Drawing inspiration from the comic underground
Sean Christie goes on a seven-day mission into South Africa's 'exploding' cartoon culture.
“What do you know about comic art?” I ask myself. The editor’s brief was to investigate local comic art apropos a forthcoming gathering of comic artists called Co/Mix.
I used to read comics — Archie, Richie Rich, Mad magazine, although the memories of my Mad days were traduced recently by a friend who, having stumbled across an essay I wrote on farm violence, took my picture that appeared with it and blew up my cheeks using some sort of picture-doctoring app and posted the result on Facebook labelled “Alfred E Neuman on Plaasmoord (farm murder)”.
I am to ignore the commercial side of things, so no trip to the Supa Strikas studio for me. My mission, as I understand it, is to explore the underground scene, the cartooning margins where folk spell comics and graphics with a subversive “x”. So there will be no Zapiro, Madam & Eve or Richenbaums either.
Sorely in need of a benevolent orienteer, unarmed and possibly a danger to myself, I call Andy Mason, the organiser of Co/Mix and author of several underground strips going back to the 1970s, such as Vittoke in Azania, Sloppy (with Mogorosi Motshumi, 1980s), The Legend of Blue Mamba (1990s to 2000s) and What’s So Funny, a brilliant, passionate history of comic art in South Africa. Mason invites me to his home in Muizenburg for a primer.
Mason lives in the fast-gentrifying part of the suburb, beyond the railway bridge, in a renovated Victorian building with a stack of surfboards in a corner of the veranda.
He is often referred to as the godfather of the local comics scene and looks the part with his surfer-length snow-white hair. In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s he worked for iconic alternative journals such as Staffrider, Learn and Teach, Upbeat and New Ground and in the mid-1980s launched the magazine PAX (Pre-Azanian Comix).
More recently he established the Durban Cartoon Project and Mamba Comix and, in 2008, moved to Cape Town and founded the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts at the University of Stellenbosch, the institute behind the Co/Mix event.
On his voluntary role as midwife to cartooning talent, he says: “It’s always been my mission to build a community of practitioners, because I’ve personally suffered the lack of a comic book culture in South Africa. I’m an underground cartoonist; I’ve never wanted to be mainstream.”
He pulls out some of the iconic works of the local underground scene from his library — graphic novels such as Joe Daly’s Dungeon Quest and Nikhil Singh’s Salem Brownstone: All along the Watchtowers and a few volumes of Bitterkomix, the irreverent publication founded by Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes that first brought South African comic art to international attention.
I ask about the absence of big names from the Co/Mix billing — whether it is by design and whether the event is intended to herald the emergence of a new generation of comic artists.
“Well, usually I bust my ass to get the big names to participate in events, but I decided not to beg this time. I decided attendance of the event would be enthusiasm-based and as a result I think you will see a lot of people who are normally obscured finding they have room for once.”
Mason believes that the alternative scene is bubbling at the moment.
“By definition, alternative comics is not a mass-media activity. It’s a sort of global in-group, a community of practitioners that are not restricted by geography. Right now in South Africa, and particularly in Cape Town, there’s an undercurrent of little projects organised by youngsters who are very adept at using social media platforms to get cartoonists together and to get their work out.”
I leave after dark and refuel at the Tokai McDonald’s.
A little hung-over, I sail into town on the even plane of Main Road rather than risk the curves of De Waal Drive.
I like Main Road — I like its stubborn resistance to the forces of gentrification and that it has always been the choice canvas for the city’s graffiti artists.
I arrive in District Six in good cheer, at the warehouse venue called The Bank, which is totally unsuited to the market-style arrangement of artists and their wares and public speaking.
Mason comes over and mentions several names, but the one that sticks is Motshumi, whom Mason affectionately describes as a “tall cadaverous-looking man from Bloemfontein who has just finished drawing the first part of his rather extraordinary autobiography”.
I find Motshumi staring at some cartoon panels on the wall as if they are instructions that, if faithfully followed, may cause the masonry to part, allowing a quick escape in the direction of Devil’s Peak.
When I ask whether he fancies grabbing a coffee, it is immediately clear that I am in the company of a man who has reinhabited his past.
“Not coffee, tea,” he says. “I haven’t been able to drink coffee since I was a child because my stepfather, who was a cop, had his own sangoma and this sangoma, who was from Dinokana near Zeerust, would make me drink moer [ground] coffee until I threw up.”
Minutes later we are sailing back down Main Road towards the Greatmore Gallery on the border of Woodstock and Salt River, where Motshumi has a residency and where, in a tiny north-facing room, the 127 pages of his cartooned autobiography (part one) lie stacked on the ground in a corner, covered in plastic.
I page through the work while Motshumi talks about his childhood, about how his fear of being beaten by strict Methodist family members turned his character inwards to comics and comic-making, “which became my mode of expression, because I am not articulate”.
Mason said the previous night that “all the greatest graphic novels tend to be autobiographical”. Having recently read two of the all-time classics — Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, about her childhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, about his experiences in the Gaza Strip in the early 1990s — it dawns on me that I am in the presence of a work of similar standing in which harrowing material — repeated incarceration for political beliefs, excruciating poverty, being diagnosed with HIV/Aids in the mid-1990s — is just as deftly handled.
The sound of drunks brawling on Greatmore Street puts an end to the afternoon and I drop Motshumi on Main Road in Observatory. How he does not yet have a publisher for his masterpiece I do not know.
I have a brief meeting with Sue Opperman, the artist responsible for the strip Gifpit, about life in the imaginary town of Gifpit in the Karoo that is populated by weird and wonderful monsters embodying the attitudes of the Afrikaner community in which Opperman grew up.
I say that it sounds like a descendant of Bitterkomix with its sustained attack on Afrikaner morals, but Opperman makes the point that “Afrikaans communities are far more accepting now, making it possible to bring forth new work which is dystopian, but which people don’t necessarily take personally … People seem happy to see and appreciate my dystopian vision for what it is — mine.”
And yet, as I page through one of her books in the hipster quietude of the Field Office on Barrack Street, I come across four identical panels of the Virgin Mary, the first three without words and the fourth with a thought bubble: “Is aborsie ’n opsie?” (Is abortion an option?)
Opperman has also created an alter-ego called Die Mystic Hoer (a play on the Die Mystic Boer bar-night club franchise), a kind of female Andy Capp drawn like Picasso’s, who occasionally has to shut her legs to silence her outspoken vagina.
I look up from some of these panels with eyes wet from laughing and Opperman shrugs and says: “Well, I think there’s room for a strong female comic artist.”
At 8pm I am trapped in a film noir scene: standing on the sidewalk of Lower Main Road in the rain outside the Bijou Theatre, which appears abandoned but for a single strip of sodium light on the bottom floor. Peering more intently through the metal window grilles, I see a group of twentysomethings sketching — and then the door opens and Sebastian Borckenhagen says: “Welcome to the Cape Town Zine Project.”
The group is small but diverse — archaeology students, law students, illustrators, Namibians, one Norwegian and pseuds clutching Susan Sontag paperbacks. They all, at some point, “followed” Borckenhagen on Tumblr and responded to his call to create comic strips and bring them along to the Bijou to be printed dirt-cheap on the risograph printer that belongs to the folk who organise AfrikaBurn.
In a certain aesthetic sense, the Cape Town Zine Project is as underground as it gets, evidence of the budding participant community for which veteran cartoonists such as Mason and Motshumi have pined for the past four decades. Borckenhagen is a fitting catalyst — energetic, brash (a long-time hustler of his own work at markets) but also self-deprecating. He was one of the founding members of the Free UCT (Fuct) party, which died a quick death when the father of one of Borckenhagen’s colleagues, an old revolutionary, refused to drop “free education for all” as a core demand.
These are surprising details because Borckenhagen’s drawings — whorls of miniscule birds, rejected ceramics patterns, a man being carried around by an angel — are so apolitical that the communist father of Borckenhagen’s colleague pinned one of them up between his two prized posters of chairman Mao and Lenin, telling him it was “because it’s so fucking revolutionary”.
I had asked Mason about the absence of politics in much of the work of Cape Town’s new comics auteurs. He believed it was “because they are born-frees — apartheid isn’t the demon it was for us”.
But that is not it, or fully it. The theme of the night in the Bijou is middle-of-the-road goals for Africa — achievable goals that fall well below the promissory rhetoric of the politicians. I get the sense that Borckenhagen and his friends have little interest in putting the knife in anything. The emphasis seems to lie more on moderating the national discourse, bringing South Africans and their famously divergent outlooks down to an appreciation of common stuff. If that means doodling a dog swimming in a river by the light of the moon, then so be it.
I travel to Kenilworth, along Main Road again, to speak to Daniël Hugo, whose artwork was used on the Co/Mix poster. It depicts a woman in a headscarf standing on Cape Town’s Grand Parade, with the city hall in the background. It is an iconic scene, but it is skewed by the presence of an East European soldier and behind him a tram labelled Kanaldorplijn.
“It’s from a story recently published in Velocity 3, an anthology of sci-fi comics about an alternate Cape Town,” says Hugo, who looks piratical with his Blackbeard eyebrow ring. “The setting is an autocratic and industrial Cape Town dominated by Ottoman Turks with elements of a previous Dutch heritage. Against this background a young woman takes a drastic step to change the status quo.” The story took Hugo a year to research and another year to produce, but he allowed Velocity to publish it for free, giving dimension to graphic novelist Art Speigelman’s observation that “throughout its more than 150-year old history, the comic strip has been the hunch-backed, half-witted bastard dwarf stepchild of the graphic arts”.
A few days prior I had met Moray Rhoda, the Capetonian founder of Velocity, who listed, among many obstacles to the emergence of a supportive graphic arts scene, South Africa’s “culture of non-support to the arts”, a perception that “comics are for kids” as well as “corporate agendas” — “the exploitation of the comic format for band-building adds to the perception that local comics are shit”.
He said it was “criminal” that Hugo’s work was not widely known.
When Hugo shows me some auto-biographical short stories he has done, I understand what Rhoda meant, because they appear to me to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of Herman Charles Bosman’s edgiest short stories although, in place of the narrator Oom Schalk Lourens, Hugo employs an alien called “The Thing from There”.
In one comic, The Thing recounts the senseless killing of an aardvark trapped in a kraal on a Karoo farm. The last page depicts the lifeless aardvark lying in a pool of its own blood and then the alien narrator appears with his thumbs up and says: “What more can I say but … humans rule!!!”
I think Hugo rules.
Time’s up, the quest far from complete. Every one of the auteurs I have met has said “you have to speak to …” and a bewildering number of names entered my notebooks: Warren Raysdorf and Alistair Laird (producers of the comic Free Beer), Jean de Wet, Tyron Love (Yummy Lemons) … and “this amazing first-year law student from Tukkies”.
But the aim of the quest is not to become some sort of an omnipresence of the cartooning scene. At the outset Mason said something significant about the future of graphic literature in South Africa: he said he felt the scene was poised for a sudden explosion, “akin to what happened to Australian cinematography after Peter Weir released Picnic at Hanging Rock”.
I thought then that I would keep at my quest until I could dismiss this statement as hyperbolic rubbish, or accept it as a fair evaluation. Let me phrase my finding this way: the well-known expatriate South African academics Derek Attridge and David Attwell recently produced The Cambridge History of South African Literature, a collection of 39 essays on everything from praise-singing to prison writing. There is nothing on comic art. This is a glaring oversight, which one hopes will be rectified when the second edition comes out. If it is not, I suggest the country’s cartoonists march in bitter protest. All down Main Road, of course.