African artists draw up new breed of superheroes

A rising generation of African comic book artists are tackling the bloodshed, corruption and absurdities of daily life, winning adoring audiences at home and a growing fan base abroad.

Comics from Sudan to South Africa are on display at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest show of its kind, giving some an unprecedented opportunity to reach a global audience with their biting observations.

Between the covers of an seemlingly harmless comic, many Africans have found a powerful political weapon.

“To sensitise young people who often don’t go to school, the comic book represents an ideal means of spreading information using pictures, writing and in a sense the oral tradition—the foundation of African civilisation,” said Andrea Reggiani of Italy, who has completed an anthology of the genre.

“You can photocopy a page and show it to 10 or 100 people. It’s more efficient than more sophisticated means of spreading information.”

For more than a decade, the European Union-funded journal Africa e Mediterraneo has been helping African comic book artists publish their works in countries where the cost of paper and the poverty of the potential audience can be insurmountable obstacles.

But for some, economic factors are only part of the problem. In the face of political oppression, many of the leading lights of the genre have opted for exile in Europe.

The comics on show in Frankfurt, Western Germany, are unflinchingly true-to-life.
The violence so common among standard superhero books is all too real in many of these volumes.

The Gnasville Cop by Titi Faustin of Côte d’Ivoire presents the bitingly ironic memoirs of a police officer on the verge of retirement who looks back on a career of beating and torturing prisoners in over-populated jails.

A black-and-white comic called A small history of Norbert Zongo, alias Henri Sebgo by Burkina Faso’s Timpous describes the tragic fate of a journalist assassinated for criticising the state.

In And the World Will Abandon Us. History of the Rwandan Genocide, Jean-Claude Ngumire tells a fateful Romeo-and-Juliet love story between a Hutu and a Tutsi.

But not all the continent’s comics are steeped in tragedy.

Alfonse Mendu presented the amusing aventures of Goorgoorlou, a man in Dakar who meets an apparition resembling the director of the International Monetary Fund.

But despite stars of the genre such as the Nigerian Tayo Fatumla who works for New Yorker magazine, African comic artists still face an uphill battle for survival.

“Because Africa has few publishing houses, the artists end up getting discouraged. They tell themselves they will never manage to tell a wider audience about their lives,” said comic book author Christophe N’Galle Edimo of Cameroon who lives in France and runs an African comics association.

He said many African artists end up selling out when the reach the West in a short-sighted attempt at marketability.

“Some choose to copy the style the Europeans use when they draw African and settle for rosy topics that avoid political or tribal issues,” he said.

As Africa e Mediterraneo noted in a recent issue, “Africa suffers from a lack of its own image and remains cornered by the image given to it by the media.”

The 56th annual Frankfurt Book Fair opened on Wednesday to the global publishing industry and runs until Sunday. - Sapa-AFP

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