What is the current position of comics and other related media in South Africa and the African continent? Have we arrived or are we still on the journey?
(Speaking only for South Africa as Africa is really huge and I can’t even name half the countries in it!) We are most certainly still on the journey. In fact, I am not sure if there is an end to journeys like this! If you mean, “Are we at international standard yet,” I’d say we are closer talent wise and not so close industry wise. We’re still very insular and few people in South Africa can name local comics other than Bitterkomix and Madam and Eve, and of course the political cartoon greats like Zapiro and Fred Mouton. All of these are closely linked to politics and social commentary. I think a large part of the problem is that people pessimistically still cling to the assumption that if anything was produced in South Africa, it’s of inferior quality. This is obviously not the case, and we need to keep on pushing out high quality work until that perception changes.
What can comics do that other art and literary forms cannot in our local context?
The biggest and most obvious point which I am sure other people will also mention is that pictures are more universally accessible than words. A scene of violence or friendship can be read in any language with no words needed. The use of imagery with words is a great way to open up a piece of writing to an audience that would not normally engage with it. And of course if you add humour, it has the added benefit of bringing home a message or narrative where completely serious art or writing would have missed the mark. People who not normally engage with something are drawn in effortlessly. Humour is inclusionary and has a disarming effect. That is not to say humour won’t piss people off if used in a certain context (like political cartooning), but you get the gist of my reasoning.
Do we draw our inspiration from the USA and Europe rather than the rest of the continent? Should we be engaged more closely with creatives from Africa?
It varies greatly. I know a lot of the local comics producers personally and everyone seems to be doing what they enjoy, and a great deal of that stuff is experimental. On the one hand we have people like the Trantraal brothers and Anton Kannemeyer who draw heavily and directly from the tumultuous landscape that is South African socio-political issues. Then on the other hand we have people like Luis Tolosana whose short, wordless comic Phylo’s Wish deals with issues of poverty, the separation of the classes, and escapism – topics which are extremely relevant to South Africa, but which are at the same time universally accessible, because they are global issues, too. Then you get the other end of the spectrum, where people write pure fantasy which contains little to no humans at all, such as Deon de Lange’s Gofu, and Tomica, for which David Covas Lourenco does the writing. With our own project, Cottonstar, the milieu is still South Africa… but a hypothetical (and by that we mean pretty much completely fabricated) future South Africa in which global warming has covered the world in water and left only a few bits of dry land sticking out. We reference South African culture heavily, but are not limiting ourselves to it, and because the global playing field has changed so drastically, it’s easier to apply artistic license to social and economic issues.
As for your question if we should engage more with creatives from Africa, I would say yes! It would be great to see people from this continent making great comic art and inspiring others. Doubtlessly there already is a ton of it out there, but I have not really been exposed to much of it. I have seen some French work from West Africa before and doubtlessly there’s a lot more where that came from, but the language barrier is a big factor. It would be awesome if the world began to acknowledge Africa and its many countries as having a voice creatively, in the popular culture scene, as opposed to just “that big scary place full of wildlife and exploitable natural resources.” It could only do good. I come across this a lot when speaking with overseas people: “You live in AFRICA???” And then they kind of don’t know what else to say, because they’ve never considered “Africa” to have a contemporary voice and interests.
Is there a recognisable South African style in comic art?
While there are certainly iconic figures in South African comic art, the styles that people work in vary greatly as they draw their inspiration from different places. I consider that a sign of healthy growth.
If so, how would you characterise this? If not why do you think this may be the case?
People in South Africa who are into making comics all came across this art form in different ways. I suppose it’s the same everywhere in the world, but with the SA comics scene being so new and volatile, frequently people kind of start doing it on their own, because they saw it in a library, or a magazine, or wanted to make fan art of their favourite TV show, or because they got their hands on books… only to find out later that there are other local artists and that they are also producing work. People usually get extremely excited when they find out there are other locals doing comics, because they tend to think they’re all alone out there.
What challenges do we face in creating a viable comics culture?
As mentioned before, there is a cloud of negativity and embarrassment hanging around South Africa regarding locally produced things. Gaining consumer trust is a big obstacle. It’s possibly the tail end of the results of the sanctions from Apartheid days, where we got put +/-10 years behind in pop culture, and had to produce our own TV shows with extremely limited budgets. It’s taken a long time to work our way back up (and things like the ill-fated 3D movie Jock of the Bushveld really haven’t helped). Interestingly, this resourcefulness and self-sufficiency probably also contributed to making people sentimental about South African things. We enjoy being acknowledged in popular culture, but we’re suspicious of the things our own country produces. Hopefully by consistently producing high quality, international standard work (which we already are!), we’ll gain the trust of our peers.
Then of course there is also the question of inclusivity. With the cultural mishmash we have going on here, not everything is going to appeal to every reader. You already have comics, which in itself tends to be a rather niche field of interest even internationally, then you have South Africa, in which a great deal of people have no access to school books, let alone comic books, and then within that, you have people who speak various different languages, and who are more than likely not all going to enjoy the same type of comics, even if they were produced either wordless or in their home language.
Then there is also the recession which is taking a huge toll on the printing industry. I am a book nut, but I have hardly bought any books this year because I just can’t afford them anymore, and I’m hearing the same from a lot of other bibliophiles. It’s easier to move stock if you do small print runs of 100 books which sell for moderate prices, but if you decide to go the litho route, and spend a fortune on thousands of books… yes, you’ll have paid very little comparatively per unit, but you’ll potentially sit with that stock and that financial loss for a long time, if you don’t work extremely hard to sell those books. Which can be very difficult, as has been mentioned, because of the size of the consumer pool and the mistrust of South African consumers overall. You can export of course, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Lastly, we as comics creators have very little opportunity to showcase our products locally. The capital and hype just isn’t in place. There’s Free Comic Book Day, hosted annually by Readers Den – who have done so tirelessly and at great expense for a great many years, giving a great deal of local creatives a massive hand up (thank you Readers Den!), there’s rAge where local art online forums LegionInk hosts an artists’ alley (not necessarily comics, just local illustrators in general), there’s UCON, which is UCT’s brand new and fast growing anime convention, there’s Open Book Comics Fest, and a few smaller events around the country, mostly in JHB, where you could weasel in a comic or two.
UCON and Open Book Comics Fest are both very new ventures, with UCON having started in 2013 and OBCF in 2012. We’re very optimistic that those two will gain traction and grow fast, despite the teething troubles they’ve been having. It mainly comes down to marketing. The Readers Den FCBD draws large crowds because they have an established market which already knows about the event, who save up money all year, and come to spend it on their favourite hobby each May. The event has in fact outgrown the venue at this stage, but moving will be a problem as Readers Den would need a huge amount of capital to do so.
With the other events, marketing is slim, and mostly done via word of mouth and Facebook events shared by persons attending with other persons who already know about it. Advertising is left up to participants and their friends, mostly, while other enthusiasts from around the country are left in the dark. Considering the exponential growth we’ve seen in both the market and the amount of local comics being produced, I’m optimistic about the future of UCON, OBCF and other such ventures, but we need to build more hype and awareness around it.
Any other comments relating to our local comic productions that you would like to make?
Tell your friends about local comics! Tell overseas friends about local comics! Have some faith in locally produced things. Poor quality work is poor because of the decisions that were made by the author and the printer, not because it was made in South Africa. We have some top notch work here and you need to believe in that. Also, there is a Wikipedia page about South African comics which is in desperate need of some attention. Please go and contribute!
Finally describe what you are currently doing relating to comics, cartooning or sequential narrative. Please list your recent publications or current projects.
At the moment I am co-creating a comic named Cottonstar with my partner Ben Geldenhuys. It is a webcomic (available to read for free at www.cotton-star.com) which we update by a page once a week, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday. Once we complete a chapter, we print that chapter as a volume which people can buy. The idea is to eventually publish the story as a whole in the form of a graphic novel. Ben is the creator and lead artist of the comic, and I came on board later as the writer and colourist. We launched the site in 2011 and will continue until the story is complete.
Cottonstar chapters 1-3 have been printed and are available for purchase directly from us or from Readers Den, Clarke’s Books, Outer Limits and The Unseen Shoppe in Durban. We are currently working on chapter 4.
Apart from creating a comic of our own, we are both illustrators (Ben has the added benefits of being a 2D animator and graphic designer) and do work for books and book covers on a freelance basis. We also try to be as involved as possible in the local comics scene; networking, encouraging others to get involved, sharing knowledge and resources, and also supporting financially where we can.