I grew up in the United States where I spent many days locked in my bedroom with stacks of comic books both contemporary and old. Since moving to Uganda, I’ve found a new appreciation for comic books as a tool to encourage reading and to promote literacy.
At the time I read all kinds of books for fun but nothing was more impactful to my young psyche than superhero comic books. Not all super heroes were created equal, however. It was books like the following that I really loved….
The New Teen Titans by George Perez and Marv Wolfman was about the former teenage sidekicks of superheroes like Batman, Wonder Woman and the Green Arrow dealing with the independence of adulthood.
Strikeforce Morituri by Peter B. Gillis and artist Brent Anderson which was about a group of heroes who fought for the survival of all humanity, despite the fact that they knew they themselves only had one year to live.
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland was about the Joker’s attempt to sexually violate and torture a very prominent DC heroine. Ultimately it was about a hero’s choice when confronting a truly twisted and deranged villain. It’s a lesson that I felt transcends all cultures.
Any X-Men comic written by Chris Claremont (who wrote the title for a remarkable 16-years) tended to focus on the human weaknesses of the mutant heroes instead of their superpowers alone.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller was the penultimate Batman story where the Caped Crusader struggles to find his place in a future world that has long since stopped caring about his legacy. He also proceeds to kick the living crap out of Superman. Yes, SUPERMAN!
Comics were more than just people with fantastic powers doing fantastic things. I learned about life, but more importantly they helped me learn to love to read for the sake of the story and reading a lot meant I was improving my vocabulary. By the third grade I was reading on sixth grade level, by the sixth I was reading at college level. I wasn’t just reading comics, for me they were the gateway, eventually I was also reading Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes and Choose Your Own Adventure Books. That lead to books like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Then it was books for the sake of analysis like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, The Scarlett Letter and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Comic books can sometimes spark a love for reading among people that can continue into adulthood. In Africa where literacy rates among it’s countries are often some of the lowest in the world, it makes me wonder why there isn’t more of a focused effort to proliferate comic books to support and encourage readers. These comics don’t have to be imported, in fact, it would make even more sense to create domestic superheroes that exemplify local traditions and values. As a matter of fact, there’s an interesting history of local publishing already.
The History of Comic Books in Africa
Contrary to popular belief, comics have been produced bought and sold throughout Africa for well over thirty years. While Africa doesn’t have the same rich comic publishing history as the U.S., France or Japan, it does have a history all to itself and that deserves some attention. In “An Inventory of the Comic Strip in Africa” Hilaire Mbiye Lumbala states…
There is no longer any doubt about it. African comic books are a reality today. They exists, are sold, are read. They have become the object of several organizations and events (associations, congresses, prizes, fairs, festivals, exhibitions, research work…). They, just as elsewhere else, have their heroes. Yrmoaga in Burkina Faso; Zoba Moke in Congo; Mata Mata and Pili Pili, Apolosa, Mohuta and Mapeka in DRC; Dago and Monsieur Zézé in Côte d’Ivoire; Bibeng and Tita Abessolo in Gabon; Tekoué in the Central African Republic; Boy Melakh and Goorgoolou in Senegal can all be cited as examples.
We are all aware of the role publishers play in institutionalizing comic books or literature in general. Publishing difficulties face everyone in Africa: financial difficulties and poor distribution make African comic books even more over-dependent on abroad. These are the main hurdles for publishing’s development in Africa.
In spite of these difficulties, several publishing houses have launched into the adventure of publishing African comic books. In Europe: L’Harmattan, Segedo in France; Eur-Af Editions in Belgium. In Africa: Ed. CLE (Yaoundé), Nouvelles Editions Africaines (Dakar and Lomé), Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes (Abidjan), Medias Pau, ex- Ed. St. Paul (Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kisangani), Afrique Editions (Kinshasa), Achka (Libreville), Inter Afrique Presse (Abidjan), Horaka (Antananarivo), Sogedit (Dakar), Archevêché de Bangui et Mission de coopération française (Bangui), etc. This list is not exhaustive as, due to poor distribution, it is impossible for us to gather data on the comic book situation in all the French-speaking countries.
Source: African Cultures
More recently a group of young artists were commissioned to tell the story of Nelson Mandela in comic book form. Marvel comics has also attempted to diversify it’s readership by recently moving Storm (from the X-Men) and the Black Panther to Africa to explore stories dealing with the region.
The Model of Japan
Japan is an anomaly in that huge portions of the population, both young and old, read Manga (japanese comic books). Manga of all subjects and interests is available from stories about schoolgirls and young love (Shonen), to action, comedies, thrillers and more. In fact, the publishing of manga in Japan can be most directly compared to the production of movies in Hollywood in the United States. By that I mean the there are many genres and sub-genres within the medium that allow for ‘something for everyone’. There are also standout hits (the blockbusters), niche genres (published by independents) and big groups like TokyoPOP (the equivalent of ‘studios’) that sign the best talent and largely control the industry…just like Hollywood.
In Japan, manga are widely read by people of all ages, so that a broad range of subjects and topics occur in manga, including action-adventure, romance, sports and games, historical drama, comedy, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, horror, sexuality, and business and commerce, among others. Since the 1950s, manga have steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry, representing a 481 billion yen market in Japan in 2006 (approximately $4.4 billion dollars). Manga have also become increasingly popular worldwide. In 2006, the United States manga market was $175–200 million.
In Africa this is not the landscape of the comic industry. Things are very much fragmented. Of the books being published, finding them from country to country is a challenge. There doesn’t seem to be much inter-publisher communication and the market is small. That said, new technologies have removed some of the traditional challenges.
Distributing Comic Books Digitally
Traditionally hurdles for getting comic books circulated in Africa have been vast. Shipping costs alone would make it nearly impossible to get returns from the relatively weak markets here. This meant there was no profit incentive for publishers. The high poverty level of people compounds this low expectation for profit. Literacy, as I mentioned above, was also a problem but the bigger problem was which languages to publish in. In French speaking Africa the choice was clear but in a large part of sub-Saharan Africa common languages varied from country to country. In Uganda Luganda or English were widely spoken but in neighboring Kenya, Swahili might have been more appropriate. If publishers printed too many copies in one language, they might end up with a stack of content in one language that couldn’t be used elsewhere. Of course the median language across much of Africa now is English and printing comics in it will only improve the ability of people to speak, read and write it.
I’m a lifelong comic book lover, but living in Africa has made it difficult to get ‘my fix’. The otherday, on a whim, I decided to research how many comics were being published as PDFs and distributed online. I discovered that both big publishers (Marvel and DC Comics) were now offering some products in this area. Some third-party vendors have also created solutions like IGN Direct-to-Drive and Wowio. While these services still leave much to be desired, they deserve kudos for exploring new technologies for distribution. I also discovered that there’s a huge ‘underground’ market of people trading PDF scans of comics online, largely because (much like the movie industry) comic publishers aren’t offering the solutions consumers are clamouring for. That is subscription free, high-resolution scans of comicbooks as PDFs. I’m imagining something like Apple’s iTunes store for comicbooks both old and new.
Ironically, not only is this possible but Apple recently began publishing a digital adaptaion of the 1985 graphic novel THE WATCHMEN on iTunes! Each issue is being republished with music, voices actors and sound effects for $1.99 on the iTunes Music store. Obviously this is simply a marketing tool being used to capitalize on the forthcoming movie from Warner Brothers but if effective it may convice Apple to sell more comics.
So this model for distributing comics online deserves some thought as it would be a great way to publish material that could easily be translated into a multitude of languages and distributed to a number of new territories at little to no extra cost (just post it on a few different servers). For small publishers here in Africa, it’d also be a way to reach broader audiences from around the world and maybe have their talent discovered.
Yes, there’s nothing like holding a tangible copy of a comic book in your hand (specially older ones) but when that isn’t possible, the benefits of giving people other options become obvious. If it encourages reading, new ideas, and internet use then it’s hard to argue that digital comics for countries outside the U.S. would be a wonderful thing!
An Inventory of the Comic Strip in Africa
“We Who are about to Die: The Dark Age of Comics”
Michigan State University Library: African Comic Index
SA Publishers cancel TinTin Comico
Download Comics (legally)