African superheroes in the 1970s and 1980s: a historical perspective

AiW Guest Tessa Pijnaker

This is the second 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 post, Tessa builds from her introduction to the series, ‘What is an African Superhero?’, taking a historical perspective, tracing the development of African superheroes over the 1970s and 1980s. Look out for more in this AiW series on African superheroes over coming months.

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this post, some reader feedback (thank you!) has brought some new information to our attention specifically about the history of comics in Nigeria. Check out our postscript to the historical perspective presented here, and keep writing–we love to hear from our readers!

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As described in the first blog of this series Introduction: What is an African superhero? many international media have started to pay attention to the production of African superhero games and comics in Africa, often framing this as a new phenomenon. However, the current production of African superheroes is actually not so ‘new’. While not explicitly mentioned by contemporary developers of African superhero comics and games as influences, already in the 1970s and 1980s there were African superhero comics developed by Africans. Their design and meanings show many similarities with contemporary superheroes. There were also comics developed by foreign companies specifically for African audiences.

Superheroes in the 1970s in Ghana
In her seminal article ‘Popular Arts in Africa’, Karin Barber mentions the short-lived existence of a series of pamphlets in which figures from the Marvel comic books were mixed with well-known figures from Twi folktales, published in Accra and Kumasi in Ghana in the mid-1970s. For instance, these pamphlets featured Spiderman working together with the trickster god-turned-spider Kwaku Ananse, famous from the Anansenem – centuries old folktales famous in Ghana, other West African countries, the Caribbean and the United States.[1]

According to Barber, these pamphlets all followed a similar storyline, which was different from both Western comics and indigenous folktales. In the stories, there were ordinary Ghanaian people who reminisced about the glorious past and complained about contemporary issues, such as corrupt soldiers and politicians. Marvel comic book heroes, Ananse and other folktale figures would discuss these issues, hide among ordinary Ghanaian people, and use their superhuman strength or lead a popular revolt to seek justice, showing the corrupted Ghanaians the error of their ways. These superheroes were generally described as having special powers due to otherworldly connections or a connection to the past beyond that of the everyday African. These powers gave them the possibility to change the world and cause political transformation.[2]

Captain Africa
One of the first known African superhero comics was published by the Ghanaian Andy Akman in Nigeria. He started the publication of Captain Africa magazine in 1987, with the help of the publisher African Comics Ltd., run by Mbadiwe Emelumba. While information about this comic is scarce, a reprint and accompanying commentary by the Canadian comic book designer Scott Dutton in 1996 makes clear that there were at least fifteen issues of the comic, and that at the time of the reprint, Akman did not publish the comic anymore.[3]

In 1988, the New York Times featured an article by James Brooke, in which Captain Africa was characterised as part of a trend among a new generation of illustrators across Africa to decolonize comics, especially as a reaction against white saviour stories such as Tarzan and The Phantom. [4] The black Captain Africa was meant to displace the white Captain Africa who featured in a 1950s Hollywood serial in which he stumbled upon conflict and saved an African nation.[5]

Instead, Andy Akman portrayed black Captain Africa as someone whose mission it was to fight evil forces in Africa and the rest of the world. In the comics he especially fought everyday contemporary issues in African countries that were recognizable to many Africans from the newspapers, such as child murders or kidnappings. Akman’s Captain Africa wore a green body suit, emblazoned with a map of Africa, and a solar-powered cape for super speed flight (see Image 1).[6]

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Image 1: A rare original cover of Captain Africa, also featured in the article in New York Times. This image clearly shows that the original Captain Africa wore an emblem of the African continent on his chest and a half, black ball on his forehead. Andy Akman, Captain Africa, No. 2: Return of the Dead, African Comics. ©Andy Akman.

According to Brooke, Captain Africa was supposed to be a role model for urban Africans: he was portrayed as living in an idealized Africa full of comfortable villas, clean hospitals and vacations, and was a successful businessman in everyday life. In Akman’s own words: “Gone are the days of Africans wearing raffia skirts. We are living in modern houses. He must be a Superman, not a Tarzan.” Emelumba added: “We have our own culture, our own heritage. It’s important to defend against cultural colonialism.”[7]

According to Ezeogu, at the same time as Captain Africa was produced, there were several other comic book producers in Nigeria, such as Wale Adenuga, who together formed the ‘first generation’ of creators, creating comics such as Captain Ecomog, Ikebe Super, Black Thunder, Ijapa and Captain Santana. Unfortunately, there seems currently to be no further information available about these comics, except that they likely stopped in the 1990s because of Nigeria’s severe economic setbacks.[8]

Currently, a version of Captain Africa appears every Friday in Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper. As can be seen in images 2a and 2b, Vanguard has cut the comics up into little pieces, of two or three frames per paper edition. According to Ezeogu, these comics are endlessly repeated, and it seems unlikely that they are still made by the original Andy Akman.[9] While Akman’s original Captain Africa (image 1) and Scott Dutton’s reprint (image 3, 4 and 5) are very similar, Vanguard’s Captain Africa differs in style.

 

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Image 2 a (top) and 2 b (bottom): Vanguard’s Captain Africa does not wear a black half ball on his head, but a striped headband with circles with a 6-legged star on each of his ears.
Image 2 a: Andy Akman. 2014. “Kaptain Afrika in “Pretty Lunatic”.” Vanguard Newspaper, 23 May, Leisure, p. 43. https://issuu.com/vanguardngr/docs/23052014/43 ©Vanguard Newspaper. Image 2 b: Andy Akman, Date Unkown. “Kaptain Afrika in “Pretty Lunatic”.” Vanguard Newspaper. On: Tobe Max Jaeger Ezeogu. 2016. “Where is Andy Akman? – Shining a small light on Nigeria’s comic book past.” Naija Komics Online, 30 October. https://nigeriancomicsonline.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/where-is-andy-akman-shining-a-small-light-on-nigerias-comic-book-past/ ©Vanguard Newspaper.

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Image 3: Scott Dutton. 1996. The Global Gazette Special No. 1: Captain Africa. Catspaw Dynamics. Reprint of Andy Akman, “Nigeria’s Captain Africa: The Secret Society.” Complemented by “Captain Africa in Canada.” Cover page. On: ComicBandit. 2012. “Nigeria’s Captain Africa!”. 21 June. https://www.facebook.com/pg/ComicBandit-148049485214859/photos/?tab=album&album_id=400356819984123 © Scott Dutton, reproduced with permission. © Andy Akman.

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Image 4: In 1996, Scott Dutton reprinted and reinterpreted Akman’s Captain Africa number 15 in a way he felt did justice to the comic. The first half, called “Nigeria’s Captain Africa: The Secret Society” consists of the story and art of Akman, re-lettered by Dutton. In this part Captain Africa wears a half, black, shiny ball on his forehead and image of the African continent on his chest. Scott Dutton. 1996. The Global Gazette Special No. 1: Captain Africa. Catspaw Dynamics. Reprint of Andy Akman, “Nigeria’s Captain Africa: The Secret Society.” Complemented by “Captain Africa in Canada.” p.2. On: ComicBandit. 2012. “Nigeria’s Captain Africa!”. 21 June. https://www.facebook.com/pg/ComicBandit-148049485214859/photos/?tab=album&album_id=400356819984123© Scott Dutton, reproduced with permission. © Andy Akman.

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Image 5: “Captain Africa in Canada” is Scott Dutton’s addition to the narrative. Scott Dutton. 1996. The Global Gazette Special No. 1: Captain Africa. Catspaw Dynamics. Reprint of Andy Akman, “Nigeria’s Captain Africa: The Secret Society.” Complemented by “Captain Africa in Canada.” P.9. On: ComicBandit. 2012. “Nigeria’s Captain Africa!”. 21 June. https://www.facebook.com/pg/ComicBandit-148049485214859/photos/?tab=album&album_id=400356819984123© Scott Dutton, reproduced with permission. © Andy Akman.

Powerman

From 1975 until 1977, a comic about the superhero Powerman was published in Nigeria and also distributed in limited quantities in the UK.[10] This comic was an initiative from Pikin Press (or Pican Publications), a Nigerian advertising agency, which according to one of the artists who worked on the comic, was owned by white people.[11] In the 1970s, most of the comics sold on the Nigerian market were reprints of British comics with almost only white characters. Pikin Press wanted to develop a comic with black superheroes and heroines, both to fill this gap in the market and because they thought it would be a good way to promote literacy in Nigeria. The executives of Pikin Press approached the British agency Bardon Press Features, who commissioned comic book artists Dave Gibbons and Brian Bollard for the job. Pikin Press did not approach any African artists, because they assumed that African comic book artists did not yet exist and would only emerge once comics became popular in Africa.[12]

In interviews, Bollard and Gibbons mentioned that they struggled to adapt the comics for a Nigerian audience. As instructed by Pikin Press, because the comic was meant for illiterates, the pages had to be simplified: they had a maximum of six numbered panels. Reflecting on this, Gibbons admitted ‘We had to do very simple storytelling (…) but even then they [Pikin Press] insisted that we had numbers in the panels so people would know which order to read them in, which I think was a little bit patronising.”[13] Furthermore, they were instructed in culturally specific imagery and ideas, such as the notion that a fat stomach indicated success and power rather than gluttony or greed, and that developing Powerman as character who would always get the girls in the end was not considered sexist in Nigeria.

The creators of Powerman introduced all kinds of new threats to Nigeria, from dinosaurs to robots. Powerman wore a pink bodysuit with leopard knickers (see image 6). He had superhuman strength and intelligence because he was struck by lightning as a child, was durable and able to fly. His only weakness was snakebites – the writers assumed these happened a lot in Nigeria and would make the character more relatable. Powerman promoted characteristics such as individualism, devotion to duty and modernization.[14]

Without the permission of Pikin Press, the comic was reprinted in South Africa, which led to accusations that it was used to support the Apartheid regime. At the time, comics in South Africa featured either all black or all white characters. Gibbons was not happy with his comic being transformed from mass entertainment to segregated entertainment.[16] Due to Gibbons and Bolland’s increasing fame, in 1988 Powerman got republished as Powerbolt in a four-issue limited edition called Power Comics by Acme Press and Eclipse Comics in the United Kingdom and the United states (see image 7).[17]

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Image 6: Don Avenall, Norman Worker, Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. Powerman: Princess Flame. No. 21. Bardon Press Features and Pikin Press. On: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/b9/4a/f1/b94af11996af035421661716005c60b3.jpg

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Image 7: This image shows the one of the four British and American reprints of Powerman. All four were given a new cover page. Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Donne Avenell, Garry Leach, Norman Worker. 1988. Power Comics. Issue 1. Eclipse Comics and ACME Press. March 1. On: Lokiofmidgaard. 2016. “Power Comics.” ComicVine. Last edited 9 October. https://comicvine.gamespot.com/power-comics/4050-4155/

Mighty Man

In 1976, Mighty Man, The Human Law-Enforcing Dynamo, became the first illustrated superhero comic in South Africa developed specifically for black Africans, with a press run of about 75,000 (see image 8).[18] Before, there had only been rebranded reprints of DC and Marvel comics and photocomics, such as Super Mask or Flash for black Africans, and separate ones for white Africans in South Africa.[19] Illustrated comics were a bit more expensive than photocomics, but still cheap enough to be affordable for people in the townships.

Funding for Mighty Man came from Republican Americans. The comic was developed by the New York-based marketing consultant Richard Manville, who created Afri-Comix, who also produced other superhero titles such as Tiger Ingwe and African Secret Agent. Manville sold these ideas to the South African J. van Zyl Alberts, who enabled the printing of the comics for the black South African market. Manville developed the stories aided by a team of freelance cartoonists in the USA because he thought there was a lack of local talent.[20]

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Image 8: Afri-Comics. 1976. Mighty Man no. 2. On: Wood, Nick. 2011. “Soweto’s Super Man: ‘Mighty Man’ and the mid-70s in South Africa.” South African Comic Books, 12 October. http://southafricancomicbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/sowetos-super-man-mighty-man-and-mid.html

In the comics, Mighty Man was portrayed as Danny Ndhlomo, a police officer who was forced to retire because of injuries he gained while apprehending thieves in a supermarket robbery. He discovered a race of underground creatures who treated his wound and gave him superhuman strength. Danny decided to keep fighting for justice and law as a superhero. The comic was set in a township that was modelled after Soweto. Mighty Man never challenged any agencies or laws outside of this township. He mainly focused on gangsters (tsotsis) and drug lords (dagga merchants) in the township and promoted subservience to laws, non-violence and an anti-gun message for black people.

One of the artists working on the comic, called Joe Orlando, has admitted that while producing the comic, he was restricted in what he could do. For instance, he could not create stories in which people challenged the government, could not feature any stories about resistance against colonialism or slavery, and was encouraged to feature non-contentious topics such as football or folk stories. Therefore, already at the time of publication this comic was perceived by some reviewers and journalists as propagating compliance of black Africans to the Apartheid government. The comic was discontinued in 1977, because of the violent resistance in Soweto.[21]

 

Conclusion
In the 1970s and 1980s there were stark differences between comics produced by Africans (the Ghanaian pamphlets, Captain Africa) and by white people for black Africans (Powerman, Mighty Man). The paternalism and/or unfamiliarity of the producers and artists of the latter comics were reflected in their production method and their content. While both Powerman and Mighty Man were framed by their producers as being made by white artists due to a lack of local talent, Captain Africa, the Ghanaian comic from the 70s, photocomics and other (non-superhero) cartoonists clearly prove this assumption was unfounded. Also, the threats Powerman faced, such as dinosaurs or robots, seem inspired by a lack of knowledge about local issues. The comic’s simplification is telling of Pikin Press’s low expectations of their audience, while Mighty Man’s opponents have been understood as being inspired by a desire to force black Africans into compliance. In contrast, the comics made by Africans addressed local issues, showed superheroes that were inspired by local folktales, and were intended to decolonize the comic book genre and challenging paternalistic ideas about Africa.

The comics made by Africans in the 1970s and 1980s show many similarities in content with contemporary superhero comics and games, as I will explore in a future blog post. These similarities emphasize that contemporary African superhero comics and games should not just be considered new, but rather can be understood as the result of a new generation re-exploring older genres, themes and issues.

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Copyright statement:
Images in this blogpost are reproduced for criticism and review within the terms of fair dealing, as defined under the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act (UK). Nonetheless, in preparation of this publication, every reasonable effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of the featured images. We were unable to trace some of the holders of image 3, 4, and 5, and all of the holders of image 1, 2a, 2b, 6, 7 and 8. If you hold the copyright for these images, please contact us at africainwords@gmail.com so we can arrange permissions with you.

[1] Karin Barber. 1987. “Popular Arts in Africa.” African Studies Review 30 (3): 1-78, 40.

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

[3] Scott Dutton. 1996. The Global Gazette Special No. 1: Captain Africa. Catspaw Dynamics. Reprint of Andy Akman, “Nigeria’s Captain Africa: The Secret Society.” Complemented by “Captain Africa in Canada.” P.1. On: ComicBandit. 2012. “Nigeria’s Captain Africa!”. 21 June. https://www.facebook.com/pg/ComicBandit-148049485214859/photos/?tab=album&album_id=400356819984123

Tobe Max Jaeger Ezeogu. 2016. “Where is Andy Akman? – Shining a small light on Nigeria’s comic book past.” Naija Komics Online, 30 October. https://nigeriancomicsonline.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/where-is-andy-akman-shining-a-small-light-on-nigerias-comic-book-past/

[4] James Brooke. 1988. “Goodbye to Tarzan, Meet Captain Africa.” New York Times, September 7, Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/27/arts/goodbye-to-tarzan-meet-captain-africa.html

[5] Duncan Omanga. 2016. “‘Akokhan Returns’: Kenyan Newspaper Comics and the Making of an ‘African’ Superhero.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 262–274, 266.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Brooke. 1988. “Goodbye to Tarzan.”

[8] Ezeogu. 2016. “Where is Andy Akman?”

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Scott Dutton, The Global Gazette Special No. 1. p.1.

[11] Lokiofmidgaard. 2016. “Powerman.” ComicVine, last edited 9 October. https://comicvine.gamespot.com/powerman/4050-94054/

[12] Michael Molcher. 2006. 2000 AD: The Creator Interviews 03: Dave Gibbons, Simon Fraser, Kevin O’Neill, Jesus Redondo, David Roach, John Hicklenton, John Cooper and Dave Taylor. Oxford, UK: Rebellion.

[13] Ibidem. Wikipedia. 2018. “Powerman (comics).” Last edited 16 April. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powerman_(comics)

[14]Molcher. 2006. 2000 AD: The Creator Interviews 03.

[15] Ibidem. Wikipedia. 2018. “Powerman (comics).” Omanga. 2016. “‘Akokhan Returns’”, 266.  John A. Lent. 2009. Cartooning in Africa. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 13 and 14.   Tex. 2017. “Tex’s Back-Issue Quest Episode #53: Powerman/Powerbolt.” Tex Comics News and Reviews, 29 April. https://texscomicsnewsandreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/texs-back-issue-quest-episode-53.html

[16] Molcher. 2006. 2000 AD: The Creator Interviews 03.

[17] Wikipedia. 2018. “Powerman (comics).”

[18] Steve Weissman. 1978. “American Publisher Peddles South Africa.” Southern Africa, February: 3 and 4.

[19] Nick Wood. 2011. “Soweto’s Super Man: ‘Mighty Man’ and the mid-70s in South Africa.” South African Comic Books, 12 October. http://southafricancomicbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/sowetos-super-man-mighty-man-and-mid.html. Lily Saint. 2010. “Not Western: Race, Reading, and the South African Photocomic.” Journal of Southern African Studies 36 (4): 939-958.

[20] Wood. 2011. “Soweto’s Super Man.” George van der Riet. 2011. “Afri-Comics.” South African Comic Books, 7 June. http://southafricancomicbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/afri-comics.html

[21] Weissman. 1978. “American Publisher Peddles South Africa.”

Bibliography

Barber, Karin. 1987. “Popular Arts in Africa.” African Studies Review 30 (3): 1-78.

Brooke, James. 1988. “Goodbye to Tarzan, Meet Captain Africa.” New York Times, September 7, Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/27/arts/goodbye-to-tarzan-meet-captain-africa.html

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

Dutton, Scott. 1996. The Global Gazette Special No. 1: Captain Africa. Catspaw Dynamics. Reprint of Andy Akman, “Nigeria’s Captain Africa: The Secret Society.” Complemented by “Captain Africa in Canada.” On: ComicBandit. 2012. “Nigeria’s Captain Africa!”. 21 June. https://www.facebook.com/pg/ComicBandit-148049485214859/photos/?tab=album&album_id=400356819984123

Ezeogu, Tobe Max Jaeger. 2016. “Where is Andy Akman? – Shining a small light on Nigeria’s comic book past.” Naija Komics Online, 30 October. https://nigeriancomicsonline.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/where-is-andy-akman-shining-a-small-light-on-nigerias-comic-book-past/

Lent, John A. 2009. Cartooning in Africa. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Lokiofmidgaard. 2016. “Powerman.” ComicVine, last edited 9 October. https://comicvine.gamespot.com/powerman/4050-94054/

Molcher, Michael. 2006. 2000 AD: The Creator Interviews 03: Dave Gibbons, Simon Fraser, Kevin O’Neill, Jesus Redondo, David Roach, John Hicklenton, John Cooper and Dave Taylor. Oxford, UK: Rebellion.

Omanga, Duncan. 2016. “‘Akokhan Returns’: Kenyan Newspaper Comics and the Making of an ‘African’ Superhero.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (3): 262–274.

Riet, George van der. 2011. “Afri-Comics.” South African Comic Books, 7 June. http://southafricancomicbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/afri-comics.html

Saint, Lily. 2010. “Not Western: Race, Reading, and the South African Photocomic.” Journal of Southern African Studies 36 (4): 939-958.

Tex. 2017. “Tex’s Back-Issue Quest Episode #53: Powerman/Powerbolt.” Tex Comics News and Reviews, 29 April. https://texscomicsnewsandreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/texs-back-issue-quest-episode-53.html

Weissman, Steve. 1978. “American Publisher Peddles South Africa.” Southern Africa, February: 3 and 4.

Wikipedia. 2018. “Powerman (comics).” Last edited 16 April. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powerman_(comics)

Wood, Nick. 2011. “Soweto’s Super Man: ‘Mighty Man’ and the mid-70s in South Africa.” South African Comic Books, 12 October. http://southafricancomicbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/sowetos-super-man-mighty-man-and-mid.html

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TessaTessa 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



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