African comics continue to rise in their collective success. In order to better understand them, there is a need to sort and categorize the products and our expectations going forward. Before we can answer whether or not to categorize African comics as indie, we must also fairly outline what is considered African and what is “indie.”
Narratively speaking, “African comics” might include works based on or derived from African cultures, trends, or specific historical events such as work created in the African American comic book spaces. The truth is African comic books and African American, or even Afro European comics, are almost wholly unrelated from each other.
Searches for “African comic books” yield results such as Muju Juju published by Vortex Comics in Nigeria, True Ananse published by Leti Arts in Ghana, Kwezi published by Loyiso Mkize Art in South Africa as well as other comic books created and or published on the continent (Horne, 2016).
In contrast, searches for “African American comic books” bring up “black comic books” results such as CBR.com’s 15 Black Creator-Owned Comics That Are Essential Reading or 15 Black Comic Artists Whose Work You Need to Read (Stone, 2020a; 2020b).
Economically speaking, the views per book, sales, profit generation, and any potential market growth by the latter would be outside of African shores and pockets. Therefore, for this article’s purpose, the best description of African comics is the most straight forward one, “comics produced in or by people from Africa.”
More commonly called “indie,” independent comics are creator-owned, small press, or self-published comic books. Indie comics are, for many reasons, different from what is known to be mainstream comic books – differences, including the size of print runs, book dimension standards, and bargaining power with suppliers.
Within mainstream comic book publishing, it is commonplace for stories published by the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) and other large comic publishers to retain the rights to their characters, stories, and trademarks. Intellectual property belongs to the company as a whole and not to the individual creative teams.
Due to a lack of big publishing companies around the African continent, the vast majority of comics developed are self-published. The smaller companies are creator-owned small press entities who favor digital publication over print publication more often than not.
Kadi Yao Tay from Squid Mag and Somto Ajuluchukwu from Vortex Comics estimate around 80% of African comic publishers are strictly digital, as discussed on a New York Comic-Con panel (New York Comic Con, 2020). Given this information and the definitions above, it would be safe to assume that African comic books fall into the indie bracket and should be classified and treated as such.
However, there is a fair bit more nuance that needs to be considered. For instance, the term indie comic is almost exclusively geographically tied to the United States of America. Comics published in France (and Francophone countries), one of the three world leaders in comic books, is rarely given this terminology. They are simply French comics, “bande dessinée” or BD for short, literally meaning “comic strips.”
The third world leader in comics, Japan, has large companies such as Shonen Jump printing books that are creator-owned. These books also ignore these delineations of mainstream, indie, creator-owned, small or large press and are called “manga,” a word in Japanese collectively meaning “Japanese comic books and graphic novels”.
Webcomics published online on infinite canvases also fall outside of the term indie comic though they are creator-owned and self-published via different hosting websites such as Webtoons and Tapas.
Interestingly with these words bandes dessinées, manga, manhua (Korean), and other country-specific or language specific terminology for comics, there is an opportunity for African countries to find and create their own terms. Potentially more than 54 new words that give each country their own identities and move away from the “Africa is a country” narrative. Ethiopian comic book writer Beserat Debebe has noted that comic books and graphic novels from his country should be called “Sensi’il” ሰንስዕል (Debebe, 2020).
The key takeaway is that what works in the west does not necessarily or easily translate to the rest of the world. Ideally, as time goes, Africa will set its own benchmarks for formats, standards, and what each country will consider normalcy. At present, the most visible countries in Africa that produce comic books work with a balance of country and region-specific printing, marketing, and publication models.
In South Africa, where the comparatively high number of comic book conventions creates low barriers to entry for new entrants to the market, there is a significantly increased number of self-published comic books debuting per event.
They also lay claim to the world-renowned success of Supa Strikaz, the football comic that printed 1.4 million copies per month – a comic that followed a sponsorship model rather than the publishing binary, as discussed above.
Zimbabwe and Zambia have found growth in an anthology model, with Comic Up and Sam Graphico Anthology respectively, that bundle several unrelated titles into a single book. This ultimately circumvents some of the burdens of self-publishing.
The disadvantages of self-publishing include but are not limited to: negotiating with printers and other resource providers along the comic supply chain, registration of ISBNs, hiring proofreaders and editors per issue, managing inventory and shipment, marketing, advertising, and so on.
Many creative talents would like to simply create the content. The business-end managerial side of publishing may not be their forte nor in their interest. The collaborative effort of differently-skilled hands on an anthology offers the best middle-ground solution for their projects.
Kenya and Ghana have seen a rise in local comic apps, particularly Leti Art’s Afrocomix app. Apps that offer self-published low-cost creators a commonplace for readers to find otherwise difficult to source content. With this model, the app creators gain content, the comic creators gain visibility and a potentially broader reading base, the readers gain variety and an easy, secure, single payment gateway.
Similarly, publishers in Nigeria offer websites with the same operating framework as the above apps, most notably Peda Entertainment whose founder Peter Chizoba Daniel created a children’s comic that has sold over 50000 copies.
The variety of publishers who work primarily via websites and apps often work to mirror Netflix’s subscription model. Rather than buying single issues from the platforms, their offer is a low-cost monthly payment for all their content.
Interestingly, with the relatively low start-up cost of these websites and app platforms, you’ll find content creators spreading their books over many publishers. Vortex Comics in Nigeria has made efforts to acquisition and onboard comic books from throughout the continent onto their platform. To incentivize customers to choose their platform over their rivals, these publishers will add platform-specific content, exclusives, and original content, much like Netflix originals that can’t be found on Hulu or HBOMAX.
Comic creators in Ethiopia and Nigeria have also found publishing success in the crowdfunding route. Arguably a form of sponsorship, the investment and initial capital for printing, paying artists, and shipping costs are all covered before or midway through serious production deadlines. Platforms like Kickstarter, which typically aren’t available in African countries, offer a unique delivery and distribution methodology.
With all the above, revisiting the question is essential. Are comic books from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria indie? Do they fulfil the qualifiers for being called independent publications? Do they need to, or will they become something else entirely?
Written by Bill Masuku.
About Bill Masuku
Bill Masuku is a 25 year-old comic book artist and writer, born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is the founder of Enigma Comix Africa, as well as the creator of Razor-Man and Captain South Africa. The former of his works has gained him growing acclaim in his hometown spearheading the local comic industry forward and has consistently appeared in all Kugali Anthologies so far.
Debebe, B. (2020) 3 September. Available at https://twitter.com/etancomics/status/1301566326268399619 (Accessed: 7 November 2020).
Horne, K. (2020). Africa Rising: Keep Your Eye on These African Comics. Available at: http://theblerdgurl.com/comics/the-rise-of-african-comics/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).
New York Comic-Con (2020). Enter The Vortex – Digital Publishing in Africa. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp95d73vVAo (Accessed: 7 November 2020).
Stone, S. (2020a). 15 Black Creator-Owned Comics That Are Essential Reading. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp95d73vVAo (Accessed: 7 November 2020).
Stone, S. (2020b). Enter 15 Black Comic Artists Whose Work You Need to Read. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp95d73vVAo (Accessed: 7 November 2020).
New York Comic-Con (2020). Africa’s Growing Comic Scene | Insights into the Spirit Universe of African Comics. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He8fAIGI9zg (Accessed: 7 November 2020).
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