kills his targets seemingly at random and can strike anywhere, even locked rooms, or the middle of the street in broad daylight, and disappear without ever being caught. A former child soldier trained in the arts of assasination, he is seeking justice for the men who made him into a monster and got away with it.

Buda, a man cursed with the supernatural power to turn into a hyena. Half-crazed, he roams the jungles at night searching for victims, torn between trying to free himself from his curse or embrace the delicious sensation of bones crunching in his jaws.

Les Effaceurs, a paramilitary group who’re called the Erasers because they wipe the land clean of people who inconveniently get in the way of mining operations. They’re brutally efficient, genocidal, and cannibalistic to boot.

The Congo has seen horrors and acts of violence that eclipse even the worst efforts of the worst supervillains. It would admittedly be difficult to write a comic with that kind of setting and navigate the balance between entertaining and offending. It’s certainly easier to write a comic where Batwing just fights generic supervillains. But the war and genocide and rape and exploitation should be confronted and acknowledged. There are no easy solutions to this kind of evil and suffering, and to say that if only Batman intervened it would all be better is trite and insensitive. But it’s equally insensitive to ignore that history entirely. Batwing should let us stare into that abyss but not wallow in it, offer us hope that evil can be defeated but not wrap things up with a storybook ending.

There is no Batwing. But we can become him.

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