Is the World Ready for an African Superhero?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Planet Krypton is so passé.
By Taylor Mayol
In many ways, Wale Williams is your typical superhero. He begins life as an ordinary, utterly insignificant young man. Until, in the year 2025, Wale’s genius father mysteriously disappears, and Wale, in his search to find him, discovers a suit his dad left behind that gives the wearer special powers. When a villainous army of skeletal drones invades shortly after, the twentysomething uses his newfound powers to — spoiler alert — save the city. He is a protector of the innocent. Defender of the helpless. Destroyer of all evil. You get the picture. Tell us, though, where does that boy in your mind’s eye come from?
The answer: Wale Williams is Nigerian, with dark skin, strong cheekbones and piercing eyes. His hometown, Lagoon, is to Nigeria’s Lagos what Gotham City is to New York, and the malevolent overlords looking to destroy the world take their cue from the terrorist group Boko Haram. As it turns out, Wale descends from a new lineage of African superheroes, dreamed up by an emerging cadre of African authors and animators, writing from various cultural and mythological perspectives. On the continent and beyond, their homegrown works are getting play.
This summer, Roye Okupe sourced enough money on Kickstarter to publish E.X.O. — The Legend of Wale Williams, Part 1 on Amazon and Jumia, Nigeria’s version of the online marketplace. The comic sold out on both platforms in less than two months, creating a buzz online and among African urbanites. Wale is also getting noticed in the United States, where superheroes tend to adhere to the comfortable, white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, hetero-male archetypes. Comic book and graphic novel sales shot up $65 million between 2012 and 2014, creating an industry worth $935 million, according to trade publications. What’s more, superhero tastes are diversifying, as readers satiate their palates with a wider array of fantasy.
In the past, the typical agent’s response to a Wale Williams series pitch would be that there’s not a big enough market for it. Now, with crowdfunding and digital-publishing platforms, authors can take to the Internet masses to prove otherwise. Wale Williams defeated his nemesis on the page, but now the question is: Will the bigwig publishers be able to see beyond U.S. borders?
Growing up in Nigeria, Okupe was obsessed with comics like Batman, Superman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And while comics had those scaly, green good guys, Okupe noticed, even at the age of 8, the total absence of superheroes who resembled him. “If you’re a kid in Africa that loves comic books, there is no one to look at and say, ‘Oh, I can be like that,’ ” says Okupe, now 30 and possessed of a strong triangular jaw, shaved head and well-groomed goatee.
When classmates made trips to London or New York, they’d be inundated with requests to bring comics back to Lagos by the barrel. The slim paper volumes would circulate the schoolyard, passed from eager hand to eager hand until they were dog-eared and smooth with wear. But first-world comics were never enough for Okupe. He didn’t want to have to board a plane to buy a comic book. And he didn’t want to be stepping into American storylines when he played superheroes.
At 17, Okupe moved to Washington, D.C., to study computer science at George Washington University. Twelve years later, in 2015, he quit his job as a developer, founded YouNeek Studios and began drafting his debut graphic novel full-time. But when he shopped Wale Williams around, no one was buying. The animation was great, they said. Amazing, even. An African main character, though? Not so much. Too foreign, too dark, too “unrelatable.” Okupe opted to take the solo route.
So have a legion of other animators, who’ve created a veritable pantheon of new superheroes. They range from Kwezi, a social-media-savvy South African teenager with superhuman strength, to Enzo, a 19-year-old Cameroonian descendant whose battle gear is modeled after Kenyan Maasai warriors. Comic Republic, which launched in 2013, is known for its badass women, like Aje, a half-Nigerian, half-Venezuelan witch who’s learning to control her powers for good or evil. Leti Arts, one of the African continent’s first interactive-media studios, features The True Ananse, a digital comic and mobile game based on the Ghanian folklore character Kweku Ananse, known for his cunning trickery.
Despite the gains, there have been some speed bumps along the way. Before Los Angeles–based Nigerian-American Onyi Udeh, who’s behind the anime series Red Origins, hires new artists, he gives them a test: The 23-year-old explains that one of his main characters is a tech-savvy African girl with special dance-like martial-arts powers and then asks them to draw her. Udeh is looking to see if they shy away from making her too dark or if they slim her nose. “People have been so wired into creating characters that fit this safe mold,” he says, adding that he also asks them to draw landscapes of African cities like Lagos or Nairobi. More often than not, he gets the bush.
Black Panther was released in 1966, the same year the Black Panther Party officially came about. The man behind the mask, T’Challa, is often considered the first Black American superhero. But here’s the thing: He actually hails from an African country — a fictional one, called Wakanda. T’Challa is as smart as Tony Stark and the richest man in the Marvel Universe, since his country is the source of the material used to make Captain America’s shield (pillaging African resources — how little some storylines change). Its creators were “grown men trying to get ahead of the curve,” says Dr. Adilifu Nama, a race and pop culture expert and author of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes.
Five decades later, Black Panther is finally primed to make his silver-screen debut this year in Captain America: Civil War, with his own self-titled flick to follow in 2018. Another Black Panther comic book series, authored by journalist and MacArthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates, will debut this year, too. As in the 1960s, it’s no coincidence his figure is cropping up at a time of social unrest. Many are hoping that if Black Panther is a hit, it will spawn more dark-skinned, and maybe even African, protagonists.
Already, there are links between African and African-American creators and fans. Some have gone so far as to dub this the Black Age of comics, pointing to the hundreds of new Pan-African graphic series emerging in the last five or so years. Indeed, we’re living in a “renaissance” of African-centered pop culture mythology, says Keith York, creator of Africomics, a Black-driven comic book portal. The genre of African fantasy is nascent, at least in comic books, but it’s not too early to point out that it’s not dungeons and dragons. Instead, there are tricksters, witches, ancestors and rapacious outsiders.
The new African comic books are marketed as far afield as Mexico, France and Russia, but the norm remains white, American superheroes. In the 1990s, DC Comics began its Milestone division, whose comics were Black-authored, with Black characters and marketed to Black consumers. The division’s series produced hundreds of issues over three years. Some studios might cite Milestone’s demise as evidence there isn’t a market for Black superheroes (DC and Marvel didn’t respond to our request for comment). But Nama argues that the problem is lack of marketing, not lack of a market. Considering “society is still struggling with regular Black people,” says Nama, it’s no surprise that Black role models are a hard sell. Other Black artistic expressions have faced similar resistance in the States. It was once said that no one but Black people would listen to jazz. Or hip-hop.
Udeh, of Red Origins, likes to say that he’s “reeducating” people on what it means to be African, much the way American kids have learned about Japanese culture through shows like Power Rangers and Pokemon. He keeps a “juju consultant” — African sci-fi writer Nnedi Okorafor — on speed dial to advise on folklore and the uses of magic. It’s fair to say that most African publishers are changing the narrative, not just taking a standard-issue superhero and dropping him somewhere in Africa. Storylines aren’t so much good-versus-evil as murky and morally complex. Like the amoral tortoise of West African folklore, Mazi Mbe, there are “no obvious bad guys,” says Udeh.
So, will Wale Williams be the next Superman? Probably not anytime soon, though his fans are loyal: Part two of his graphic novel was crowdfunded within 24 hours. He also got a nod at the African International Film Festival for his eight-minute film about Wale Williams. Meanwhile, Red Origins is currently shooting a short documentary piece with Spotify called Finally Recognized, and 35 African animators — out of 1,378 applicants — were just shortlisted for a global animation contract with Triggerfish Story Lab, a Disney collaboration. Comic Republic says that when it released its latest comic, some 80,000 downloads crashed its website. “It’s only a matter of time” before cinematic superheroes are as ethnically diverse as their audiences, says Alex Widen, an Examiner comic books critic.
Of course, others disagree. Because many African comics creators have started their own companies instead of signing on with publishing houses, it’s created a chaotic marketplace full of inexperienced writers and “incredibly bloated, meandering, pointless stories,” argues Moray Rhoda, a prominent South African animator. The great artwork isn’t matched by strong storytelling, he says, with narratives ending abruptly or not at all. That’s likely the reason A-list agents would give for why they haven’t signed such books, he says, not because of their African characters.
Assessments of quality are subjective, of course; for many of the masterminds behind African superheroes, it’s ultimately about creating compelling characters and backstories. “People don’t love Batman or Superman because of where they’re from, but because of their backstory, and what they’re fighting,” Okupe says. And many would argue that a hero, no matter his provenance or the demons he’s fighting, exerts a kind of universal appeal. There is a scene in E.X.O. in which Wale spots an elderly lady being held at knifepoint in an alleyway. Without hesitation, he leaps out of a cab to help her. It’s a relatively small act, with piddly significance compared with saving the entire city. But, Okupe says, it shows that Wale is just as much of a hero without his suit on.