Besides Aya of Yop City (Ivory Coast) and Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan (Cameroon), we have done very little on other African nations, particularly the Francophone and bi-lingual ones in our coverage on African comics. We’ve focused primarily on Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Let’s change that.
Franklin Agogho is the co-founder of Zebra Comics, a collective of comic book writers and artists in Cameroon on a mission to educate and promote African cultures. Franklin and Zebra Comics believe in the richness of African stories and strongly hold that comics are the future of storytelling on the continent.
What follows is a conversation between Franklin and Mp Mbutoh of Rhythm Pulse interrogating Zebra Comics, the comic book market in Cameroon, identity and Totem, his own comic book. This interview originally appeared on Rhythm Pulse and has been edited for content, clarity and length with permission.
Tell us about Zebra Comics and its objectives.
Zebra Comics is the baby of Ejob Nathanael Ejob, a comic book illustrator so passionate about comic books that he created a company to produce and sell comics in Cameroon and abroad. He assembled writers and artists to create stories which depict Africa in new and interesting ways. When Ejob called me about the project, I was immediately hooked as it represented something which animated my childhood and was an opportunity to contribute significantly to the growing African comic book industry. The initiative started about a year ago and we have published three titles so far. These are Aliya created by An Nina, Tumbu created by Ejob Nathanael and written by Jude Fonchenalla and Totem created by yours truly.
These titles were published in one magazine called Zebra Comics Magazine and have sold four hundred copies so far. Zebra Comics intends to continue publishing these titles regularly as well as newer ones. Some of these are Njorku created by Njoka Marvin Suyru, The Wrong Dial created by Fensou Miles and ManCraft created by Ejob Gaius. Graphic novels such as Eden, In the Name of God and Lords of Thunder created by Mbutoh Divine which will tell lengthier and more elaborate stories, will equally grace bookshelves. At the same time, other projects like exercise books, t-shirts, toys, a literary café, video games and animated series will be launched.
Taking these into consideration, Zebra Comics has an objective to tell African stories through comic books, build the reading culture in Cameroon, valorise Africa through our stories and provide employment for writers, artists and other professionals who work in the domain of the 9th art.
What is the comic landscape in Cameroon like?
Encouraging! Some time ago, when I was a teenager in secondary school, the only comic books we found around were the imported Marvel comics, DC Comics, French Comics and Manga from Japan. The only African comic book around was Kouakou which disappeared after some time. But as time elapsed, the comic book landscape in Cameroon has witnessed a steady increase in publications from Cameroonian authors and artists.
Recently, during the last Mboa BD Festival, the only Cameroonian Comic book festival which took place in Douala and Yaounde in November and December 2017, I saw dozens of high-quality comic books on exposition. Comic books like CATY and OUP by Georges Pondi, La Vie D’Ebene Duta by Elyons, Mulatako by Reine Dibussi, Android Night by Cedric Minlo and many others graced the shelves of the festival’s bookstore. This proliferation of publications finds its raison d’etre in the rising interest in comic books and in the presence of serious publishers who are ready to accompany artists and authors in the struggle to put high-quality comic books on the market. During this festival, there were at least three thousand visitors who visited exposition stands and actually bought copies of comic books on sale.
In the same light, publishers like Les Editions Akoma Mba, L’Harmattan and Ifrikiya have published dozens of Cameroonian comic books which satisfy demand and encourage Cameroonians to produce more. It is true that there is still much to be done in terms of quantity and education as far as consumption of comic books is concerned. But I think, with what is happening now, the comic book landscape in contemporary Cameroon is quite encouraging.
What is the market like and what distribution channels do you use?
The comic book market is relatively new in Cameroon and as such, it is not yet well developed. There are a number of comic books already present on the market but for consumers to feel the seriousness of the industry, there is a need to increase the number of comics on the market. One of the reasons people do not know much about Cameroonian comic books is that they are hardly available.
Distribution channels are few and not strategically placed and copies are usually limited. This, coupled with the fact that there isn’t enough marketing being done on these comic books makes it difficult for the comics to really excel on the Cameroonian market. Out of Cameroon, especially in Europe, America and Japan, some of these Cameroonian comic books sell very well because the market is well structured and distribution channels are adequately designed and managed.
Despite all these shortcomings, a lot is being done to ameliorate the situation. At Zebra Comics, we are doing everything to make sure readers have easy access to our books both physically and digitally.
Who’s your ideal audience?
I know that I can’t say everybody, but I wish everyone could read the comic book because it digs deep into themes which relate to everyone; identity, class struggles, war, survival, power etc. But to be more specific, I’d say, teenagers, adults and even middle-aged individuals.
The first edition of Zebra Comics Magazine packs three titles. What necessitated this, a mark of generosity?
Yes and No. Hahaha! Yes because our readers are close to our hearts and we have a responsibility to give them the best, and so the three in one magazine.
No, because the three in one magazine wasn’t the initial plan of Zebra Comics. When we started off, we wanted to publish three comic book titles with three distinctive stories and adventures to give readers three different facets of Africa. We couldn’t because it was financially impossible for us to produce reasonable amounts of copies of the three independent stories. Plus, we didn’t have a publisher and the majority of staff at Zebra Comics are still students and unemployed youths.
We had no choice but to put all three titles in one magazine for our readers who were growing impatient. Interestingly, it has been very well received. Many are already waiting for the next issue. Talk of a disappointment becoming a blessing.
What are the three published titles about?
Aliya tells the story of a young and beautiful African translator, chronicling her experiences and struggles in the African corporate world, which puts the concept of African feminism at the forefront.
Tumbu, on the other hand, is a parody of a modern African family and its experiences vis-à-vis day to day struggles in modern-day Cameroon. It could be likened to The Simpsons.
Totem tells the story of an albino who lived in 14th Century Africa and shows his struggle for survival in a context which was unapologetic in its non-recognition of albinos as normal human beings.
What motivated Totem?
Identity and the place of the African man in this world vis-à-vis the plan of God. Recently there has been a proliferation of wars, political unrest, underdevelopment, corruption and poverty in our African countries and I was wondering why Africa was witnessing all these despite the fact that we are greatly blessed in resources. And the answer was identity.
Africa is going through a very deep identity crisis. Most of our countries keep turning to the west for a way out when most of our solutions are right in front of us. People still see America and Europe and even Asia as the Promised Land, as home, when home is right in front of us. So I decided to create something which could reunite us with our roots. And which better way than to do so through comic books?
Comic books have the power of images which stick in our minds and spirits longer than words can, and targeting youths ensures that the future of Africa finally grasps the reality of who they are and propel Africa to the grandeur which it deserves.
A totem is an animal, plant, statue or any artefact which embodies the spiritual essence or incarnation of a person, group of persons or a family and serves as protection for the incarnated individual. Totemic cultures exist in different parts of the world and are usually used as spiritual connections between man and nature. It is religious practice in some parts of the world and I found it to be an interesting place from where to draw inspiration to create the Comic book title “Totem.” By the way, the totemic liaison in the comic book is quite peculiar. I encourage readers to grab a copy and discover more.
Would you agree that Totem suffers a lot from an identity crisis?
I guess you mean Akam, the protagonist in the story. Yes, Akam obviously suffers a lot from an identity crisis. As an albino who lives with his supposed mother in a mountain cave, he has no idea that the existence of his kind is a taboo to the outside world. When he comes face to face with that reality, it becomes a shock to him as his life changes from normal to scary. I really do not want to go very deep into how and why he suffers from an identity crisis, because I will spoil the story. But it is clear that Akam suffers from an identity crisis in Totem.
Totem’s narrative language is moving and has a lush sombre effect on the setting. Tell us about the choice and time of the setting.
Thank you! The story begins in a small village in central Africa, in today’s North West region of Cameroon. But Totem will explore other settings across Africa. Readers will see Akam, the protagonist move to different places across the continent and come face to face with different cultures.
As far as time is concerned, Totem is set around the 14th century, before trans-Atlantic slave trade came into play. This time was chosen because it is the closest to our time when the African culture hadn’t yet been subjected to foreign influence. This takes us closest to our roots by depicting African culture in its purest forms.
What is your plan for Totem?
Totem is going to take readers on an unforgettable adventure. They will experience the struggles of Akam and see him go from one trial to another in different parts of Africa. At the same time, they will come face to face with African traditions, rites, politics, love and religion. I think the scope and depth of Totem will make it go for well over fifty issues or publications before the story is exhausted. It is a story which can also do well as an animated series, so there are many directions in which Totem can go. Readers should, therefore, expect a lot of exciting stuff from Totem.
What are your last words on Cameroonian comics?
First of all, let’s believe in our comic book industry. I am talking to both creators and readers. Creators should invest more time in the creation process and offer more quality works that can truly entertain and educate Cameroonian readers, and which can compete on the international market. Readers should read more of our comics and get involved in the growth of the industry because it is currently witnessing a steady growth.
Also, comic books can play a great role in promoting Cameroon’s brand internationally through memorable and popular characters and stories, so it should be taken seriously. I would have called on the government to help comic book authors to excel but I think the encouragement should be geared towards creators. If we do great work, we will be recognized, one way or another.
Zebra Comics is a collective of artists on a mission to tell African stories through comics and to educate and promote African cultures. Their goal is to tell African stories through comics and to educate and promote African cultures.
Rhythm Pulse is a Cameroonian blog that “that takes the heartbeats of poetry, arts, gender and human rights, social life, book reviews, cultures, travels, education and peacebuilding”. It is run by Mp Mbutoh pictured on the left.