AiW note: This is a followup to the second post in our series on African superheroes, guest edited by Tessa Pijnaker, PhD student in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham. Look out for more in this AiW series on African superheroes over coming months, and catch up on previous posts in this series.
AiW Guest Tessa Pijnaker
In response to the second blog post of this series about comic books in the 70s and 80s, I was approached by Dr. Tade Thompson, a consultant psychiatrist. Together with Nick Wood he wrote the novella The Last Pantheon, a homage to the African superheroes of their childhood. In the novella, Thompson’s character named ‘Pan-African’ was inspired by Powerman, and Wood’s ‘Black Power’ by Mighty Man. In the conversation that followed, Tade Thompson chose to share his personal experiences growing up with superheroes in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s.
During my research for the blog post, I noticed that there were only bits and pieces of information available about the impact these superhero comics had had on people’s daily life. Most of them were scattered across forums and blogs on the internet, where people remembered the comics with a sense of nostalgia. For instance, on the Nairaland Forum someone shared images of Andy Akman’s Captain Africa and another Nigerian comic called Terror Muda and asked if others read comics like this ‘back then’. One person answered: ‘Me! Me!! I always looked forward to my dad coming back every night with the punch newspaper because of the comic section, this was way back in the 90s! Terror Muda was one of my favorites. He was a badt [sic] guy and also a player. 🙂 Plus another part of the comic section I do not remember the name. You just brought back fond childhood memories.’
Tade Thompson and I chose to share his experiences in a postscript, to make a start with collecting more extensive accounts on how these comics were experienced and remembered, and making them more accessible. I believe that Thompson’s personal account provides a valuable complementary perspective to my initial blog. Adding personal histories to our archive of print materials recognizes the inherent problems of representation in academic and journalistic practices, particularly regarding colonialism and content production on the African continent.
The following account has been edited for clarity and length from a personal communication with the author.
‘In my experience, superheroes have been popular in Nigeria at least since the 1960s. For instance, around that time, you would see local wrestlers call themselves ‘Superman Okafor’ or other superhero-based sobriquets. Until the 1980s, it was possible to get hold of American and British comics with relative ease, such as Roy of the Rovers or 2000 AD, albeit sporadically and out of order. Typically, we would get the comics from supermarkets like Kingsway, UTC or Ilupeju – not from bookshops or newspaper stands. They were also sold at places where they sold porn magazines, so generally open stalls on railway tracks or markets in Lagos and Ibadan. Sometimes they would put the porn magazines (which were A5 sized) into the comics (which were about A4 size) as a way of transporting or hiding the porn for the police. Sometimes you’d get unexpected porn with your comics.
However, in the 1980s, Nigeria’s relationship with the rest of the world became more tense, due to the cocaine trade and military coups. Because of this, imports in general, and the import of comics specifically, became more difficult. Comics virtually disappeared from the shelves.
Since there were no more American superhero comics to quench the thirst, Nigerians started to look inwards for solutions. For a brief period, I think in 1981 and 1982, there were outright fake American comics made on bad photocopiers. Also, slowly, local comics started to emerge. For instance, approximately in 1979 or 1980 there emerged this high quality strip called Benbella. It was consistently good in art and storytelling. It was about the adventures of a man (Benbella) who could fight and who had superhuman strength (not Superman level, more like Luke Cage).
One of the longest running comics in Nigeria is Ikebe Super (Ikebe means a woman’s buttocks). This was a comedy, puerile comic that featured the Ajasco family. It contained lots of sex jokes. In the late 1980s, one of the trips in it took on a superhero persona and Baba Ajasco, who was a powerful medicine man, decided to take on Apartheid in South Africa. He would fly and fire fire bolts and take apart their air force. It lasted two years, was persistent and widely read.
In my experience, Powerman was one of the first superhero comics that appeared regularly. As a child, I was such a big fan of this comic that I asked my mum if I could send fan mail. It took her quite a while to figure the address out, since the first comics did not tell us who the artists were, but after making several inquiries she gave me a government address to write to. Later, this led me to believe that Powerman was published by a company funded by the Nigerian government, that wanted to improve literacy. As a government agency it was probably black-owned. If it had a white person already at the forefront there would not have been a reason to approach Bardon Press. They probably wanted to work with Bardon Press and Dave Gibbons to make them look serious. I think they could afford to hire Dave Gibbons because of the oil boom at the time.
In the 1980s, Vanguard Newspaper was new and innovative. Prior to its emergence in Nigeria there were only staid, old newspapers like the Times and the Standard, which took cues from broadsheets abroad. However, Vanguard was designed differently. It was fun, more visual. It contained more photos, more graphics and was aimed at a younger audience. One of the first cartoons they featured was Mr. and Mrs., a hilarious study of married life. Three other comics featured in the newspaper were Captain Africa by Andy Akman, a space opera called S.H.A.N.G.O., and a detective called MOJO by Morak Oguntade. I used to cut out Captain Africa and paste it in a scrap book, so I could read them in sequence.
In 1983 or 1984, Vanguard decided to take a chance with Captain Africa and to publish it in magazine form. It started out with reissues of the newspaper strips, with the same repeating 3-panel structure as in the newspaper. There had been this rumour that Andy Akman sold the entire concept around 1985. The new Captain Africa comics are definitely not by him – they have a different art style. Akman’s strength was in detail and clean lines. The person that is making them now draws much more dynamic panels, with less background detail.
Around 1984, Vanguard Publications also had some competition from Princessa Comics, which published a whole slate of superheroes that were pastiches of Marvel and DC characters. While these comics tried to follow the Marvel-UK pattern of colourful covers and black-and-white interiors, they did not have the same production values as Powerman and Captain Africa. Their covers and interior were all newsprint quality and the interior inks were of low quality and often bled into the white. In many panels I noticed that the art seemed to be directly traced out or lifted from existing comics. Just before they stopped, they claimed they had the rights to reproduce Marvel comics in Nigeria. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have any online presence.
In short, from my perspective the import/export customs problems led to the Nigerian superhero boom in the 1980s. When the restrictions relaxed and civilian elections and the rule of democracy returned, a decline in local superhero comic production followed. After this lull in the 1990s, recently comic book creators began to emerge again.
Tade Thompson lives and works in the south of England, from a Nigerian background. His professional background is in medicine, psychiatry and social anthropology. He is also the author of Rosewater (winner of the Nommo Award for African speculative fiction and John W. Campbell finalist), The Murders of Molly Southbourne (nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, British Fantasy Award and the British Science Fiction Award), and Making Wolf (winner of the Golden Tentacle Award).
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.