7 Jul 2011

WHAT IS AFRICAN?

I have been yammering on and on about how annoying it is that book publishers turn down urban themed books in Kenya because they aren't "African" so I'm on a quest to find out what is African according to these editors and what the readers would want to see in their books.
LWANDA MAGERE (Pinched from Google)
I read the Lwanda Magere comic book that came out not toooooo long ago. It wasn't bad besides the excessive focus on pin-ups rather than a sequence of panels. I was pleased when I read it because I thought FINALLY we are getting comics published. Staying with the subject I found myself at a party two years ago with members of the Blackstar Entertainment company. I had heard that they were planning to get into comic book publication (Two years later I wonder how that went) so I approached Brian Smallz who was in attendance. We discussed comic books and Blackstar's plans for the same and this is what he thought.

We want to launch comic books that will be relevant to the youth in Kenya. Lwanda Magere was cool but who in Nairobi today will find that story relatable? I want something that young guys will see and feel like its in line with what they go through or experience.

He then proceeded to pull-out his iPhone to show me what kind of comics he would like to see. This was a funny moment because the comic he showed me was my own. I had been circulating a portion of a comic I was drawing and it landed in his hands. What are the odds right? We parted ways and promised to communicate but I later discovered he was a tough man to reach. We haven't spoken since.
Alright, so coming from a potential publisher, spears, arrows and mud-huts just won't cut it with urban youth. So again I ask, what is African?
In an era where we are all chasing technology and cramming names of designers to the point where some Kenyan ladies can identify a foreign designer just by looking at a dress, what's going on with comics? Our leaders wear, drive and use foreign, kids are up-to-speed with gadgets as they are launched abroad and don't get me started on the slang... I'm just trying to understand how everything about us is foreign but when we throw in iPads, spandex suits and super powers in our comic books SUDDENLY we are not being African.
If I were to ask my target audience when they last saw a mud hut or tended to livestock in the fields I would get blank stares and possibly roaring laughter. If I were to push it and talk about planting in the farms and going for village meetings they would walk away. So as a comic book writer and artist, what is African? Are we being just a tad bit unrealistic?
My sister, who is a writer herself constantly nags me on how westernised my comic books are. I find this rather interesting because I've read a good chunk of her pieces and in none of them did I see "African" philosophies being pushed. They are centred around our modern lifestyles. I guess because we can't physically see her characters then she can get away with it and I cant.
I can go on and on for days with this but I guess what I'm saying here is; You don't like local shows because they aren't as good as the international ones you watch. You claim that America is making millions with Tarzan, Thor, Karate Kid, The Loch Ness Monster, Godzilla and goodness knows how many other traditional concepts they have no connection with. So how about this, you let me do my "unAfrican" stories as beautifully as those of the west that you enjoy and let me capitalise on what isn't mine. That way you get the quality that you want from a Kenyan and I get the market that I want just like the Americans have done over the years.
Isn't that fair?

22 comments:

  1. Yes, i think too much emphasis is put on the African "setting"
    This entirely misses the point of storytelling. Stories aren't really about the set, heck even the plot is just an aspect. Stories are about people.It's why we can read about owning dragons, brandishing wands, flying and the like without relating to the actual "world" its set in. If we relate with the characters or understand them then setting shouldn't matter so much.
    I can see possibilities of making the African idea amazing, but it shouldnt be the only option

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  2. Shujaaz is a nice comic that is still African and modern at the same time (although sometimes I feel they try too hard to be street).

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  3. That's all I'm saying Kev. The setting is the smallest of details when you look at the bigger picture. You don't have to be white living in America to love and identify with Batman.

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  4. @Grey_Rok true. If we are modern now, evolution is the most practical step. What will we gain from fighting modernity when our target audience IS modern?

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  5. By the way, how did you sis answer when you asked how African her work is?

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  6. I don't know if this veers off the topic, but setting and characters aside. I think all we really need to do is be 'human' in creating a character. Then nothing else matters. If your reader can relate to one aspect or trait and think "I know how that feels", you've hooked them.

    Shujaaz does it for a certain audience - even though it has constraints that still limit it from full exploring a story (perhaps this is an art that will be perfected with time).

    But there are certain books and comics that are universal and cross not only racial and regional boundaries, but boundaries of time as well (so that 'modern' doesn't come into play at all). Those are the Classics. And that's the kind of stuff everyone wants to produce. Something that hits home.

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  7. I never asked her. I support her :)

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  8. @peppermintprose That's what I think, in all stories I like characters. Even with TV shows, I like Denozo(sp) on NCIS, Patrick Jane on Mentalist, etc. The shows that I don't like are those with poor character development.
    You can watch Spartacus, Police Academy, Lie To Me, Seventh Heaven and Papa Shirandula and love ALL of them. VERY DIFFERENT setting for all but the characters make each relatable.

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  9. @Mel Man: Oddly enough, while I can *speak* about how the shows you mentioned relate to people, I have found that personally, there is a disconnect even in them for me.

    This is probably an audience/niche/genre issue, but increasingly, as a Muslim I find myself alienated more and more from media productions with every year.

    I can relate to books and movies from the early eras, watch them and enjoy them thorougly - but modern stuff? Sometimes I'm left *knowing* what the intended message is and even empathizing with it - but only because I understand the social norms of other societies. It doesn't *connect* with me.

    This could be personal, but with my trawling through the internet, I have found small, growing pockets of people - not always of my faith - who feel the same way. That in the pursuit of being 'real', storytellers sometimes cross boundaries that leave many of us uncomfortable, lost and going 'eh? was that really necessary?'.

    For some reason the shock-factor seems to be overtaking the soul-factor. I think sometimes new stories lean towards the quantity of former, while the golden-oldies were a lot about the quality of the latter.

    (I'm naturally generalizing a lot here.)

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  10. I knew when I spoke of TV I was running that risk. The unfortunate thing with the Kenyan entertainment industry is that it doesn't have that many comics to begin with so we have to veer away from the platform and talk about other mediums of entertainment that may bring out our points.

    That being said there is too much out there (even cartoons) that cannot be watched now because it has gone beyond entertainment. The reason for your discomfort is that there are "subtle" themes that are being pushed through entertainment that are meant to make you comfortable with societal evils. As far fetched as it sounds, there is a nefarious organization that is pushing these agendas through all forms of media because of the power of the media. Watch TV now and see how many things you accept today that were unheard of in the 90s.

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  11. My point exactly. Especially the last sentence. You don't even have to go back to the 90s. The way things are moving now, a couple of years is enough :| The 'Generation Gap' that used to span a lifetime now can be literally counted in months.

    Thing is with the 'holistic' approach everyone aims for these days, whatever is in one medium spills over to others so comic to movies to merchandise to clothing...to the mindset and trends of the major impressionable age-set: tweens and teens.

    Media brainwashing starts a whole lot earlier for kids these days and by the time they are adults, they've been bombarded by so much, it's a wonder they have any sense of identity.

    Which is perhaps why I keep pulling back and trying to see the bigger picture and long-term effects of everything, especially something that has the capacity to really drive home the subtle messages - art and creativity.

    Guess we can only watch and be aware so we make conscious choices :)

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  12. It feels like trying to cure cancer doesn't it? It's a cancer in itself though? From my stand-point it doesn't seem very curable.

    I may not write stories in the manner that Shujaa does but I feel I will eventually do my part. I'm heavily invested in family themes and I love good clean entertainment (Disney XD style) so whatever happens beyond my comic book pages and forums will happen. All I can do is hope.

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  13. It does feel cancerous. Especially when you see those closest to you succumb to it as well.

    But then, I guess it's been that way with every generation? As in the evils have always been there, but it's just with our times and the technology we have at hand, we're now rushing headlong faster towards the implosion that is inevitable. It's the cycle of every civilization and I believe we hit our peak a long time ago, now it's the downward swing and picking up speed with every day.

    The only thing to do is brace ourselves and be ready to pioneer the next upward swing. The few who are aware and ready will be the ones with enough presence of mind to pick up the pieces. And perhaps visual arts will be the only way to reach out and appeal to the masses then.

    Which reminds me of Isaac Asimov's 'Nightfall'. I think that book is almost prophetic of our current society...while being set in a totally alien world / circumstance. An uber-classic example of one of the universal stories I was talking about. You should get your hands on it and read it.

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  14. I guess that's the logical assumption. We can only sink so low then the only way left to go will be back up. Sounds like a fun responsibility though.

    I have lots of friends who prefer Family Guy over The Simpsons because Family Guy is "more adult" which is just code for dirty but there's only so much garbage you can put in. Eventually, like all things you shouldn't consume, it will begin to tell on you.

    I will find that and read it. I'm always up for "food for thought" kinda stuff.

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  15. I read somewhere that the Lifecycle of A Civilization goes something like this:
    "bondage > spiritual faith > great courage > liberty > abundance > complacency > apathy > dependence > bondage >..."

    I know this is just an opinion/ theory, but I think it makes a lot of sense and that we're probably in the last few stages right now.

    Thing is, even with comics and cartoons and movies, the 'adult' content seems to be the only way to prove that one is 'mature' these days. So boring stuff like morality and integrity don't count because hey, who wants to try hard and put in some effort at being responsible if you can be 'adult' just by watching some nonsense and being 'cool' with it, right? GIGO is so true that the quality of life is going down to sub-zero in some places :(

    And yet, there are still pockets of inspiration here and there. Still the same old 'simple' stories that touch us at our human core and awaken us to something unadulterated and a lot more true to our natures than the lives we currently try to live.

    Tapping into that source is the challenge, and like you said, it has an element of excitement and change in it for anyone willing to get off the bandwagon :)

    I hope you do find the book. Lemme know what you think of it twhen you do.

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  16. That cycle sounds about right. This would be a good time to be a non-conformist. lol. At least you get to be right. Its good not to be on the bandwagon because its pretty crowded right now.

    I will holler if I find it :)

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  17. dude, since primary school,your comics have always always been thoroughly enjoyable to read. mostly cause they are just an expression of your creativity and not bowed by influences from anyone who thinks it should be a certain way. support all the way!

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  18. American writers and producers have found ways to earn money from the 'old' and 'traditional', sometimes even all the way from Africa, by using different techniques, sometimes totally avant-garde techiniques. On Comics - Storm of Marvel Comics is an african princess (Ororo Iqadi T'Challa), born out of the blue eyed black princess legend of upper southern africa. One of my favorite episodes on Moonlight used an aztec-mexican legend of an evil high priest from the great aztec empire, and brought if forward in the 'ressurect' formula. It is not that we don't have great stories, or that we lack talented writers, but somehow we need to free ourselves from the fear of the new, from the fear of discovery. That's why I am so proud of Kenyan artists like you, who dare to explore, and conquer.

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  19. I like what you're saying, we should be free to explore different aspects of international culture without being condemned for deviating from our roots. If my story sells to a world audience then I've done my part as a Kenyan to draw attention to my country.
    When you see "Art by Humberto Ramos" or "Art by Mike Deodato" you immediately think of Hispanic origins and think, "Artists from Spain and/or Mexico are really good" That should be a good thing, not an act of cultural disrespect.

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