The evolution of African pulp fiction
Sean O'Toole traces the genre from its current incarnation back to the golden age of the genre amid high apartheid and African independence.
The last hours of Muammar Gaddafi’s life were ingloriously spent hiding in a drainage ditch on the outskirts of his hometown of Sirte. What did the former Libyan leader do and think as he unsuspectingly awaited his executioners in that makeshift bunker? It is an ample scenario for fiction writers.
In the imagination of young Nigerian author Iheoma Nwachukwu, writing in issue 12 of Jungle Jim, an irreverent monthly showcase of new African pulp fiction, the brotherly leader had sex with a bodyguard, a woman named Hana — “a quick one before her shift ends”.
Published in May, a year after Jungle Jim launched in Cape Town, Nwachukwu’s contribution is a lurid piece of agitprop that melds authorial conjecture with historical fact. Presented in the form of a taped soliloquy, Escape to Hell portrays Gaddafi in an introspective mood.
“Am I crazy because I’m horny in war?” Gaddafi thinks out loud. He also contemplates his mortality, reminisces about the executions he ordered and fumes at the ingratitude of the Libyan people.
“I gave them free electricity, go in the cities and look! They pay nothing!” he shouts. “Libya has no external debt! I did it! Libya has foreign reserves of $50-billion!” For proof, Gaddafi instructs the reader: “Look in your computers! Don’t be fooled!”
I asked Jenna Cato Bass, a twentysomething filmmaker and Jungle Jim’s publisher-editor, why she opted for the retro A5 print format when history points towards the inevitability of computers, or online publishing. Take, for example, Joe Vaz’s genre fiction magazine Something Wicked, which published early Sarah Lotz: it started life in 2006 as a printed monthly, but eventually migrated online in 2011 before terminating earlier this year.
“I think print and online magazines can achieve many of the same things in a literal sense,” responded Bass, “but we will always see the print magazines as individual works in themselves, which is something I don’t think you retain online, where the stories are stories packaged together and sent to you, rather than an issue with its own character.”
A graduate of Afda film school in Cape Town, Bass and graphic designer Hannes Bernard launched Jungle Jim with a start-up budget of R1 500. “Basically, it was how much money we could lose per month,” quipped Bernard when I first interviewed the pair in 2011.
The launch issue introduced Jungle Jim’s eccentric editorial pitch. Cult filmmaker Richard Stanley, who travelled to Haiti to document local voodoo rituals for a BBC documentary, shared his diary notes and Somali-Kenyan writer Abdul Adan contributed a choppy science fiction story. Comic artist and cross-dressing lyricist Nikhil Singh delivered a fey pirate story. “Oh to acquire carnal know-ledge of a mermaid is quite a thing!” he wrote, establishing a trend in the magazine for exclamation marks and weird sex.
The most entertaining read was written by Ghanaian-born Kwei Quartey, a California-based physician and author of the ongoing Darko Dawson detective series.
Quartey introduced his temperate, scooter-riding detective in his debut novel, Wife of the Gods (2009). Described as “a far richer and more sophisticated experience” than Alexander McCall Smith’s cheery No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Los Angeles Times also lauded Quartey’s debut book as “an extraordinarily well-crafted mystery”.
Jungle Jim featured an extract from his second novel, Children of the Street. Quartey’s prose is uncomplicated. One of Dawson’s colleagues is described as “impossibly good-looking”, another as a “bulky, flinty-eyed man”.
Billed as a biweekly when it was launched at Mervyn /Sloman’s Book Lounge last year, all 200 copies of the inaugural issue were handmade using a silkscreen. Jungle Jim, which is limited to a standardised 24-page format and features only four contributors per issue, has since adopted a more relaxed monthly publication schedule. It is now also mechanically printed in Salt River on a risograph, a high-speed digital printing system. However, it still costs R15.
The words arrive printed on low-grade paper stock, but the two-colour cover and editorial illustrations are delivered on smarter bleached paper. Graphically bold and typically salacious, these drawings (of skulls, hooded horsemen, chainsaws, naked zombies and pentagrams) lend Jungle Jim its DIY texture and hip street smarts. Nwachukwu’s story, for instance, featured a grisly portrait of a mortally wounded Gaddafi.
Distributed to a handful of outlets, chiefly in Cape Town, the magazine is available in a Kindle option. Like Donga, the now defunct online literary magazine edited by Alan Finlay and Paul Wessels that early on published Lauren Beukes, Jungle Jim has used the internet to build a constituency of like-minded contributors.
Bass singled out Adan and Nigerian writer Samuel Kolawole, author of the collection The Book of M (2011), as standout young contributors.
The magazine also publishes established writers. The November — and latest — issue features Ahmed Khaled Towfik, an Egyptian professor of tropical diseases who has published more than 500 titles.
In 2007, Towfik published his first adult fiction, Utopia, a dystopian science fiction story set in a United States marine-protected gated estate on Egypt’s northern coastline. An English translation appeared last year. A review in The Independent hailed Utopia as “far more convincing” than A Clockwork Orange and “a miniature masterpiece”.
Many of Jungle Jim’s offerings are gaudy throwaway stuff, but the magazine has surfaced some intriguing material.
For its fifth issue Jungle Jim looked north and featured a story by the Sudanese-Egyptian writer Kola Boof. A former model and actress who claims to have been a mistress of Osama bin Laden, Boof recounted how she worked as a hostess for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who, we are told, was not “sexually attracted to black women who look black”.
Boof’s writing, like that of Nwachukwu, blooms in the interstices of fact and fiction.
When I first met Jungle Jim’s founders last year, I kicked off by asking Bass and Bernard why they decided to focus on pulp fiction. “That’s a good question,” Bass laughed guiltily.
“I actually dunno,” chimed in Bernard, who now lives in Amsterdam but remains an integral part of the magazine’s editorial team. Then he improvised a more formal response, one that danced around the conceptual premise of “an African context”. Bernard is appreciative of South Africa’s legacy of pulp publishing, especially the photo comics that flourished in the years before local television embraced drama and waning censorship made the titillation of the so-called poesboekies (photo comics) redundant, but said the fantastical stories about masked cowboys and intelligence agents in bikinis were not something he could directly relate to.
“There is a huge gap between that and me,” he said. “I was really interested in other forms of African DIY publishing. In Nigeria, especially, they have a form of market literature called Onitsha.”
An inland port and market town on the Niger River, Onitsha has long been an important commercial gateway to Nigeria’s Muslim north. In the 1950s and 1960s it was the site of a flourishing trade in pulp fiction. Cheaply produced by local presses, Onitsha’s “market literature” was hugely popular among the working people who used the market.
Despite being simplistic, moralistic and sentimental, this “semi-literature”, as it has been dismissively characterised, is nonetheless credited with establishing a literary appetite that is reflected in contemporary Nigeria’s vibrant media culture. Writing in 1973, Chinua Achebe described Onitsha’s literary output as an important document of the “social problems of a somewhat mixed-up but dynamic, even brash, modernising community”.
“There was a link between Onitsha’s bracing moralising stories — about men who treat their women badly, or how to spend your money wisely — and something genuinely African and pulp fiction,” stated Bernard. Working in the wake of District 9 and Moxyland, he was also curious to see what happened when traditions and myths are remixed.
“We wanted to see what happens when you take extremely Westernised ideas of aliens and sci-fi archetypes and see how that gets applied in an African context.”
He is not the first publisher to pursue this tack. The history of African pulp fiction is filled with examples of unusual mash-ups. Because of its temporal, consumable nature, this literature is forgotten almost as soon as it is published. As it stands, there is no convincing overview of the history of pulp fiction locally.
Peter MacDonald’s The Literature Police (2009), a fine account of the difficult emergence of a national literature, is concerned with canonical writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Es’kia Mphahlele and JM Coetzee. Andrew van der Vlies’s new book, Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, includes a chapter on the photo comics Apache and Kid Colt. But, in light of photo comics forming an important subgenre of pulp publishing locally, Lily Saint’s essay reads as a somewhat arid academic autopsy.
“White South African readers returned to the cowboy because it provided an ersatz expression of their nostalgia for the Voortrekker days, conterminously permitting a series of indirect confrontations with the racial dynamics of contemporary South African society,” she writes. Her instrumentalist reading is true, but glosses over a wealth of history.
Unlike the pre-war flourishing of its American counterpart, a golden age that introduced pulp readers to Ray Bradbury and Raymond Chandler and gave Hollywood ready-made legends such as Buck Rogers, Tarzan and Zorro, African pulp fiction blossomed much later — during the years of high apartheid and African independence.
This contradiction is amply typified in the character of Lance Spearman, the impossibly cool detective featured in the Drum-owned African Film photo comics series. “He is the black James Bond and the most popular fictional character in Africa today,” wrote Stanley Meisler, a Los Angeles Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent, in 1968.
Perhaps better known for his highbrow 2008 biography of Kofi Annan, Meisler’s LA Times report from Nairobi offers a penetrating insight into the pragmatics of grafting Westernised literary myths on to an African setting. Take the complicated production underpinning The Spear series, as it was billed. Like Fearless Fang and other Drum properties, it was written by authors based in Johannesburg and photographed by white photographers using a team of black actors in Swaziland.
The Fordist assembly process extended to design and printing, which was handled in London. Tellingly, the copies distributed outside South Africa carried no reference to Drum. It was a crucial subterfuge: The Spear’s circulation figures topped 100 000 in West Africa alone, two-thirds of the total continental sales.
A former Durban “houseboy” and piano player, Jore Mkwanazi, played the debonair agent with a goatee and Panama hat. Discovered by photographer Stanley N Bunn, Mkwanazi went from earning $35 a month to $215 in his new role as a pre-blaxploitation liberation icon
In tandem with Drum-owned photo comics like The Spear, which catered to a newly empowered black urban readership in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, Durban publisher Republican Press refined a similarly profitable series of pulpy stories for a local market.
Growing an empire
Best known for publishing the photo comics Tessa and Kid Colt as well as the Playboy knockoff Scope, the story of Republican Press is itself the stuff of pulp fiction.
After graduating from high school, Machadodorp-born publisher Hint Hyman briefly panned for gold in nearby Barberton before taking up an editorial job at Die Vaderland newspaper in Pretoria. According to his 1998 obituary, published in Volksblad, it was while working as a newsman in Pretoria that he met Severus Gerhardus “Sep” Smidt, a prolific author producing genre-based fiction for the burgeoning Afrikaans market. Smidt’s noms de plume included Adriaan Roodt, Donald Fouché and Johann van der Post.
In the 1950s Hyman, his wife Baby, brother Boet and literary pal Sep moved to Koffiefontein, a small Free State farming town close to Mafikeng and Kimberley. The quartet’s first foray into mainstream publishing was the magazine Keur. Buyouts and consolidations soon resulted in the fledgling publishing business moving to Bloemfontein, where the Hymans established the Afrikaans weekly Ster (Star).
With only radio as a rival, their earliest photo comic, Kyk (Look), became a huge money-making proposition.
“The photo stories were the foundation,” explained Ron Roderik, a retired executive from the defunct Republican Press. “They gave Republican the opportunity to go into the magazine market. The Hymans got sufficient wealth to buy into established magazines like Garden & Home.”
According to Roderick, who joined the company as a print apprentice in 1968, the business truly came into its own when it acquired a German gravure press capable of printing 32 pages in one revolution — it was purportedly the same press the Nazis had used to print fake pounds sterling during the war. Too big to transport upcountry, its new owners did the next best thing: they relocated their publishing business to Durban.
At its height the Mobeni-based Republican Press was printing 20 photo comics a month. Shot on various locations in Durban’s smelly south, the actors were locals scouted in Durban’s white working-class neighbourhoods. Appearance fees were negligible. The male actors were “generally eccentric”, “hard-living” and “womanisers”, according to Roderik.
Sales of the photo comics averaged about 30 000 units an issue. In 1963 an A4-scaled black-and-white issue of Kyk cost 15c. By the late 1970s, when in true pulp-style individual issues were no longer date-stamped, an A5-size issue of Tessa, which in its original form starred Erna van der Westhuisen as a bikini-clad and karate-kicking government agent, cost 40c. In its autumn years, when Tessa and Kid Colt were delivered in a single A4-format before production stopped in 1995, the photo comic cost R1.55.
Now increasingly hard to find, vintage 1960s copies of Kyk are priced upwards of R100 at Collectors Treasury in Commissioner Street. I recently paid R80 for a mid-1980s copy of Die Swart Luiperd (The Black Leopard) to Pretoria book dealer André van Tubbergh, who started out as a flea-market trader in 1991 and now owns three stores.
An accountant by training, Van Tubbergh became interested in popular Afrikaans fiction when he sold his business and was slapped with a restraint of trade. A kind of amateur literary historian, he manages the website springbokboeke.co.za, an invaluable catalogue of popular pulp series that cross-references authors by their pseudonyms.
The website fills in the many gaps evident on Jungle Jim’s web page, which has a small image gallery devoted to locally published photo comics. They include an issue of Swart Luiperd, a cowboy-themed photo comic set in the Lowveld. Its chief protagonist, Baron Rolf du Plessis, wears a panther mask.
It was Van Tubbergh who pointed me to a text-only pulp fiction series of the same name. Initially written by Braam le Roux and later continued by Meiring Fouche, the series revolves around the adventures of a Transvaal farmer named Leon Fouche. Prone to wilderness urges, Fouche would set off for far-flung places on his horse, Ou Donker (Old Darkie), accompanied by his trusted tigers, Simson and Spikkels.
In an undated copy from the 1980s he visits Tanzania, where he foils a gun-smuggling racket on the Malawi border. “The indigenous population are not baboons,” the masked adventurer is briefed on arrival. “All they need is weapons. They possess enough willpower and have sufficient rage to wipe out every white in Malawi if we don’t take action.”
The blatancy of the racism, which pits conniving and clever but necessarily primitive black Africans against muscular white frontiersmen, insinuates itself into many Afrikaans pulp adventures. Baasskap (being the boss) is a hallmark of the language: it is already well entrenched in Mikro’s 1934 soapy farm novel, Toiings.
An archetypal work of the adventure genre is Casper H Marais’s Rooi Jan (Red John) series. Set during the time of the great movements of Afrikaner farmers north, the 1950 launch issue was originally titled Skrik van Kafferland (Terror of Kaffirland). Complaints led to its hasty withdrawal and reissue as Skrik van die Wildernis (Terror of the Wilderness). The original is valued upwards of R750 on the collectors’ market.
In a recent New Yorker article focussing on the guilty pleasures of pulps, Arthur Krystal judiciously warns that, in an effort to recognise and raise up the formerly downtrodden, “a spirit of revision can lead to overvaluation”. For the most part, this hasn’t happened with local pulps — for good reason.
Still, one wonders if one day, when all the hullabaloo and fuss around crime fiction as literature has settled, some intrepid literary historian will make the time to sift the wheat from the chaff and, like GK Chesterton and George Orwell, admit that there is a place in our literary history for “good bad books”.