Changing Africa’s image, one panel at a time

One of the low points in the cultural history of the United States was the publication, in the late 1980s, of the Batman comic Death in the Family, an episode famous for the killing off of Robin, the hero’s sidekick.

Much of the action takes place in the Middle East and Ethiopia. Robin’s long lost mum is a doctor (slim, blonde and looks slightly younger than her son) working in refugee camps. About the only positive thing you can say about the writers’ caricatures of Africans – as thugs, soldiers or starving refugees – is that they aren’t as negative as the caricatures of Arabs and Iranians.

An improvement is Unknown Soldier by US writer Joshua Dysart with later episodes drawn by Congolese artist Patrice Masioni Makamba. Set in northern Uganda in the late 1990s during fighting between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, there’s a lot of comment on aid politics and calls for African self-sufficiency. The downside is the plot, which is pretty standard US violent revenge fantasy stuff, lots of fights and things that go bang.

Trouble at the disco
Social conflict in 1970s Cote D’Ivoire, from Aya by Abouet and Oubrerie.

An antidote to all this is the wonderful Aya by husband-and-wife team Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie. Set in 1970s Cote D’Ivoire during the economic boom brought on by high cocoa prices and a policy of encouraging small-scale agriculture, Aya is a very everyday story of young women dealing with men – suitors, sleazeoids, fiancés, fathers and uncles. The drawings are in the modern French style, with simple lines full of light and colour. Abidjan is a town of outdoor discos, billboards, businessmen and the odd prized Toyota. Africa isn’t so different to anywhere else; there’s rich and poor, but no famine or war.

There’s a lot more like this going on in the world of African comics, unfortunately, little of it gets out of the Francophone world. I’m adding Senegal’s Goorgoorlou by T T Fons to the list of my favourite comics I haven’t read. The main character, Goor, lost his job after Senegal’s first structural adjustment plan and spends his days living on his wits – though in the spin-off TV series he’s eventually hired as a ‘Goorism’ consultant by the World Bank.

Would getting more of this work into English help change the western public’s conception of Africa either as a basket case or source of exotica? If you want to introduce people to a different face of the continent, it sure beats another pretty calendar or cook book.

Blog post on African comics Goorgoorlou

About Sam Buchanan

Sam Buchanan is a first-generation Pakeha New Zealander of mostly British descent. He sees himself as working-class, though he believes there are only two classes, workers and rulers, so many people might regard him as lower-middle class. He was de-educated at Kapiti College, self-educated by reading, and trained to do things at Wellington Polytechnic. Before working at Global Focus he was communications manager at the Council for International Development and has previously worked, paid or unpaid, as a teacher on the Thai-Burma border, tramping hut warden, shop assistant, engineering draftsperson, sub-editor and park keeper. He likes ducks, espouses anarchism, and lives in Paekakariki.
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