onsdag 26. juli 2017

Looking at the stars

We’re borrowing an entire art form from the west, but we’re merging that art form with our stories, says South African comic creator Loyiso Mkize. With his superhero comic “Kwezi”, he is trying to add a distinctively African flavour to the genre. 

Loyiso Mkize

What made you decide to try making comics?

I grew up on comics, and I was into superheroes from a very young age. I come from Butterworth, a small town in the Eastern Cape. Whenever we went to East London (a city in the district), to our nearest C&A, which at the time sold comic books, I’d get the material from there. My first introduction to any art form was comic books, and as I grew up, my folks introduced me to fine arts as well, your typical art history stuff. I got into comic books, I suppose, purely because at my age. When I was seven or eight, I was illustrating and copying from Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men comic books, and just grew from there, expanded and expanded.

Your main superhero is called Kwezi. Can you explain the significance of that name, what does Kwezi mean?

Kwezi means “star” in Xhosa and Zulu. The idea, the premise of the story is that Kwezi, and other individuals, gets powers from a star – From the emergence of this star in a constellation. It’s anyone’s guess who would mirror that event to his name and create that link somehow. I just felt that naming him Kwezi made that link feel all the more tied in. The significance of it, I suppose, was the fact that I’ve been doing some research on African history and cultures, and I stumbled upon the Dogon tribe in Mali. They were into stars, constellations, and mapping up the skies. So I was wondering exactly what is their knowledge, and how far did that knowledge span, and where did that knowledge came from in this fairly primitive society.

So it’s one of these baffling, yet inspiring things, one of those little gems I found on the continent that speaks of great civilizations, and what we can extract from that. What can we tell, story-wise, about ourselves, about our culture, heritage and history? For me, superimposing all of this inspiration and all of these ideas, superimposing the superhero genre into it was second nature. I suppose I only needed an excuse to do that. But I’m telling a very contemporary story with contemporary characters, and Kwezi himself is a very young guy. But I’m using all these different cues from our cultures – So much stuff to be written about, and to be told.

So you take inspiration from African tradition and culture. But would you also say that you take inspiration more directly from the comic book classics?

Of course! Look, we’re borrowing an entire art form from the west. That’s always going to be the fact, but we’re merging that art form with our stories. I suppose the challenge is that, yes we’re creating superheroes, but what makes them different from the stuff we see from the west, how can we fit our stories into that world? For me, it became very easy when I realized that all I needed to do was to be South African and talk about stuff that I know. You walk out on the street in South Africa, and just geographically, that makes a difference, that’s grounds for telling a different story immediately. You don’t have to overthink how you’re going to do it, you just walk outside, you meet young people and you meet older people, you start engaging with people. All you have to do is be your best self.  Because at the end of the day, superheroes have always been about us, about exploring our greatest characteristics as human, and our greatest aspirations, and we load them onto these characters.

You have been building up a bit of an expanded universe here, but do you think you will continue to keep focus on Kwezi himself?  

There’s potential for spin-offs. From engaging with people who read “Kwezi”, I’ve seen interest in a spin-off with the female character Azania, for instance.  I’m not opposed to that. But what is very crucial to me, is to make sure that this comic book goes as far as possible in the industry – break new boundaries, write new norms as far as the comic book industry in South Africa is concerned. If I can develop as many milestones as possible with Kwezi, it will be easier for anything else that comes from my stable to be successful. The material must be accessible and relatable. Accessability to comic books is crucial.

Speaking of accessability, in Norway, the most common thing is still to buy comics at newsagents or supermarkets. Where have you found distribution channels for Kwezi?

Kwezi was, for the most part, until last year, self-published. Maybe it works differently in the States, for instance, but her in South Africa; number one, people want to be able to access it conveniently. Number two, they are just not as warm towards purchasing digital copies of a comic book. People still want the tangible copies. So I went the route of a publisher, David Phillips. Now we are distributed at Exclusive Books nationwide. They offer lots of exposure and accessability.  

Is it a new thing, to have a serious South African superhero?

It is definitely new.  It’s always been satirical, I’ve seen that. I think we just haven’t found a way of presenting a superhero in a serious sense, like your Clark Kents, like your Spider-Men, haven’t found a language, an accent, a way of reaching the South African audience in an authentic way. It’s not that people aren’t ready for serious material featuring a South African superhero. I think it’s just a matter of how we’re styling it, how we’re communicating with the people we’re making it for. Are we overlooking that they need a supehero that looks like them, and speaks like then, and doesn’t in any way patronize them? You want them to read as if they were reading about themselves.  I’ve really committed to creating comic books for South Africans, stuff that they can feel at home with.

And beyond that, it’ll be easier for anyone else from outside the country, because when they pick it up, they see something very exotic. Because the nature in which they are telling the story is so very different, so unique to them that we want to have it, because by reading this superhero comic, we’re sampling their culture. We’re getting an insight into who they are, how they behave, what are their moralities, their strengths, their beliefs, their standards - All this stuff that is nuanced within the panels of a comic book. These considerations make it that much more compelling for me not to try and write another Spider-Man. Because we already got a Spider-Man, and they’ve already successful exported their culture into our culture, and now we know their culture in such a way that we are actually using their art form to us to reciprocate.

How has the reception been?          

It’s been amazing! To be honesty, from the first time I published Kwezi, in 2014, I remember that the first sentiment from one of the first people who bought the first comic book, was that “finally we got our own superhero”.  That sentiment has matured to “How far can these guys take it? Because they are really doing well, but when is the animation coming?  When is the feature film coming?” So this is how high a standard they’ve set for this comic book, how confident they are in the property. And we’ve been in this industry for a long time, we know what a good comic book looks like, and we want the quality to be so good that we get that type of response. 

Loyiso and Kwezi has begun appearing at festivals

But no-one can prepare you for the type of response you get from the average Joes, people who wouldn’t necessarily buy comics, but know about superheroes from tv. We’ve activated a market in South Africa. That’s what people don’t realize, that beyond fan cons, there are millions of people who are waiting to be introduced to comic books. It doesn’t need to be niche, to be a small group. There are a lot of people who are readily accepting this stuff because everyone needs an escape, everyone needs material that they can look at and be like, wow man, this is really cool. Especially kids aged between eight and fifteen respond to “Kwezi” in such an authentic and inspiring way. Because of the work that we’ve done so far, we’ve set the bar very high for ourselves. Our job is just to make sure that we keep that consistent, and keep churning this stuff out.  

søndag 19. mars 2017


A Norwegian superhero comic is not unique. One that’s played completely straight is more unusual, and a superhero comic with ambitions of universe building is even more so.

The graphic novel 7: Trusselen Fra Dypet – “The threat from the depths” is the culmination of a comics project that has been is development for several years. Authors Ole Bernt Tollefsen and Kristian Landmark, both from the city of Kristiansand, Norway, first wanted to publish the give out the story of "7" as novel (or a series of novels), but were told by the publisher that it would make a better comic. Thus they came in contact with artist Kenneth Iversen from Kristiansand’s cartoon workshop. We are talking about a project that has had plenty of time to grow large and ambitious. For a Norwegian comics series, this can easily become a problem. In a country with a limited market and a shortage of professional comics artists for hire, it can be difficult to produce a sufficiently ambitious comic book - Especially if it’s intended to run for several volumes.

The obligatory "let me tell you why I have summoned you all here" scene
The first 7 graphic novel has roughly 100 pages. It's a good start, but the most impressive thing is that creators are taking their time with the story, and still manage to effectively introduce the readers to the 7 universe before the end of volume one. The readers’ identification figure is supposed to be Oscar from Kristiansand, but the comic is not particularly provincial in its nature. Very quickly, the story changes to an international focus, and several of the other characters have become as well developed as him in the course of the first 100 pages.

The foundation of a "7" toyline has already been laid, it would seem
Oscar is one of "The Chosen Ones" a small group of children aged 12 from around the world, all of whom are granted special abilities (i.e. super powers). The powers originated from the so-called Star People (the creators have suggested that they may not necessarily be aliens, but from the context it is difficult to see how they can be anything else) who visited Earth almost a thousand years ago. But the The Chosen Ones can only use their abilities between the aged 12 and 19 years, which according to the Star People is the age when young people have the right balance between a sense of responsibility and a sense of idealism - and therefore is the age when they are at least likely to abuse their abilities. When the Chosen Ones is about to reach 20, they must transfer their abilities to the next kid in line, or it will be lost forever. And of course there's an evil brotherhood, a terrorist organization that the Chosen Ones will have to fight. 

When a guy is both bald, scarred and a cyborg, you know he has to be bad.
Adolescents as heroes, an international group of heroes, superpowers of extraterrestrial origin and secret organizations ... all this is well-known tropes of the superhero genre. It can be very difficult to think of something original. But in Norwegian comics culture, which has such an ambivalent attitude towards superheroes, it is refreshing to see, not just an example a comic that’s being faithful of the genre, but also one that simply is very well made. The team behind 7 has clearly put a lot of time and effort into creating a series with a solid foundation, and with a history that is both engaging and has some root in our own world.

lørdag 25. februar 2017


Famed American non-fiction cartoonist visited Bergen, Norway, last weekend during the literature festival “Verden i Bergen” (The World in Bergen) to talk about non-fiction work in comics. Serienett had a word with her after her lectures.

                               Sarah Glidden, on the left, in the company of author Øyvind Vågnes (right) and Norwegian artist Lene Ask (middle)

What influenced you to specialize in documentary comics?

It’s something I just kind of moved into, from doing memoir comics and autobiographical comics. Journalism and non-fiction is just what I’m interested in, I’m just following my curiosity. In this instance, we curiosity was how journalism works in the first place. So I made a book about my friends, who were reporters, and followed them on a journalistic project that became this book. Through doing that, I learned more about how journalism is made, and it became something that I started doing myself. Journalism is a great excuse to just follow your curiosity and make work about it. 

Memoir and autobiography is in the same family as journalism. You’re telling the truth, writing and drawing what’s actually happened. For me it was easy to transition into this, for a lot of the memoirs I had done before, was related to current events. So it involved a lot of research, and a lot of looking into things that were happening in the world outside of my own life.

 Sarah had a break-through of sorts with "How to understand Israel in 60 Days or less", a graphic novel originally published by Vertigo/DC in 2010. This was based on her observations from a "Birthright Israel" journey that she underwent in 2007. It was succeeded by her largest body of work to date, "Rolling Blackouts", a graphic novel dealing with the war in Syria and Iraq. 

Aside from your Jewish heritage, what makes you take an interest in the Middle East?

I think the U.S. is obsessed with the Middle East, sometimes to the dethronement to other places we don’t pay attention to, what’s happening in. Latin America, for instance. Even though our politics are very much involved with Latin America for a long time. But the Middle East is where the media focuses. Even if I wasn’t Jewish, I’m coming from a place where it’s in the news every day. Obviously we have wars there, that we started, we have resources there that we would love to exploit. So it’s a place and a region that America has a lot of interest in, in general. For me, my interest grew after 9/11. Immediately we started talking about going to war. I was 21 at the time, and not really that plugged into what was going on. I didn’t know much about politics, and my reaction to that attack and the media coverage of it was: what exactly has our country been doing to the Middle East, why is this happening? So I really wanted to look into the politics of the region, and how America’s been involved there. You know the kind of stuff that’s not in the news every day, but you need to have the context to understand what’s going on.
The title "Rolling Blackouts" refers to electricity savings used in the Middle East, in this case in the Kurdi-Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah. 

How did you take an interest in making comics at all?

I always drew. I always knew I wanted to be some kind of artist since I was a kid, but I wasn’t really sure what kind. And now young girls have a lot more comics that they can identify with. But when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of comics that a girl could feel was made for her. And I’m not even talking about “girl comics”. There were boy comics, but there weren’t gender neutral comics.  At least that’s how it was in the States, I think it’s different in Europe. Now there’s tons, but when I grew up, it didn’t seem like something that was interesting and that I could do. I wasn’t interested in superhero comics, and it wasn’t until college that I started reading stuff like Maus and Persepolis and Joe Sacco’s work, and then I realized: Oh comics, can be about serious things, they can be about real life. It’s not like I read Sacco and was thinking, oh I can do that, It was more like I was reading these things and then I found other work from people who were doing journal comics. Like James Kochalka, who did “American Elf”, a daily comic about his life. That is when I said, oh okay, that’s maybe something I can do. I can do comics about my life, about “slice of life” stuff. And so it wasn’t until later, when I had done that for a while, that I felt comfortable trying to move into more serious subject matter.

Besides Sacco and Kochalka, do you have anyone you want to give honorable mention as inspirations?     

I don’t read a lot of comics, actually, I read more prose. And so a lot of my most major influences for the work that I do now, are journalists – Or just writers: David Foster Wallace’s outlook on the world really influenced me a lot, just because of the way he could look from the outside, but he also had a lot of empathy for human beings, he didn’t talk down to people.

The thing with journalists is they’re not often famous the way novelists are. But really good narrative journalism, I really love the work of Lawrence Wright, he did a book on scientology and another on Al-Qaida. And these journalists who do work on really complex things and make it accessible for a general audience.

During her lecture in Bergen’s House of Literature, Glidden explained how she works when she’s out in the field: She makes recordings of as much as possible, she makes very quick sketches whenever she’s at a place where the use of cameras is restricted, and otherwise photographs everything. While her artwork might be simplified, she wants it to be recognizable, so that a street corner in Damascus, for instance, looks the same in her comic as it does in real life.  

One of the reasons why Sarah Glidden takes so many pictures, is because she never knows what she will decide to focus on for good effect. A simple plastic chair, for instance, might make a foreign enviroment seem a little less foreign to the western reader.  

But when she gets home, with all of her recordings, sketches and photos, where does she go from there?

I start by transcribing things. Although these days, I don’t transcribe everything the way I did when I was working on Rolling Blackouts, but I go through all of my recordings and notes and tries to organize things into different sections, categorizing my reference material. It’s like I’m tangling a big knot. There’s not always one entry point, you can work with it from a lot of different angles. It’s like taking this mass of material you’ve gathered and try to figure out what your story is, what your angle is, and what are the universal themes you’re going to be looking at. I think that narrative non-fiction is not just the story about the thing it’s ostensibly about. You’re also trying to touch on other things that are more universal, that can speak to other issues besides the one that you’re reporting on.

Sarah would rather not have her characters use another language in the comics than when she met them in real life.

But do you feel it’s easier to gain people’s trust when they know you’re only going to expose them publicly in relatively simple drawings?

It’s easier to gain people’s trust, I think, because they don’t take you seriously - Maybe as a cartoonist, but also as a woman. A lot of times, especially when you talk to men, they’re not as intimidated by you. You’re just some lady with a sketchbook, and maybe they think that you’re not even going to publish this. And so I find that it’s easier to sneak in and have someone talk to you frankly because they’re not afraid of you, in a way. Which is nice, but it’d also be nice to have some respect sometimes.

Glidden’s next big project will be about climate change:

It’s still in the quite early stages, but I’m interested in doing some quite substantial work on this subject. I think that comics has the power to get people to look at something that they might otherwise ignore.  We see a lot of articles and images and text in our lives these days, but still a hand-drawn image makes people stop, and maybe it can trick them into reading something. And I think that climate change is something that, at least back home in the States, people either deny that is happening, or they know that it’s happening, but they just don’t want to look at it, because it’s too big, too sad or scary. And so I really want to use comics to talk about how it’s already affecting people all over the world. In the United States also, people are being displaced already by climate change, storms and drought.