African comics by Bunmi Oloruntoba
Placing the word “African” before anything usually ends up doing one of two things: over-compressing a continent made up of 53 countries, thousands of languages and cultures into some meaningless generality. Or compressing the continent just enough to spot and amass enough content about a trend, given that most African countries, on their own, just don’t produce enough of whatever it is we are talking about.
It is the later use of the “African” prefix that applies to “African comics” and I have been asked to provide a list of examples of such comics that might be worth your time. But rather than come across as some kind of arbiter or connoisseur of the niche of “bande dessinée” (BD) to which the best African comics belong — and has made the term “African comics,” for non-French readers, somewhat of a mystery — I’ve decided, as an English reader, to include, with my list, an very — and a super emphasis of the “very” — brief background on just what African comics are.
Situation on the Continent:
Click on the following names: Menouar “Slim” Merabtene or Ali Dilem (Algeria), Bisi Ogunbadejo or Obe Ess, or Tayo Fatunla (Nigeria), Zapiro (South Africa), Gado (Kenya), Issa Nyaphaga (Cameroon), Emmanuel Makonga, Tembo “Kash” Muhindo Kashauri and others (DRC), Nathan Mpangala, King Kinya, Popa, Masoud Kipanya and others (Tanzania), Salah Jaheen, Gomah Farat, Qundeel, Makhrouf and others (Egypt)… and you will get an inkling of the vibrant and diverse state of editorial or political cartooning — which is an indication of the vibrant state of newspaper and magazine publishing — across the length and breath of the continent. In fact, in the realm of political cartooning, feel free to drop the “African” prefix, because in most African countries we have enough to talk about when it comes to the editiorial one panel/cartoon strip, i.e. the traditions, artists, styles, their bouts with censorship, brushes with the authorities and even time spent in jail. For closer looks, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Teju Olaniyan wrote a much cited essay and chapter about cartooning traditions in Nigeria; this translation of Alain Mushabah’s essay should fill you in on the turbulent history and rich tradition of political cartooning in the DRC; and this Andrew Stelzer’s article looks at Qundeel, Makhrouf and a new generation of opposition cartoonists in Egypt. In other words, cartooning talent in Africa is like minerals in the DRC; there’s a freakin’ lot of it (not to mention the DRC, perhaps more than any other African country, seems to ooze out comic talent through its pores — see: Nancy Rose Hunt’s chapter “Tintin and the Interuptions of Congolese Comics”” or Hilary Mbiyé Lumbala’s Bubbles and Boxes — From Congo Mbumbulu to Mfumu’Eto” for a shot at why). And in terms of style, you’ve got everything from the Cameroonian Nyaphaga’s locally influenced mix of cartoons and painting or Almo‘s playful erotica to Tanzanian James Gayo’s wordless strips to the younger Mozambican, Adérito Wetela, whose Jim Lee influence is unmistakable.
However, as you move towards the longer form, comics, to the much longer graphic novel, we are now talking about a different kind of publishing and means of distribution, and this is where schisms appear and we need to separate the French speaking countries from the rest of Africa. The form of choice in many parts of Africa are “comic magazines” — I’m using the term “magazines” loosely here; they could be anything from daily newspapers to hybrid glossies from Europe — and, hands down, one of the flagbearers is Ivory Coast’s humorous Gbich! (think: sound of Pacquiao’s glove connecting with a wet face). Gbich! was founded in ’98, in part by Zohoré Lassane (who penned stories of swindler “Cauphy Gombo” – the character later went on to star in his own T.V. show) and Illary Simplice (with the adventures of “Tommy Lapaosse”). In Gbich! was also the corrupt “Sergent Deutogo” (aptly name for his bribe fee of “two togos”), flowing from the pen of DRC artist Bob Kanza, plus the mag also featured the art of Congo Brazzaville artist Willy Zekid — the awesome rogues gallery of Gbich! talent goes on and on. Reading Gbich!, it’s easy to spot its kinship, in terms of an Ivorian humor, with, perhaps, the most popular African comic English readers have come to know – the “Aya of Yop City” series (see here/here), written by French-Ivorian Marguerite Abouet. For more on Gbich!, check out journalist Sebastian Lanvegin’s write up on Sub-Saharan comics.
So while these “magazines,” produced locally by a studio of artists, proved a sustainable model in the Ivory Coast or in Senegal with Alphonse “T.T Fons” Mendy‘s “Goorgoorlou” (which also became a T.V show in 2001), in Anglophone Nigeria, its more lewd cousin, “Ikebe Super”, the brainchild of Wale Adenuga while working on a campus paper in 1971, also proved sustainable throughout the 80s into the 90s, spawning its own spin offs and characters who went on to star in their own T.V shows. But as Marco Repetti notes in his fab survey of comics from Francophone Africa, the model did not work everywhere – many magazines only put out a couple of issues, e.g: “The Marabout” (Burkina Faso), “African BD” (Zaire/DRC), “Goor-May” (Senegal)….” For a more detailed survey of the African comic magazine landscape (and graveyard) circa ’99, Hilaire Mbiye Lumbala’s essay is still out there and the Picha exhibition site has everything else: translated answers to FAQs – here – and an exhaustive list of African comic magazines – and educational comics too; remember a lot of African cartoonists pay the bills doing work for NGOs and government parastatals who put out instructional material. But who said instructional material can’t aesthetically kick ass? Check out Yannick Dombi’s “Ou le Choix de vivre” issue (here/here/here) of “Farge” (Gabon, 1992) about student experiences surrounding condom use. DRC cartooning legend Barly Baruti’s 3 comic books so far on HIV/AIDs or this recent look at acclaimed Ghanaian cartoonist, Frank Odoi, working on “The Heroes, Us”: a comic book depicting the story of six Kenyans adapting to life with the HIV/AIDS virus in the town of Busua at the border with Uganda. On the other hand, lots of African cartoonists make the move to Europe to escape political harassment, censorship, economic hardship and to seek out better working conditions.
The French Connection
From the articles, the lists or even “Africa e Mediterraneo” 2008 list of their competition winners, Francophone Africa’s domination, in terms of publishing and distributing their comics and graphic novels, is crystal. In defense of English speaking African countries — Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe — one could argue that they don’t get the kind of help from their ex-colonizers that the Francophiles do. True – the help is immense. But that’s not the full picture. The roots of this disparity in output go deeper to, I think, the disparity between Anglophone-Francophone comic book cultures. In Europe, way before Will Eisner coined the term “graphic novel”, comic books were considered keepsakes, not disposables. Mainly due to how the stories were reprinted in album form, sequential art or “bande dessinees” was not only legitimized but also intellectualized, first of all in France through clubs like the CDB, scholarly journals and their promotion of BDs. If those two factors could be compared to, say, Francois Truffaut, Andre Bazin and fellow critics at “Cahier du Cinema”, then for BDs, the French New Wave equated to the popularity of “Asterix and Obelix” albums sweeping through France in the early 60s, legitimizing the BDs even further (see: Libby McQuinlan introduction to “Francophone Bande Dessinee”).
And let’s not forget the comics industry in France profited from generous government subsidies and, unlike in Britain and the United States, the French had a law that made it impossible for companies to own a creator’s character. In addition, an album, unlike disposable comics in Britain and United States, stayed longer in print and as a result French creators often got two royalities for their work, thus enjoying a degree of comfort, support and independence that lent to the growth of a different kind of comic book culture, industry and governmental support system. The implication being the French BD industry had an umbrella big enough for Francophone African artists in ways I doubt Britain would or could. Add to the mix the lucrative economics of still dependent former colonies and France’s eagerness to stay engaged with them by creating new avenues for cultural exchange and cooperation, one could see how funding and promoting comics was therefore a win-win situation for both sides. Not sure what the Belgians’ postcolonial agenda was, but they also had the “Administration Generale de la cooperation au developpment” (AGCD), which funded a lot of early BD work coming out of the Congo.
On Africa’s note: Below you can find the list compiled by Bunmi, with comics ranging from DRC to Egypt to Cameroon and the diaspora, and from the 1970s to 2010. An invaluable resource from which we can learn a lot about (African) comics!
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