Mysterious masquerades and superhuman spirits are a defining part of local cultures and celebrations throughout Africa, so it's no surprise that the concept of the superhero--those daring masked men and women whose exploits dominate the comic book genre--deeply resonates with the African past.
Pre-colonial communities in West and Central Africa were often policed by masked members of specially-trained sodalities--often (and somewhat incorrectly) known as secret societies. They wore guises that drew on the imagined qualities of totemic animals like leopards and lions in order to harness supernatural power. While not quite the crime-busting urban vigilantes many of us have come to know through our favorite Marvel and DC comic books, there is something to be said for connecting the protective communal traditions of Poro and Ekpe leopard men in Sierra Leone and Nigeria with contemporary fictional counterparts like Gotham's Batman or New York City's own Spiderman.
With these cultural links in mind, it's no surprise that Africa and Africans have featured prominently in the history of American and European comic art since its inception. One of the first American masked superheroes has a little-recognized but enduring African connection. Before the creation of today's caped crusaders, there was a masked man clad in purple who patrolled the fictional African coastal nation of Bangalla as the Phantom. Illustrator Lee Falk, whose creation of the Phantom in 1936 effectively launched the masked superhero genre, was also, for better or worse, a pioneer in incorporating African themes into the American comic strip.
The Phantom was actually not one man but a dynasty of white men, all named Kit Walker, whose lineage were sworn to protect the dark-skinned inhabitants of the Bangalla jungle from the predations of pirates, poachers, and the like. The strip's theme had a strong colonialist overtone, and its location placement on 'the dark continent' was initially just a convenient shorthand for an isolated and exotic locale to titillate its American readership. At first brush the Africans depicted in the stories were flat, one-dimensional 'natives', yet the strip grew to humanize them and present them as equals in the story lines.
Similarly, the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s led Marvel Comics to pioneer the inclusion of African characters as leading protagonists in their hugely popular publications. Beginning with the Black Panther, a physics student named T'Challa who is prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, Marvel went on to introduce African characters of enduring popularity like Storm, the beautiful Kenyan mutant played by Halle Berry in the recent film franchise; and various characters on the fictional East African island of Genosha, where the stories explored themes of apartheid and discrimination.
In Europe, the comic strip genre (known as bandes dessinees or BD) in France and Belgium produced alternatives to the hyperbolic superhero adventures of American comics. Here too, Africans found themselves depicted as extreme stereotypes in the most popular examples of the genre, including Asterix and Obelix and Tintin. Despite the crudeness of their approach, their inclusion of African characters and their popularity in the colonial home countries helped make these European icons a staple in middle-class African households.
The story of the African in the comic book genre is not limited to occasional appearances in European and American publications, however. Like so many cultural imports, Africans have indigenized the comic book genre over the decades, creating a dynamic literary genre that has become one of the most accessible means of communication on the continent today. Christine Kim, associate curator of the Studio Museum, cited their accessibility and visual impact as reasons for their enduring popularity. "You have these beautifully drawn and painted images, with texts in various different languages, created with very inexpensive means," said Kim to National Public Radio's Margot Adler in an interview about the Africa Comics exhibition.
In Anglophone west Africa, the ribald adventures of beloved characters like Papa Ajasco and Boy Alinco in Wale Adenuga's Ikebe Super comic magazine began delivering literally cheap thrills in 1976. The strips featured a multi-ethnic cast of Nigerian characters during and after the oil boom of the 1970s. By 1980, the popular comic book was so influential that its risque content drew the ire of the Lagos State government. Although the magazine closed during Nigeria's economic downturn in the 1990s, Adenuga's characters live on as stars in television shows and movies.
Kenya's popular Ushikwapo Shikamana ("If Assisted, Assist Yourself" in Kiswahili) demonstrates the range of themes addressed in African comics. A thrice-weekly strip in Taifa Leo, a popular Kiswahili-language newspaper, Shikamana incorporates serious Kenyan social themes--HIV/AIDS, female circumcision, and drug abuse--into urban, suburban, and rural settings. Derived from a radio soap opera of the same name, creator Dr. Kimani Njogu describes the strip as the most effective method of disseminating his message of communal responsibility. "In both the soap and the comic strip we affirm life and take the position that individuals and communities can make a difference in people's lives. We argue for self and collective efficacy...that we can determine our own destiny," he said to Rap21 newsletter.
Other such strips abound throughout the continent, with each country having its own national favorite a far cry from the days of relying solely on Western depictions. In celebration of the genre's deep connection with its African audience, Africa e Mediterraneo, the organization responsible for sponsoring the Studio Museum exhibition, gives away biennial prizes to the best unpublished African comic strips from all over the continent. Visit www.africacomics.net to see where Africa's take on the medium is headed.
Enjoy other African strips not mentioned in this piece? Drop us a comment and let us know about them.