AiW Guest: Dominic Davies.
A little over two years ago I travelled to Cape Town to attend FanCon 2016, an event that was then South Africa’s most attended comics convention to date. As a researcher interested in graphic narratives from across Africa and the Global South more generally, I was intrigued by the overarching thematic concerns and stylistic trends shared by homegrown South African comics, or SA comics, as they are known. Where I had expected a blend of superhero-inspired narratives, overtly politicised cartoons, and dissenting underground comix (as one might find in other Southern cities with burgeoning comics scenes, such as Cairo, Beirut, or Delhi), Cape Town’s local comics scene instead centred on fantasy worlds that, although flavoured with a lick of Afrofuturism, mostly eschewed the superhero genre and sought to avoid any laboured political commentary.
These two trends are well-recognised by the SA comics community itself. The country’s largest annual convention, FanCon remains an international event that celebrates the usual cast of DC and Marvel superhero characters. This foreign hegemony is in turn reflected in the convention’s Cosplay sessions and the mostly international (US & UK) headline speakers included on its programme. In quite a self-conscious effort to distinguish themselves from the successful – indeed, sometimes suffocating – exports of the US-dominated industry, Cape Town’s comics artists and writers seem reluctant to replicate the superhero model. Instead, they are drawn to fantasy and other experimental genres that allow them more space in which to index a distinctive SA identity, whether through characters, storylines or formal aesthetics.
The strategic avoidance of explicitly political content is also conscious. As Moray Rhoda, a writer at the heart of the SA comics scene, and Andy Mason, a long-standing practitioner and commentator on SA comics, have both observed, the thematic turn to fantasy comics registers a general fatigue with what had, for previous generations of artists and writers, been a felt obligation to address the country’s (post-)apartheid political landscape directly in their work. Rather than tackle such issues in naturalist and documentary forms, contemporary SA comics are instead drawn to alternate, speculative worlds, where if politics do surface it is likely to be in the form of allegory rather than overt commentary.
There are, of course, exceptions that prove this somewhat generalising rule. In Loyiso Mkize’s South African teen comics hero, Kwezi, which has been running strong since 2015, the titular protagonist uses his newfound powers not to challenge threats of global domination or intergalactic strife, but rather to attend to the difficulties and deficiencies of local township communities on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Here, a globally circulating genre collides with notably local content. In this thematic and generic meld, the former is not simply grafted onto the latter. Rather, the US-originating superhero genre is bent and hammered out of shape to accommodate the specific cultural, social and physical geography of South Africa.
While in 2015 and 2016 Kwezi was something of an outlier, in 2018 there is now new bid to create a genuinely ‘South African superhero’. This perhaps reflects the growing confidence of an evermore assured SA comics scene buoyed by increasingly well-attended FanCons – I hope so. But there can also be no denying that the Ta-Nehisi Coates-led reboot of Black Panther (2016-present), not to mention the accompanying blockbuster film (2018), has created considerable cultural space for a renewed interest in African superheroes. The film especially may have opened up a global market and international readership for those comics artists, based on the African continent, who are interested in writing and drawing superheroes.
Bill Masuku’s Captain South Africa, the first issue of which appeared in January 2018 and the second of which, reviewed here, was published in September, melds the US superhero genre with local South African themes even more starkly than Kwezi. Responding to ‘FAQs’ about the character on his website, the Zimbabwean artist and writer acknowledges that Captain South Africa is a clear reference to the world-famous Captain America – Masuku’s hero even wears a costume coloured with the South African flag, mimicking the US archetype.
Yet there are also notable divergences. For starters, Masuku’s Captain South Africa is a woman, perhaps again reflecting the interest generated by Black Panther’s cast of empowering female leads – though there is currently an emerging global subculture of female and even trans superheroes for which Black Panther cannot take all the credit. The other most striking deviation from the muscly, action-oriented US archetype is the fact that Captain South Africa advocates non-violence, defeating her enemies with diplomatic words rather than erratic punches.
Indeed, issue #2 of Captain South Africa begins with just such a verbal confrontation, as Masuku’s titular hero talks down a villain, Sandisile Sithole, from using his superhuman powers to destroy Cape Town’s Central Business District. Refusing simply to engage in the kinds of destructive urban warfare to which viewers of the Marvel film franchise will be accustomed, the resulting dialogue exposes the structural reasons for Sandisile’s villainy – reasons often quickly smoothed over by US superhero comics. As Sandisile explains, he is infuriated by the inequality pervasive in contemporary South Africa, and his threats to Cape Town’s wealthy CBD are motivated by the dire poverty and governmental neglect of his home township. In response, Captain South Africa talks Sandisile down from this violent vengeance by engaging in a political discussion about the shortcomings of Nelson Mandela, no less, rehearsing debates that have their histories in the work of writers such as Steve Biko and that have been reignited by recent decolonial movements such as Rhodes Must Fall.
The result is a comic that draws attention to South Africa’s urban dispossessed, those who have fallen through society’s cracks and embody the failed promises of the Rainbow Nation. However, readers might recognise the themes encapsulated in this dialogue from elsewhere. For in fact, they are the exact moral tensions at the heart of the recent Black Panther film, which pits T’Challa – the king of Wakanda and an advocate of peaceful negotiation – against N’Jadaka, or Killmonger – an advocate of Fanon-style revolution – to debate the limitations of violent and non-violent resistance to oppression.
Masuku should not be condemned for this thematic replication. They are as much grounded in South Africa’s contemporary political landscape as they are in the generic DNA of the superhero narrative. All Masuku has done, in his comic, is to point out their overlaps.
Nevertheless, in its conclusion Captain South Africa does fall resolutely on the side of non-violence, and the result is a future-oriented, though slightly conservative politics. For Captain South Africa introduces Sandisile to a benevolent philanthropist who promises to transform his decrepit Cape Tonian township into a infrastructurally sound, self-sufficient gated community. This is a strange conclusion. If the structural conditions producing Sandisile’s villainy are explored, then they are here just as quickly bought off, the promise of the lifestyle of Cape Town’s wealthier suburbs subduing political revolt, all the while leaving the city’s other impoverished townships in a state of disenfranchised disrepair.
While Captain South Africa does not therefore offer a radical rethinking of society, this does fit with the conservative narrative trajectory typical of the superhero genre more broadly. Here, a powerful figure arrives on the scene, tackling criminality and restoring order; that this is usually a capitalist order is a trend noted by many commentators, most convincingly Dan Hassler-Forrest in his book Capitalist Superheroes (2012). Thus in the end, issue #2 of Captain South Africa conforms to the basic ideology of the superhero genre, even if the pitfalls and merits of this ideology are debated in the content of the comic itself.
Yet I would maintain that the question as to whether the local content of Captain South Africa is able to alter, at least partially, the formal and political scaffolding of the US-imported superhero genre, remains impossible to answer in any definitive sense. Masuku’s comic is still only in its second issue, after all. Indeed, Captain South Africa is herself mostly absent from the second half of this second issue, which introduces a new villain and delays further narrative resolution to its next instalment. Arguably, even this issue of Captain South Africa registers the possible re-calibrations that might expand the generic and thematic possibilities of the superhero genre as it migrates Southwards. If comics and films such as Black Panther have opened up a space for Southern superhero narratives, what emerges to fill it will be no simple replication of the hegemonic US archetype. Rather, as Captain South Africa evidences, it is more likely to be an uneven morphing and melding of a mixture of genres and politics, as tropes are borrowed and reinvented to better reflect the local concerns of its immediate Southern readership.
Dominic Davies is a Lecturer in English at City, University of London. He recently finished a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil and established the TORCH Network, ‘Comics and Graphic Novels: The Politics of Form’. He is the author of Imperial Infrastructure and Spatial Resistance in Colonial Literature, 1880-1930 (Peter Lang, 2017) and his second book, Urban Comics: Infrastructure & the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives, will be published by Routledge in 2019. He is currently editing a collection of essays and comics entitled Documenting Trauma in Comics: Traumatic Pasts, Embodied Histories & Graphic Reportage, which is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.