African Superheroes Blog Series: Introduction – What is an African superhero?

By AiW Guest Tessa Pijnaker

This is the first of a series of posts on African superheroes, guest edited by Tessa Pijnaker, PhD student in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham. In this first post she introduces us to African superheroes and the scope of this series. Look out for more on African superheroes on AiW over coming months.

In 2018, when asked about African superheroes, most people will probably think of T’Challa, aka Black Panther. In the first three months after Black Panther’s release, this movie about Marvel’s black superhero, heir to the throne of the fictional high-tech African state Wakanda, became a huge success. It grossed almost 1.3 billion dollars worldwide, making it one of the ten highest grossing movies ever.[1]

When the movie was released across Africa, the impact of the movie on African audiences became clearly visible. The Economist reported that people from Lagos to Nairobi dressed up in Afro-futurist clothes for screenings.[2] On my Facebook feed, I noticed that many of my Ghanaian friends posted selfies of themselves and their friends all dressed up in Black Panther or superhero-inspired costumes in advance of seeing Black Panther.

On their timelines and in newspaper articles, African comic book and videogame developers expressed the hope that this movie would give their work more recognition.[3] In response to Black Panther, some academics eagerly organized popular-scientific events to about Afro-futurism, and at conferences I attended in the UK I noticed that speakers of African descent referred to the movie through subtle hand gestures, quotes and jokes about Wakanda. This showed that this superhero movie clearly meant a lot for Africans and people of African descent’s sense of recognition and representation. It also emphasized that superheroes not only reflect the ideas of their makers, but through their circulation and appropriation come to represent and influence different audiences in different ways.

But as much as it gained enormous public visibility, Black Panther is far from the only manifestation of African superheroes in recent years. In this blog series I set out to explore other videogames and comics about African superheroes produced in Africa, and to give a platform to their producers: to their dreams, achievements and challenges.

The blog series will consist of articles, Q&As, blogs written by developers, podcasts, and streams/short movies. At the end, I hope to not only have explored what motivates producers to make African superheroes, but also what an African superhero is, what the role is of digital technologies, and what the African superhero means to society.

Current media attention and research

In recent years, well-regarded media outlets such as the BBC and Al-Jazeera have increasingly paid attention to what they have generally described as this ‘new’ phenomenon of African superhero comic and videogame producers across the continent.

Academia has followed, and the study of African superhero comics in particular seems a rapidly emerging field of interest. For instance, in 2016, the Journal of African Cultural Studies published a special issue on Afro-superheroes, in which researchers such as James Yékú, Duncan Omanga, Ying Cheng, Rotimi Fasan, Gus Casely-Hayford and Nomusa Makhubu analysed the production and representation of African superheroes in comics, performance art, films and graphic visual art in Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania.[4] In 2017, Timothy Wright responded to this special issue in the form of an article in the same journal in which he connected the South African comic book series Kwezi to post-transitional forms of black identity in this country.[5] In the same year, the journal Critical African Studies published a special issue on African Digital Arts in which Paula Callus, Cher Potter, Rachel Spronk and I explored the production and distribution of videogames featuring African superheroes in Ghana and Kenya.[6]

But what exactly is an African superhero? On the one hand, academics have tried to develop an etic perspective on this concept. For instance, Carli Coetzee suggests that what she calls Afro-superheroes should be approached as embedded in everyday African practices, especially those of youth cultures, and as transformed by and embedded in the political and moral spaces created by and through social media, mobile phones and other digital technologies. Furthermore, she argues that Afro-superheroes connect future, present and past in complex, activist ways, granting the developers agency to repossess the present and prepossess the future.[7] In Super Black, his book on black superheroes in American pop culture, Adilifu Nama suggests that superheroes always clearly operate in a moral framework, and should be approached as representations of personal dreams, desires and idealized versions of the self, and as representing historical perspectives on race, politics and (black) identity.[8] In other words, both Coetzee and Nama assert that African superheroes should be analysed as deeply embedded in historical political and socio-cultural practices.

Duncan Omanga adds that the African superhero in particular is defined by remediation and syncretism. The African superhero is not just an appropriation of DC and Marvel superheroes, but a clever response to these media and a way to remediate what Omanga calls ‘primordial’ African heroes that can be found in many African cultures. In other words, the African superhero is not new: it emerges because material for the African superhero was already present in African folklore, to be remediated from oral history to print, to digital form, changing in the process. Furthermore, the figure of the superhero has the ability to construct an entirely new form out of the appropriation of many sources, contexts and forms.[9]

Image 1: Leti Arts presents one of their heroes, called Ananse, as Africa’s first superhero © Leti Arts, reproduced with permission.

On the other hand, ‘African superheroes’ is also an emic term. Some developers, like those of the Ghanaian-Kenyan studio Leti Arts, use the term ‘African superheroes’ to refer to their series of characters inspired by the DC and Marvel drawing style, alongside elements of African heritage. Image 1 shows how they claim one of their characters called Ananse, which is inspired by the Marvel’s Spiderman and the West-African trickster god-turned-spider Kwaku Ananse, as Africa’s first superhero. Their characters are generally very muscular, have superpowers due to otherworldly interventions (gods, magic, juju), and use them to combat issues in contemporary Africa.

However, this Africanness is contested both by some developers and consumers, exactly because of the syncretism of these characters. For instance, sometimes these characters are deemed ‘too inauthentic’ in their representation of African heritage or are considered to feature too many characteristics of DC and Marvel comics to be African.[10] Some developers who produce comic or videogame characters that seem to fit very well in the description provided by companies like Leti Arts, do not call their characters ‘superheroes’, but rather ‘gods’ or ‘princes’. Thus, the term ‘African superhero’ seems to be both a claim-making concept and a contested qualifier, making it difficult to give it a clear-cut scholarly definition.

This series’ approach to African superheroes

In recognition of the fact that despite this difficulty of classification, the term ‘African superhero’ does seem to do something in society and for developers, in this blog series I will be discussing games and comics that both are, and are not, formally marked as containing African superheroes by their producers. I have used three broad selection criteria in deciding which games and comics to discuss: a) the producers make use of classical comic book or superhero elements, like muscular bodies or fine drawing lines; b) the producers have to somehow relate themselves and/or their work to African heritage; and c) they reflect on their use of digital technologies. This broader and more open approach enables us to explore the wide range of African superheroes and possible trends in their development across the continent, without losing sight of the agency and effects of this designation.

This series will also pay attention to the role of history and heritage in the creation and marketing of African superheroes. It will focus not only on how developers use heritage in the development of their superheroes, but also on how the development and meaning of superheroes is influenced by the developers’ experiences growing up, especially their media consumption and access to technologies. In particular, it aims to show how the access of a specific generation of Africans, now in their 20s and 30s, to digital technologies and media has influenced the style of the superheroes currently being produced.

While focusing mostly on this younger generation, the blog will also historicize the concept of African superheroes by investigating the production of African superheroes in the 1970s and 1980s. By exploring the production process and personal histories of developers, this series hopes to show how African superheroes are a product of syncretism, are ways to tie the past to aspirations for the future and are embedded in socio-cultural and political processes.

I would love to hear your feedback as the series progresses. If you have questions, suggestions or ideas you would like me to explore, you are more than welcome to get in touch. Please comment on this blog post or via Twitter: @TessaPijnaker.

 

[1] M. Hughes. 2018. “‘Black Panther’ Stalks $1.3 Billion At The Worldwide Box Office.” Forbes, 2 April.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2018/04/02/black-panther-stalks-1-3-billion-at-the-worldwide-box-office/#a6534bd2ef96

[2] The Economist. 2018. “Marvellous marketing. The success of “Black Panther” is spurring demand for African comics.” 28 March. https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21739779-superheroes-real-sub-saharan-countries-get-boost-wakanda-success?fsrc=scn/fb/te/bl/ed/thesuccessofblackpantherisspurringdemandforafricancomicsmarvellousmarketing

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Casely-Hayford, Gus. 2015. “Amani Abeid and Paul Ndunguru: the archaeology of a superhero.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 292–298. Ying Cheng. 2016. “‘Naija Halloween or wetin?’: Naija superheroes and a time-traveling performance.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 275–282. Rotimi Fasan. 2016. “Arugba: superwoman, power and agency.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 283–291. Nomusa Makhubu. 2016. “Interpreting the fantastic: video-film as intervention.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 299–312. Duncan Omanga. 2016. “‘Akokhan Returns’: Kenyan Newspaper Comics and the Making of an ‘African’ Superhero.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 262–274. James Yékú. 2015. “Akpos don come again: Nigerian cyberpop hero as trickster.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 245–261.

[5] Timothy Wright. 2017. “A new black Pantheon: Kwezi as an epic of African postmodernity.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 30 (2): 208–226.

[6] Paula Callus and Cher Potter. 2017. “Michezo Video: Nairobi’s gamers and the developers who are promoting local content.” Critical African Studies 9 (3): 302–326. Tessa Pijnaker and Rachel Spronk. 2017. “Africa’s Legends: digital technologies, aesthetics and middle-class aspirations in Ghanaian games and comics.” Critical African Studies 9 (3): 327–  349.

[7] Carli Coetzee. 2016. “Afro-superheroes: Prepossessing the future.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 241–244, 242 and 243.

[8] Adilifu Nama. 2011. Super Black. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2 and 4.

[9] Duncan Omanga “‘Akokhan Returns’.” 267 and 268.

[10] Pijnaker and Spronk. 2017. “Africa’s Legends.” 345 and 346.

Bibliography

Callus, Paula and Cher Potter. 2017. “Michezo Video: Nairobi’s gamers and the developers who are promoting local content.” Critical African Studies 9 (3): 302–326.

Casely-Hayford, Gus. 2015. “Amani Abeid and Paul Ndunguru: the archaeology of a superhero.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 292–298.

Coetzee, Carli. 2016. “Afro-superheroes: Prepossessing the future.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 241–244.

Cheng, Ying. 2016. “‘Naija Halloween or wetin?’: Naija superheroes and a time-traveling performance.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 275–282.

Fasan, Rotimi. 2016. “Arugba: superwoman, power and agency.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 283–291.

Hughes, Mark. 2018. “‘Black Panther’ Stalks $1.3 Billion At The Worldwide Box Office.” Forbes, 2 April. https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2018/04/02/black-panther-stalks-1-3-billion-at-the-worldwide-box-office/#a6534bd2ef96

Makhubu, Nomusa. 2016. “Interpreting the fantastic: video-film as intervention.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 299–312.

Nama, Adilifu. 2011. Super Black. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Tessa Pijnaker is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham, UK, researching self-styling and the design of mobile applications by technology entrepreneurs in Accra, Ghana. In 2014 she did a five-month internship at the Ghanaian-Kenyan game development studio Leti Arts in Accra, Ghana, as part of her fieldwork for the research master Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. Her thesis based on this fieldwork was rewarded an honorary mention by the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities and the SIDN Fund as part of the Internet Thesis Awards 2015. She also holds an MA in History (Cum Laude) from the Free University of Amsterdam. Her thesis for this master’s about UNESCO’s the General History of Africa was awarded the third prize as part of the De Volkskrant – ISSH History Thesis Award 2016.

Twitter: @TessaPijnaker

 



Categories: Academic Research, Films, South Africa

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2 replies

  1. A pity Gus Caseley-Hayford’s name is repeatedly misspelt….

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