African Avengers: the creators of comics who are shaking up the superhero genre | Comics and graphic novels

Comics might be good at imagining alien worlds and gritty fictional cityscapes, but when it comes to depictions of other real-life countries, maybe sometimes not so much.

DC’s annual Superman/Wonder Woman release recently accidentally allowed a placeholder caption to jump into production that said dialogue in one scene had been translated from “Pakistani” – there’s no such language, of course, Urdu being the main language spoken in Pakistan.

And a few days later, Marvel asked Spider-Man to visit Cuba in his own right… where the Puerto Rican flag flew. The book’s publishers quickly apologized on social media and rectified the error in the digital edition.

Africa and African characters have been particularly abused, historically, in American comics. A diverse continent seems to boil down to one or two stereotypes. Afua Richardson, one of the few African American artists working for major corporations such as Marvel (she is actually an African Native American and the recipient of a Nina Simone Excellence in Art Award for her comic book work) says: “You can only see the starving, arid, warring deserts or dangerous mosquito-infested jungles of the Congo. You will only get simple lives of tribal men and warlords because someone didn’t want to do a little research. Or, if there is to be any sort of fictional account of the African hierarchy, it will be reserved for an over-dramatization of the Egyptian dynasties, totally ignoring the recent achievements to which the entire continent has progressed over the last thousands of years. . It’s lazy, really.

Things could get better – New York Times bestselling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has been recruited by Marvel to pen the adventures of one of its few truly African characters, the Black Panther aka T’Challa , ruler of fictional Africa. Wakanda country – but it’s no surprise that after decades of a comics landscape mostly populated by white superhumans, African creators and businesses are finally doing it for themselves.

Nigeria’s Guardian Prime: A superhero for a new era. Photography: Comic Republic

Enter Comic Republic, a Nigerian publishing house established in 2013 that boasts a stable of titles and characters who are dubbed the “African Avengers” – among them Guardian Prime, an almost messianic analogue of Superman; the super-intelligent bookworm Nutech, with “teletechnopathy and magnetism” abilities; the fearsome warrior Ireti; Ultra-fast Maxspeed.

Jide Martin, the founder and CEO of Comic Republic, says he started the company because “there was a moral vacuum in the current generation, a general lack of icons. People have stopped believing in the institutions of the past. To fill this gap, I went back to my childhood and remembered that I used to think about what Superman or Batman would do when I wanted to make decisions; so I decided to use the same medium to give this generation and the next something to believe in.

“I don’t think Africa and Africans are well represented in mainstream Western comics. That’s why we’re here… to give ourselves a place like this and show the world what Africans are capable of.

Interestingly, half of Comic Republic’s digital downloads come from outside of Africa, particularly the US and UK. Martin says the overall response has been “incredible” and adds, “Africa and the world at large have welcomed us with open arms and we are grateful for that.”

Nigeria certainly seems to be the location of the nascent explosion of African comics. Roye Okupe was born in Lagos and moved to Washington DC at the age of 17 to attend George Washington University. The self-proclaimed “shameless super-nerd” started his own company, YouNeek Studios, in 2012 with, he says, “a mission to create superhero stories based on diverse characters, from parts of the world that don’t receive not paying enough attention”.

His creation, for which he is running a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to fund a graphic novel, is EXO, a superhero in the near future of Lagos in the year 2025.

A panel of EXO, a superhero in Lagos.
A panel of EXO, a superhero in Lagos. Photography: Roye Okupe

“I moved to Washington DC in 2002 and it was the perfect time. That’s when the whole superhero blockbuster genre started to take off,” Okupe says. the theater after Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man with tears in his eyes. I couldn’t believe I saw a Spider-Man live. However, it was also the first time a light bulb went on in my head. I was like, wait… wouldn’t it be cool to go to the theater one day and watch a superhero movie based on an African character?

Okupe grew up on a diet of cartoons such as Batman, Ninja Turtles and Transformers – “comics were hard to get in Lagos, they were extremely rare” – and says, “If you’re a casual fan of comics / superheroes you probably can’t name a single African superhero Even some hardcore comic book fans can’t forget to name Black Panther and [the X-Men’s] Storm. I feel like it’s time for that to change. And we, as African creators, need to step up our game and not just produce African – and in my case Nigerian – characters just for fun, but produce great ones, with great stories.

It’s important for all African comic makers to show the real Africa – not the “arid wastelands” that Richardson was talking about. Okupe says, “I want them to see another side of Nigeria, our booming tech industry, amazing urban architecture, unique culture, African humour, Afrofuturism…a side that is not regularly shown. in mainstream media.

“But I feel like it’s incumbent on us as African-American creators (and various creators in general) to spread more of our own stories by any means possible.”

EXO wields some powers.
EXO wields some powers. Photography: Roye Okupe

Comic Republic’s Martin agrees. “The possibilities are endless. There is an increase in the desire for diverse content. African comic creators can own this space.

And could the rise of Africa’s comics industry also herald a sea change in the way the continent is depicted in mainstream comics here? It wouldn’t be that difficult, according to Richardson. “We live in the information age,” she says. “Go out and do some fucking reading. No one is hiding that from you. But it’s a great opportunity for someone to tap into a narrative that’s not yet used. I notice that fictional media and entertainment in general will paint a very one-sided portrayal of African countries and their people. I imagine the world would have a clouded view of the United States if all you saw of its people were the ghettos, the poor, the starving, and the vitriolic, which you probably wouldn’t want to visit.

“I’m not a person who will complain about something if I don’t contribute or strategize for its improvement. So when I write more of my own comics in the future, I’ll make sure to research the culture I symbolize as accurately as possible.

“But if it doesn’t change in my local superhero world, I’m not going to worry. I don’t look to fiction to teach me about global culture. It just means there will be still many scenes to paint on my pages on which today’s heroes have not yet stepped.

Lisa M. Horner