Comic book makers share Africa’s story

For many outside the continent, Captain Africa, with its solar-powered cape allowing it to fly at high speed, was the first African superhero comic to go global. Created by Ghanaian Andy Akman and published by Nigeria’s African Comics Limited, Captain Africa spent the late 1980s on a mission to “fight the dark and evil forces that threatened Africa and the whole world”, especially in a post-colonial world.

While the comic book series as it was originally known may have died out, the influence of Captain Africa lives on, in a new generation of comic book creators and graphic novelists who use the art form to engage readers with various parts of the continent’s history. By portraying their own brands of African superheroes and ordinary characters, they envision a future for Africa that is rooted entirely in its past.

Much of what prompted Akman to create Captain Africa is what drives many creators today – the desire to tell African stories without the lens of the white savior. Aligning with the preconceived ideas at the time that African comic book characters were not sophisticated and needed to be saved, Akman’s Captain Africa was a successful businessman when he was not fighting crime. Likewise, the Eritrean-Norwegian cartoonist and comic writer Josef yohannesThe urban legend is a teacher who adopts his alter ego after the murder of his cousin.

Yohannes, who published the first issue of The urban legend in 2012, turned to history – both personal and public – for the nickname of her superhero. “The name was very important and played a vital role in who he was and what he stood for,” he said. Ok Africa. “So I named him Malcolm Tzegai Madiba. I named him after Malcolm X, my father Tzegai (which is also my middle name) and Nelson Mandela. I wanted my superhero to be named after people who fought so hard for justice and equality, and who gave a voice to the voiceless and stood up for people who could not defend themselves. I also wanted the name to symbolize power, strength and unity. “

Yohannes also uses the story to inform the stories he tells that are rooted in current social ills, like bullying, climate change, and police brutality against black people. “I realized the power of comics when I saw the influence The urban legend had on children, across genders, religions, cultures and ethnicities, ”he says. “As I traveled all over the world with my superhero, I saw what a powerful impact it had on these kids, especially kids in Africa who had never seen a black superhero before. I used to read a lot of comics when I was a kid, but I read less and less as I got older. “

Urban Legend creator Josef Yohannes has seen the powerful impact his superhero has on children across Africa.Photo: Josef Yohannes

Elupe Comics, based in Kampala, Uganda, started in 2016 with Charles Ssentongo, was also created to help young Africans take more interest in their own history. “The vision was inspired by the awareness of the deteriorating interest in our culture and Indigenous norms among today’s youth,” said the Elupe team. Ok Africa.

Some of the titles they have worked on so far include Ganda and Legend of Buganda, which is a manga-style comic book series based on the story of Buganda; the largest of the recognized traditional kingdoms of Uganda. This is the original idea of ​​Her Royal Highness the Princess Joan Nassolo Tebatagwabwe, the eldest daughter of the current King of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi. She wrote the first volume, which chronicles the reign of Kabaka Muteesa I in the mid-19th century, when Arab traders and European colonizers entered the country, hoping to stimulate engagement with Buganda’s legacy. among the young people of the kingdom. She also translated the stories into manga, to extend the story beyond the borders of Uganda.

Elupe’s slogan for the series is “Knowing her story gives direction to shape her future”. As Tebatagwabwe put it in a maintenance, the idea came to her while reading a manga. “The one I was reading at the time was historical, and I was very impressed with the way it was presented, as well as the way the information was broken down using pictures and symbols, not so much. written with words, ”she said. She thought the shape would be well suited to also share the Buganda heritage.

“Not everyone reads history books today. Many people prefer to assimilate information visually – comics, drawings, paintings, animations, illustrations, films, etc. Realizing that culture is dynamic, Buganda must also evolve with the times, where appropriate, and find innovative and engaging ways to preserve our history, culture and heritage, ”she added, mixing some fictional elements into the stories.

A comic book cover

Her Royal Highness Princess Joan Nassolo Tebatagwabwe wrote Légende du Buganda to chronicle the legacy of Buganda.Photo: Legend of Buganda

Congolese designer Barly baruti, which illustrated the historical fictional story of adventure and friendship in the context of World War I, titled Mrs. Livingstone, echoes Tebatagwabwe. Mrs. Livingstone was published with the writer Christophe Cassiau-Haurie earlier this year, and Baruti believes in the “limitless possibilities of the art form to express emotions, feelings, space. We breathe, we fly, we touch the clouds,” he said. Ok Africa.

There is so much that can be done with the visual narrative aspect of comics, adds. Besérat Debebe from Etan Comics from Ethiopia, whose latest version, Zufan, features Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in a story suitable for the whole family. “Not only do they allow us to tell different kinds of African stories through colorful and vivid visuals, but they also allow us to tell them using African art styles, languages ​​and letters,” he says. “For example, we publish our books in Amharic. Our sound effects are not just POW, BOOM, etc. They are adapted to our sounds and rhythms. Just like manga, we have our own art style. We even have our own term for comics: ‘sensi’ils’, a term that translates to ‘chained art’ or ‘sequential art’. ” These are unique pieces of Ethiopia’s heritage that can be shared through comics, a more affordable method of expression than making animated films, TV shows or live action movies.

Sometimes the history of the continent can be too traumatic to be revisited directly, especially for a younger audience. It becomes more digestible in the form of a comic book or graphic novel. “It invites constructive discussion and healing,” Debebe said. Ok Africa. Indeed, the next series of graphic novels All Rise: Resistance and rebellion in South Africa, scheduled for April 2022, is a graphic novel of six true stories of the resistance of marginalized South Africans against the country’s colonial government in the years leading up to apartheid. Each of the stories is illustrated by a different South African artist. “Comics cut across all social classes; the rich and the poor and everyone loves comics, ”says André Trantraal, one of the illustrators of the series. “In Africa, it’s important that we use a medium with this kind of universal appeal to get people to love books and love stories, and maybe even get them to tell theirs.”

Add an illustrator colleague, Tumi Mamabolo: “A graphic story such as All stand up makes important historical figures and events more accessible to the general public. Students, for example, will find more engagement in these stories than if they were simply put into a textbook. The beautiful thing about this graphic novel is that by attracting a larger audience, the real men and women depicted inside get the recognition they deserve and are not lost to the story. “

A page from a comic strip

A page from the graphic novel based on the story All Rise: Resistance and Rebellion in South Africa.Photo: Catalyst Press

This is perhaps the most exciting aspect that comics form art for African history: the chance to assert the multidimensionality of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. “Our past is not all slavery,” says Debebe. “Africa’s history is one of the oldest and richest in the world. We also have stories of ancient civilizations, stories of honor, of courage.”

Writers like Ivorian Marguerite Abouet have long been passionate about doing it. from Abouet Aya from Yop City, that was done with the illustrator Clement Oubrerie, follows the daily life of Aya, her family, friends and community members in the 1970s. This graphic novel was created due to the author’s desire to show a different view of Africa in addition to poverty and war mainly shown in mainstream media. It became an animated film in 2012.

All these stories allow the president of African Comics Limited and the publisher of Captain Africa, Mbadiwe Emelumba spoken in an interview with the NY Times in 1988. “We have our own culture, our own heritage,” he said. “It is important to defend against cultural colonialism. Or as Christophe Cassiau-Haurie says, “Africans are fed up with being looked at with pity”.

With the current crop of creators and illustrators, this desire seems more fervent than ever.

Lisa M. Horner