Meet the African Avengers, heroes of a new age
Black comic book artists challenge the dominance of white superheroes
Comic books might be good at imagining alien worlds and gritty fictional cityscapes, but when it comes to depictions of real-life countries, they can fall down.
DC’s Superman/Wonder Woman annual release recently accidentally allowed a placeholder caption to go through to production which said the dialogue in one scene was translated from “Pakistanian” – there being no such language, of course, with Urdu being the primary tongue spoken in Pakistan.
Days later Marvel had Spider-Man visit Cuba in his own title … where the Puerto Rican flag was flying. The book’s editors quickly moved to apologise on social media and rectified the error in the digital edition.
Africa and African characters have particularly had a raw deal in US comics. A diverse continent seems to get boiled down to one or two stereotypes. Afua Richardson, one of the few African American artists working for the big companies such as Marvel (she’s actually African Native American, and the recipient of a Nina Simone Artistic Achievement award for her comics work) says, “You may only see the starving, warring, barren wastelands or the dangerous mosquito-ridden jungles of the Congo. You’ll only get simple lives of tribal men and warlords because someone didn’t want to do a little research. Or, if there is to be some kind of fictional narrative of African hierarchy it will be reserved for an over-dramatisation of Egyptian dynasties, totally overlooking the recent accomplishments the entire continent has advanced to in the last several thousand years. It’s lazy, really.”
Things might be looking up – New York Times bestselling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has been brought on board by Marvel to write the adventures of one of its few truly African characters, the Black Panther, aka T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country Wakanda – but it’s hardly surprising that after decades of a landscape mainly populated by white supermen, African creators and companies are finally doing it for themselves.
Enter Comic Republic, a Nigerian publishing house set up in 2013 which has a stable of titles and characters that are being dubbed the “African Avengers” – among them Guardian Prime, an almost messianic Superman analogue; super-smart bookworm Nutech, gifted with “teletechnopathy and magnetism”; fearsome warrior woman Ireti and super fast Maxspeed.
Jide Martin, founder and CEO of Comic Republic, says he set the company up because “there was a moral vacuum in the present generation, a general lack of icons. People stopped believing in the institutions of old. To fill this gap, I went back to my childhood and I remembered that I used to reflect on what Superman or Batman would do when I wanted to make decisions; so I decided to use the same medium to give this and the next generation something to believe in.
“I don’t think Africa and Africans are well represented in mainstream Western comics. That is why we are here ... to give us a place in this genre and to show the world what Africans are capable of.”
Interestingly, half the digital downloads from Comic Republic come from outside Africa – specifically, the US and the UK. Martin says the general response has been “amazing” and adds: “Africa and the world in general has welcomed us with open arms and we are grateful.”
Nigeria certainly seems to be the locus of the burgeoning African comics explosion. Roye Okupe was born in Lagos and relocated to Washington DC when he was 17 to attend George Washington University. The self-proclaimed “unapologetic super-nerd” set up his own company, YouNeek Studios, in 2012 with, he says, “a mission to create superhero stories based on diverse characters, from parts of the world that don’t get enough attention”.
His creation, for which he’s running a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to finance a graphic novel , is EXO, a superhero in Lagos in the year 2025.
“I moved to Washington DC in 2002 and boy was it a perfect time. That’s when the whole superhero blockbuster genre started to take off,” says Okupe. “I remember leaving the theatre after Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man with teary eyes. I couldn’t believe I had seen a live-action Spider-Man. However, a light bulb went off in my head. I was like, hold up ... Wouldn’t it be cool to someday go into a theatre and watch a superhero movie based on an African character?”
Okupe grew up on a diet of cartoons such as Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers – “it was hard getting comics in Lagos, they were in extremely short supply” – and says: “If you’re a casual comic book/superhero fan you probably can’t name one African superhero. Even some hardcore comic book fans cannot go past Black Panther and [the X-Men’s] Storm. I feel like it’s time for that to change. And we as African creators need to step up our game and not produce African – in my case Nigerian – characters just for the sake of it, but actually produce great ones, with great stories.”
It’s important for all African comics creators to show the real Africa – not the “barren wastelands” Richardson mentioned. Okupe says, “I want them to see a different side of Nigeria, our booming tech industry, amazing city architecture, unique culture, African humour, Afrofuturism … a side that is not regularly shown in mainstream media.
“But I feel like the onus is on us as African/African American creators (and diverse creators in general) to put more of our own stories out there by any means possible.”
Martin of Comic Republic agrees. “The possibilities are endless. There is a rise in the desire for diverse content. African comic creators can own this space.”
And could the rise of the African comic industry also herald a sea-change in the way the continent is portrayed in mainstream comics over here? It wouldn’t be that difficult, according to Richardson. “We live in an information age,” she says. “Go out and do a little damn reading. No one is keeping that from you. But this is a great opportunity for someone to tap into a narrative not yet being utilised. I notice fictional media and entertainment in general, will paint a very one-sided representation of African countries and its people. I imagine the world would have an obscured view of the United States if all that was ever seen of its people were the ghettos, the impoverished, the starving and the vitriolic, you’d probably not want to visit.
“I am not a person who will complain about something if I am not contributing or strategising towards its betterment. So when I write more of my own comics in the future, I will be sure to do research into what culture I’m symbolising as accurately as possible.
“But if it doesn’t change in my local superhero’s world, I’m not going to sweat it. I don’t look to fiction to teach me about world culture. It just means there will be plenty of scenes yet to be painted on my pages that the heroes of today have yet to walk on.”