African Avengers: the comic book creators shaking up superhero genre

With the honest exception of Black Panther, for years comic book superheroes have mainly been white but new artists aims to change all that

Comic volumes might be good at imagining alien worlds and gritty fictional cityscapes, but when it comes to depictions of real-life other countries, perhaps sometimes not so much.

DCs Superman/ Wonder Woman annual release recently accidentally permitted a placeholder caption to go through to production which said the dialogue in one scene was translated from Pakistanian there being no such speech, of course, with Urdu being the primary tongue spoken in Pakistan.

And just days later Marvel had Spider-Man visit Cuba in his own title where the Puerto Rican flag was flying. The volumes editors rapidly moved to apologise on social media and rectified the error in the digital edition.

Africa and African characters have particularly had a raw deal, historically, 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( shes actually African Native American, and the recipient of a Nina Simone Artistic Achievement award for her comics run) says, You may only assure the starving, warring, barren wastelands or the dangerous mosquito-ridden jungles of the Congo. Youll merely get simple lives of tribal men and warlords because someone didnt 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, altogether overlooking the most recent accomplishments the entire continent has advanced to in the last several thousand years. Its lazy, really.

Things might be seeming 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 TChalla, ruler of the fictional African country Wakanda but its hardly astounding that after decades of a comics landscape chiefly populated by white supermen, African creators and companies are eventually doing it for themselves.


Nigerias Guardian Prime: a superhero for a new epoch. Photograph: Comic Republic

Enter Comic Republic, a Nigerian publishing home set up in 2013 which has a stable of titles and characters that are being dubbed the African Avengers among them Guardian Prime, an virtually Messianic Superman-analogue; super-smart bookworm Nutech, gifted with teletechnopathy and magnetism abilities; fearsome warrior-woman Ireti; super-fast Maxspeed.

Jide Martin, the founder and CEO of Comic Republic, says he defined the company up because there was a moral vacuum in the current generation, a general absence 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 dont believe Africa and Africans are well represented in mainstream western comics. That is why we are here … to devote 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 tales based on diverse characters, from regions of the world that dont get enough attention.

His creation, for which hes operating a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to finance a graphic fiction, is EXO, a superhero in near-future Lagos in the year 2025.

A panel from EXO, a superhero in Lagos. Photograph: Roye Okupe

I moved to Washington DC in 2002 and boy was it a perfect hour. Thats when the whole superhero blockbuster genre started to taken away from, says Okupe. I recollect leaving the theater after Toby Maguires Spider-Man with teary eyes. I couldnt believe I had find a live-action Spider-Man. However, it was also the first time a light bulb set off in my head. I was like, hold up … Wouldnt it be cool to someday go into a theater and watch a superhero movie based on an African character?

Okupe grew up on a diet of cartoons such as Batman, Ninja Turtles and Transformers it was hard get comics in Lagos, they were in highly short supply and says, If youre a casual comic book/ superhero fan you probably cant name one African superhero. Even some hardcore comic book fans cannot go past naming Black Panther and[ the X-Mens] Storm. I feel like its period for that to change. And we as African creators need to step our game up and not just make African and in my instance Nigerian characters just for the sake of it, but actually render great ones, with great stories.

Its important for all African comics creators to present 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, astounding city architecture, unique culture, African humor, Afrofuturism a side that is not regularly shown in mainstream media.

But I feel like the onus is on us as African/ African American inventors( and diverse inventors in general) to put more of our own narratives out there by any means possible.


EXO exerts some powers. Photograph: Roye Okupe

Martin of Comic Republic concurs. The potentials 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 wouldnt be that difficult, according to Richardson. We live in an datum age, she says. Run 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 amusement in general, will paint a very one-sided representation of Countries in africa and its people. I imagine the world would have an overshadowed opinion of the United States if all that was ever seen of its people were the ghettos, the impoverished, the starving and the vitriolic, youd probably not want to visit.

I am not a person who will complain about something if I am not contributing or strategizing 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 Im typifying as accurately as possible.

But if it doesnt change in my local superheros world, Im not going to sweat it. I dont look to fiction to teach me about world culture. It simply means there will be plenty of scenes yet to be painted on my pages that the heroes of today have yet to walk on.

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