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The Black Knight Rises

After exploring the world’s first, and oldest, superhero who has had quite a surprising amount of Nubian variations in my article “Reign of the Black Supermen”, I figured I’d look at the other half of that world’s finest pair, Batman. Now Batman is by no means the first of his kind and is in fact inspired by other noir crime-fighting vigilantes of classic 1930s pulp fiction like the Green Hornet, The Shadow, Zorro, and even The Black Bat. But by far, Batman’s global popularity and universal recognition are on par with the Last Son of Krypton, and even many of MARVEL’s heavy hitters like Spider-man, Wolverine, Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America. Created a year after Superman himself, and premiering in Detective Comics #27 (1939), Batman too has seen persons of Nubian descent adopt the cape, cowl, and mantle of “The Bat”. Here is a look back, and forward, to the brief history of Black Batmen.

Charles Bullock, Blackwing. Image credit DC Comics.

Blackwing Begins

For context, the first Black man to don the symbol of the Bat hailed for the Golden Age inspired “Earth Two”, where Bruce Wayne had retired from crime fighting, became a formal police detective and married Selena Kyle (aka Catwoman). Having been drawn back one last time to wear the costume, the much older Bruce perished at the hands of a super-powered criminal named Bill Jensen.

Adventure Comics #464 (1979) introduced us to Charles Bullock, who worked at the law firm, Cranston, Grayson & Wayne. Charles became embittered by the rise of gang warfare in Gotham and decided to make his own costume and makeshift utility belt inspired by the legend of Batman. While possessing no outstanding attributes beyond his legal knowledge and average combat prowess, Charles had heart and understood the power of symbolism to inspire hope in the downtrodden and fear in the oppressors. Adopting the name “Blackwing”, he would often team up with Helena Wayne (daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle who went by “Huntress”), until their universe was erased from existence in the publisher-wide event known as “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (1985-86).

A far better premiere portrayal than the cringe-worthy “Sunshine Superman”, Charles Bullock was a genuine character and attempt to make the next Batman. While it would have been easy to have a prior Robin fill the role, creators Joey Cavaliere and Joe Staton should be given commendation for passing the torch of such an iconic superhero onto an African-American – a trend that started with the now famous John Stewart who took over from Hal Jordan as Green Lantern back in 1972. While his tenure was short-lived and his appearances scant, the first attempt was definitely a noteworthy one.

Wayne Williams, The Bat-Man. Image credit DC Comics.

Just Imagine, Stan Lee’s “The Bat-Man”

We would sadly not see another Black Batman until twenty-two years later, in 2001, when the late great legend Stan Lee was asked to (re)imagine many of DC’s iconic characters his way. Under the novel “Just Imagine” line, Stan Lee, along with other creators and artists, took very divergent takes on a few DC superheroes/villains akin to DC’s previous “Tangent Comics” imprint in 1997. Amongst those touched upon through the lens of one of the industry’s titans was obviously “Batman” (in collaboration with fellow late industry legend, Joe Kubert).

Stan Lee’s (and Kubert’s) interpretation was that of Wayne Williams, an African-American jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. His father was a police officer who died in the line of duty, and his mother passed away while he was in prison. While incarcerated, he honed his fighting skills (and mind) to get revenge on the man he blamed for ruining his life, “Handz” (a stereotypical mob boss). Very much like the birdman of Alcatraz, Williams befriends a bat from his cell. Pardoned and released early for saving the prison warden during a riot, Wayne took to task by becoming a costumed pro-wrestler called “Bat-man” to earn money, making a substantial fortune in the role. With the help of an old prison friend, the genius Frederick Grant, Williams tracks down “Handz”. In their first altercation, Handz perishes. With revenge no longer a motivation, Williams turns to fighting crime and protecting the innocent.

Wayne Williams’ story comes off a bit lackluster, missing the kind of pathos of the actual Batman, or even some of Stan Lee’s finest creations. Some of the story elements are a bit nonsensical, like him becoming a famous pro-wrestler dressed in a cumbersome full-body bat-costume, complete with leathery bat wings and realistic-looking “bat-mask”; only to fight crime in the same costume. He also lacks any outstanding traits such as exceptional skills, intelligence, gadgets or weaponry that would make him a contender with his peers in this universe. What makes it worse is that this generic origin is sort of a rehash of DC’s Wildcat, with the themed animal switched out. 

To be sure, there were better, more interesting re-interpretations of other DC heroes/villains within this imprint, but Stan Lee’s Batman was just one of those misses, along with his version of Superman. Wayne Williams and the “Just Imagine” Justice League have been indoctrinated into the DC multiverse proper, officially occupying Earth 6, where they can continue to flourish without interference.

On a side note, I would still recommend looking up and reading some of the “Just Imagine” one-shots to see what these iconic DC heroes/villains would have been like if Stan Lee created them, and determine for yourselves which ones are the best.

David Zavimbe, Batwing. Image credit DC Comics.

The Batman of Africa

Initially debuting in Batman Incorporated #5 (2011), billionaire philanthropist (and moonlighting vigilante) Bruce Wayne had decided to open up a global franchise “Batman Incorporated” (register trademark I’m sure), to combat “Leviathan”, the refurbished “League of Assassins” under the control of Talia Al’Ghul. To that end many countries were inundated with a Batman-inspired vigilante or even their own dynamic duo, financed by one of the world’s wealthiest people. No nation was safe, not even the dark continent. And so begins the story of “Batwing” the “Batman of Africa”.

“Batwing” (created by famous comic scribe Grant Morrison and award-winning comic artist Yanick Paquette) as a character would not take off until his debut in his own self-titled book during “The New 52” massive (and ill-advised) publishing-wide heavy retcon event of 2011. Being one of the premiering titles (one of four new comics starring Black leads at the time), Batwing was David Zavimbe, a child soldier and AIDS orphan, who becomes a police officer of Tinasha, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As can be expected, disenchanted by the rampant corruption and violence plaguing his country, David accepted Bruce’s offer into “Batman Inc.”, and was handsomely financed with a state-of-the-art “Bat-suit”, secret layer and other bat-themed accoutrements.

Batwing was a breath of fresh air. Taking place entirely in Africa, it offered a unique, unexplored environment, we only ever rarely see unless DC is showcasing Vixen (the only other popular fully African superhero). David’s story is tragic and complex, as the first arc has him going against his arch-nemesis, “Massacre”, a warmongering despot, who happens to be David’s long-lost brother Isaac. Even after the initial arc, the following stories were intriguing for their exploration on the politics, violence, culture and racism in Africa. Every new encounter built on David’s struggles and past to expert degrees.

What also makes this Black version of Batman standout is his apt knowledge of computers, combat and detective skills. While not on par with Batman or other better known DC vigilantes, his level of overall skills and aptitudes made him a viable contender for the mantle.

The costume was basically a “Batman” version of Steel’s (John Henry Iron’s). It was armor-plated with a cold-blue/grey tinge, enhancing strength and durability, and sported jet-propelled flight and steel bat wings. It also came with assorted built-in gadgets and devices.

Needless to say, as much as John Henry Irons is my ideal “Black Superman”, David Zavimbe is my ideal “Black Batman”. I’d encourage anyone to take up any trade featuring David, which should not be overlooked, and read his epic adventure for yourself. His life as an orphaned child soldier still haunts him as he tries to be a better man via “Batwing” and an officer; and for his initial main villain to be his homicidal, irredeemable brother only adds to that palpable tragedy and personal anguish. I’d argue it even surpasses Bruce Wayne’s pathos. This is definitely a story that could only have been told in Africa.

Sadly, David slowly became encumbered and unable to maintain the stringent requirements of “Batman Inc” to fight or even curtail crime, violence and corruption effectively in his more brutal home country. Other mitigating factors included the tragic death of Matu Ba (his trusted Alfred) among other drawbacks, which culminated in him formally resigning from the role of “Batwing”. Heartbreakingly, in Batwing #19 (2013), this would be the bitter end of David Zavimbe.

Lucas “Luke” Fox, Batwing. Image credit DC Comics.

Batwing Returns

Perhaps in an attempt to salvage the comic, the role of “Batwing” would swiftly be passed on to Lucas “Luke” Fox, the son of tech-savvy Batman confidante Lucius Fox, in Batwing #20 (2013). Luke was basically a younger, cockier version of his father. As can be expected of an engineering and technological wunderkind, Lucas took to significantly upgrading the Batwing costume to better resemble its “Batman Beyond” descendant; with a sleek all-black color scheme (sporting a light blue glowing bat insignia, as oppose to Terry’s red), full-body – including head/mouth – covering, and retractable jet batwings, along with other nifty add-ons here and there.

Lucas carried on the title/role for another fourteen issues before being cancelled; effectively shelving both Lucas and Batwing indefinitely. While Lucas was an offshoot of an established character, the transition felt like a large step backwards to the status quo set prior. The Bat-family was already getting overcrowded, and getting bigger during the time for the new Batwing’s arrival. His solo adventures and character were a far cry from the more complex David and his more personal heroic forays. In addition, the series became highly derivative of the other Bat-books going forward.

Lucas’ Batwing would only make an appearance, outside of the comics, in the animated movie “Batman: Bad Blood” (2016), as a throwaway character who came in ‘just because’ and ‘out of the blue’.

This would be the last time we’d see a Black Batman, at least for now.

The Black Knight Strikes Again

While not as prolific as Black Superman, Black Batmen have existed in the farthest corners of the DC library. Many self-made vigilantes have tailored themselves directly or indirectly from the mold that is Batman, in DC comics itself, and other superhero publishing houses, to varying degrees. A handful of these Bat-clones, Bat-parodies, Bat-homages, and Bat-effigies withstood the test and become characters in their own right; some Black, some White, most male, some female. As a power fantasy, it is far easier to become a Batman, as that possibility lies just on the rim of reality for us. This is one of the character’s most endearing qualities, and why he or this ideal is so enduring.

John Stewart may have been the first, but Nubian men and women can (and do) equally wield the mantle and legacy of age-old (traditionally Caucasian) superheroes. Examples of Falcon (Samuel Wilson) taking over from Captain America (Steve Rogers) and Miles Morales from Peter Parker as Spider-man, even Black Wally West from Ginger Wally as Kid Flash in the New 52/Rebirth continuity, et al. Legacy is an honor and a great responsibility that should be shared more often and more readily with diverse people and genders to reflect not necessarily the world we live in, but the world we can dream of living in; one without barriers or limits to possibilities or opportunities.

So perhaps, we can look forward to a new Black Batman, or Superman, or Wonder Woman in the not-too-distant future, alongside brand new superheroes, and villains. Whether it’s a flying man in the sky or a trademarked logo plastered on a giant spotlight shining against the backdrop of a dark firmament, we can all look up and be inspired by greater diversity and inclusion.

NOTABLE MENTIONS

Michael Lane, Azrael. Image credit DC Comics.

Michael Lane / Azrael – The Shadow of the Bat

In Batman #665 (2007), a GCPD officer suffering from mental disorders, is clandestinely trained into becoming a replacement Batman. Dubbed the “Bat-Devil”, Michael Lane and two other subjects (Bat-Bane and Bat-Cop) made up the “Three Ghosts of Batman” who “haunted” the real Batman in preparation for his climatic confrontation with the diabolical psychological villain Dr Simon Hurt.

Michael Lane would later resurface and adopt the mantle of “Azrael” from Jean-Paul Valley in the self-titled series that ran from 2009 to 2011 (18 issues). Ironically, Jean-Paul briefly usurped the mantle from Batman after his back was broken by Bane at the climax of the infamous “Knightfall” arc. Though short-lived in both roles, Michael remained an interesting and underutilized obscure DC character who was erased with the “New 52” reboot. His stint saw a man dealing with PTSD and schizophrenia, and managing those handicaps. There was also the bevy of religious themes during his time as Azrael, exploring forgiveness and absolution, objective/subjective good and evil, and institutionalized religion vs divine faith.

John Henry Irons – Batman of Steel

Set in the alternate near-future universe of the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Kingdom Come” (1996), a world that sees a retired Superman returning to the fore to stop an escalating war between extremist superheroes and old villains that mirror Biblical Armageddon, John Henry Irons retools his “Superman-inspired” suit of hi-tech armor to reflect that of “Batman” instead sometime after Superman’s initial resignation. He even swapped his traditional hammer for a bat-themed ax. He was merely one of the numerous minor character casualties of the epic story.  

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Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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