Q&A: George Norman Sylvester – Ananse comics, Captain Pepsodent and African superheroes in 1990s Ghana

AiW Guest: Tessa Pijnaker.

This post forms part of an Africa in Words’ series on African superheroes, guest edited by Tessa Pijnaker, PhD student in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham. 

This sixth post in the series is based on an interview conducted with comics’ artist George Norman Sylvester in Accra, Ghana, in the Spring of 2019. 

Previous blog posts in this series explored the production of African superhero comics in the 1970s and 1980s and the 2000s and 2010s. Until now, a lack of available data led people to believe that African comic book production had a lull in the 1990s. George Sylvester’s work proves the situation was more complex. 

Born in the 1960s, Sylvester initially followed the footsteps of his mother and after completing senior high school, joined the civil service in 1983. Ten years later, he realised that he needed to pursue what he considered his passion in life: he quit the civil service and went to study ‘art on the job’ with a friend who was a graphic designer. In the 1990s, Sylvester started working on Kwaku Ananse and Captain Pepsodent comics, in the hopes of kickstarting a comic book industry in Africa from Ghana. Unfortunately, for reasons similar to those faced by comic book creators in the 2000s and 2010s, his dreams never came to fruition. 

In their conversation below, Tessa opens up some of the reasons why, also touching on contemporary comics reading cultures, drawing, inking and other production processes, as well as other industry strategies, and the HIV/AIDS comic Sylvester made in the early 2000s…

Tessa Pijnaker: Can you tell us a bit more about what inspired the creation of the comic book The Legendary Kweku Ananse: The Spreading of Anansenem, and the comic strips about Captain Pepsodent?

George Sylvester: Way back in the early 1970s, when I was in primary school, I loved Tintin and Asterix. In those times, you could get both comics in the library, such as the Central Library in Accra and the Children’s Library in Osu. My friends and I would go there to read. Later, I was also a big Marvel and DC comic book fan. Those days, these books were not sold anywhere in Ghana. You could only get to own them if people who travelled abroad brought them back. I had affluent friends with family who travelled abroad and so I got access to these comics through them. Slowly I developed my own small library, by keeping the comics I borrowed. For me, they were like jewels! As a child, my friend and I wrote stories inspired by Marvel and DC Comics, such as one called Iron Shark, about the son of the God of the Ocean and Earth Goddess.  

Images 1a & 1b: two pages from Iron Shark, © George Norman Sylvester, reproduced with permission.

I grew up in a compound house, with older boys and men who had grown up with stories about Kwaku Ananse [a popular West-African trickster god-turned-spider]  in their village. Now that they had moved to the city, they shared these stories with us, the younger men. While as far as I am aware no comics were made in Ghana in the 70s and 80s, cartoons were featured in the newspapers. For instance a guy called Ghanatta drew Kong for the Ghanaian Times, a superhero or Tarzan kind of story, about a guy being ‘jungle man’ strong. He also drew other comics, such as Kofi Brokeman and Kofi Blowman.

After I trained as a graphic designer in the early 1990s, I started to work on superhero comics, inspired by the influences from my childhood. For a while the Ghanaian Times ran my comic strip called Opia. Just like Tintin, it focused on social issues. My work was also featured in some other newspapers that came into the market and vanished along the way, such as a comic about a bionic man called Sasu the Ultimate Warrior. They paid really bad though. I think only ₵5 or something for a strip.

I also developed this proposal for an African superhero strip for Unilever, called Captain Pepsodent. They really liked the idea and gave me an assignment to develop three strips. They ran Captain Pepsodent as a form of advert in their skillets and featured the three different black and white strips in the wrapping of their Pepsodent toothpaste. That paid really well, at the time, ₵1000.0000 per strip. It was my first big pay cheque! 

That made me think that there was more money in comics than I previously thought. It pushed my hope up to another level. So, I started working on this comic about HIV, which was becoming a big issue at the time. In the same period, I realised that African stories such as those about Kwaku Ananse had been told from mouth to mouth. That is how we had always heard them. And I thought: Kwaku Ananse stories will vanish, maybe in the next ten years. With my artistic background I wanted to come up with a medium that could preserve our Kwaku Ananse stories in a way that would be interesting for the generations after us. 

So, I established my own small company called Success Comics, in the hopes of becoming successful with comics, to become a household name. I wanted Kwaku Ananse to not just be someone that you’d hear about by order of tradition, but from books. If you wanted to know more about him, you could get his stories at every shop. And I wanted to ship the comics quarterly from Ghana to the rest of the world.

Additionally, I was aspiring to start a comic book industry, like DC and Marvel. I imagined my comics as the starting point, after which other people would bring in other stories. What I had in mind is that I would recruit young artists from art school, have a big studio, put them together with good story writers and give them a job after graduating, because back then Ghanaians did not really value the work that we did. I wanted to develop some nice African stories with art, so at least kids would have something to read that they could call their own, with an African origin. All these stories we read as kids were about Superman, Batman, but they were not from us, while I think we also have stories we can tell. So I wanted to tell our own stories in our own comics. 

TP: What was the production process for the comic book The Legendary Kweku Ananse: The Spreading of Anansenem like?

GS: So, with the story in mind, I would draw my graphics boxes, create the dialogue boxes, and just draw the dialogue. I did that all in pencil and from there I would do the inking. Back then, I used to have a drawing nib that I really liked to work with. The cover that you see, a friend painted it for me, but the rest of the colouring I did on the computer.

Images 2a & 2b: On the left the painted cover of The Legendary Kweku Ananse. The Spreading of the Anansenem. On the right a digitally produced poster of Ananse featured inside the comic, illustrating a difference in colouring and lining between the two production styles, © George Norman Sylvester, 1999, reproduced with permission.

Back in the 1990s, I used CorelDRAW for that. I’d scan the inked work into the computer and put colours in there. Back then, I did not have my own computer yet – I got my first one in the early 2000s – so I used the computer of my friend, the graphic designer that I worked for. He had family abroad who helped him get access to computers in the 1990s. 

Kwaku Ananse is wearing a red jacket with spiderwebs on them because Ananse means spider in Twi. As far as I can remember, it was not consciously inspired by Marvel’s Spiderman costume. I also gave him a big bald head because from the Ananse stories, we are made to believe he has a big head. Plus, the drawing style for this comic was inspired by the drawing style of Asterix; this style to me is not so realistic and exaggerates certain features, such as body parts. 

Images – 3a: Kwaku Ananse drawn with an enlarged head in a panel from the Ananse story, ‘The Magic Pot’, © George Norman Sylvester, 1999, reproduced with permission; image 3b: Asterix and Obelix with exaggerated features in Asterix The Gaul, created by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, published in 1961, © Hachette.

On the other hand, for the Captain Pepsodent strip, featured inside the Ananse comic book, I used a more realistic art style, inspired by the drawing style of Superman and Batman comics. Captain Pepsodent is very muscular, but he does not have any unrealistically exaggerated features like Ananse. Captain Pepsodent, to me, is in a different world than Ananse. For the Ananse comic book, I also coloured the Captain Pepsodent strips, whereas they had previously been in black and white only.

Images – 4a: First page of the Ananse story, ‘The Magic Pot’, © George Norman Sylvester, 1999, reproduced with permission; 4b: Captain Pepsodent drawn in a different style than the Ananse story, © George Norman Sylvester, 1999, reproduced with permission. 

TP: Before the interview, you mentioned that your dreams did not work out. Can you maybe explain what happened?

GS: At the time of the production of The Legendary Kweku Ananse: The Spreading of Anansenem in 1999, we [George and his graphic designer friend] really tried to launch the comic series in quite a big way. We printed about one thousand copies; we advertised it in the newspapers, such as the Ghanaian Times; before the launch, I also visited the National Commission on Culture to ask for their support, which they gave. During the launch party the Minister of Culture was present, while the politician Joyce Rosalind Aryee was the chairperson. 

Initially, I wanted to have a collaboration with the schools in Ghana, because they are the caretakers of students and the comics had been meant for kids to read. But the schools I went to were all reluctant to take it. I am not sure why. 

I know that when I was in school, we were not allowed to read comics: the teachers said that the English in them was not up to standard and when teachers saw you reading comics, they would seize them from you. Maybe that attitude transferred to the next generation of teachers. Personally, I still to this day do not understand this. From the research I did at the time, I understood that 90% of the reading public in the United States had read a comic once or twice. For me it was a platform to start reading. When I was growing up, I did not really like reading, but I loved comics. At some point after I had read a lot of them, I became more interested in reading something that would captivate me for a longer period, and so I switched to storybooks. So, to me comics felt like the beginning for people who did not like reading to get them into it. But the schools were not interested.

I also went to the bookshop in Legon at the University of Ghana campus. They were interested and took a few copies, but I never followed up. Eventually, I was not able to sell everything I printed and I lost interest in the whole thing. Maybe I did not have the right marketing strategy; maybe the comics just did not catch on because Ghanaians’ reading habits are not what I hoped they would be.

TP: I see that you have also brought a comic about HIV to our interview today. Can you maybe tell me a bit more about that?

GS: Yes, so I brought this comic because after the Ananse comic book did not work out, I did eventually manage to get funding for this one in the early 2000s. As I mentioned before, I initially developed this comic in black and white as well, before I had my own computer or knew how to use one in the 1990s. At the time, I could not find sponsorship, so shelved the idea.  

Four years later, I bumped into a friend who suggested I should send copies to the Disease Control Unit if I wanted sponsorship, and to go talk to them. But I did not know anyone there. And you know, in Ghana, who we know is always on our mind, so I did not bother. But shortly after, in a conversation with a friend of a friend I did not know all that well at the time, the HIV/AIDS comic came up and I mentioned I needed to see someone in the Disease Control Unit. He said that a friend of his dad’s was the head of the unit and phoned him immediately, right in front of me, saying: ‘I have a friend who has something he wants to show you’. He said ‘okay’, so I booked an appointment and went to show him my comic strip. He said to show his deputy, who asked me to make some minor changes and colour it. Since it had been four years since I’d had my own computer, so I was able to do that on the computer. 

After that, I met another friend, who I asked to help me write a proposal to the Ghana AIDS Commission. That very year, the Ghana AIDS Commission had just opened their doors to private sector participation – they were not only funding NGOs and so on anymore. Out of the 150 proposals, mine was one of the eleven that got picked and I got sponsored. We published about ten thousand copies of this comic and I got very good funding for the project!

Image 5: The cover of AIDS. The Ultimate Killer, © George Norman Sylvester, 2005, reproduced with permission. 

TP: That reminds me of the business strategy of Leti Arts, a Ghanaian video game and comic start-up established in the late 2000s, featured as part of this African Superheroes blog series before. In their early years, Leti Arts also promoted their video games and comics at the campus of the University of Ghana and tried to collaborate with schools. But unfortunately, they still were not really interested. So, in similar fashion to you, they switched to producing games and comics for NGOs and corporations, because this was more lucrative. It seems that the reading audience and educational and economic dynamics you faced are still in place. 

GS: Yeah, what I would have really wanted back then was the financial support so I could have continued collecting Ananse stories and keep on producing them. But having to go around looking for money to publish more work, while the money is not coming in, that’s just not encouraging. Sometimes I do meet guys who are really happy to see me though, when they realise that I made Captain Pepsodent. They happily share with me that they grew up reading Captain Pepsodent stories! 

Conclusion

The work of George Sylvester shows that the comic book industry in Africa in the 1990s had less of a lull than previously thought. His characters suggest that what I have previously defined as an African superhero in this AiW blog series — a hero produced by Africans who reflect on their use of digital technologies, African heritage, and use classical DC and Marvel style elements — should perhaps be reconsidered. George Sylvester does reflect on the value of new technologies, just like other African hero creators. But while Captain Pepsodent, with his muscles, tight suit, fine lines and bright colours was clearly inspired by Marvel and DC, he does not remediate African heritage. Ananse, inspired by African folklore (the Anansenem), also has fine lines, but is aesthetically more reminiscent of Tintin, and Asterix and Obelix. Taken together, Sylvester’s two comic book heroes show that in Ghana in the 1990s, there was a move toward combining heritage, new technologies and Western influences – be it from DC, Marvel, or Tintin – to inspire a new generation to consume African stories. George Sylvester’s work also illustrates that in the 1990s, Ghanaian funding for the creation of comics did not come from African audiences, but from NGOs — a dynamic still present today. His work thus provides us with more insight into the longer term dynamics in the African comic book industry and the ways that it, and its superheroes, have been shaped.

Kojo Sylvester’s passion is the telling of stories through images. Although he was influenced by Western comics, he has always wanted to break the mould and express his individuality by sharing unique African stories, experiences and history in comics form. His dream is to preserve and present African oral tales in a medium which will be exciting and acceptable to the next generation. African stories need to be told and seen from Africans’ perspective. Seeing the industry take shape with a bigger community of comic books readers and artists has renewed and ignited his passion.

He can be reached on Facebook or at slynaa@gmail.com (slynaa at gmail dot com). 

For more and other ebooks available see his Amazon shop.

Tessa Pijnaker is a PhD student in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham, studying social mobility among technology entrepreneurs in Accra, Ghana. Her past research focused on video game development and distribution in Accra, Ghana. She is the co-leader of the Africa Tech Research Collective and Project Officer for the British Academy Early Career Research Network in the Midlands. She can be contacted on tessapijnaker@gmail.com (tessapijnaker at gmail dot com) and on LinkedIn.

Read the rest of Tessa’s African Superheroes blog series for AiW at this link – or start at the beginning, African Superheroes Blog Series: Introduction – What is an African superhero?

Tessa Pijnaker’s African Superheroes Series 1-5, for AiW

Also see: based on her AiW blog posts, Tessa has been approached by a journalist, Kerushun Pillay, and has worked together with him on this article: The untold story of Captain Africa | Channel (news24.com). The article combines an interview, our blog on 1970s and 1980s superheroes, and Pillay’s own analysis.

Please feel free to extend the ongoing conversation on this post and all those in the African Superheroes series with comments – direct on the post concerned – or by contacting us via email or on our socials – We’d – Tessa and the team here at AiW – would all be pleased to hear from you and pass anything on to the authors / creators…

Twitter: @AfricainWords, Instagram: @africainwords, Facebook: @africa.inwords.



Categories: AiW Featured - archive highlights, Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Research, Studies, Teaching

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