Why “The Great African Character Design” is NOT a Disaster but the Makings of a Revolution

16 Min Read

I realise that this response to Eugene Ramirez Mapondera’s  rather Afrophobic litany on all the things “wrong” with Afrikan comic book character design is delayed but I write it nevertheless because I believe the points I am going to highlight here to counter his assertions are quite crucial to any conversation on Afrikan art and its future as an influential player in the global arts and culture arena and as a trendsetter in global pop culture.

I must begin by saying that I do not disagree with everything that Mapondera postulated in his article because he is right, the field of comic books and their characters is essentially a popular culture thing and it needs to be relevant, particularly to the audience of this medium.

It needs to be progressive and/or modern so yes, urban cities, modern techno gadgets and gizmos and culturally diverse and integrated i.e. globalized communities in the story’s backdrop are all important aspects that a designer would do well to include in his/her creation and this includes in the character development and design process.

With that said, everything else about that article was nothing short of offensive and reeked of internalised racism and an unhealthy dose of an inferiority complex. The language Mapondera uses in his article (in relation to Afrikan character design and cultural influence) to make his point about the need for innovation in comic character design is so self deprecating I cannot help but visualize a freakishly weird creature that is a fusion of the character of Uncle Ruckus from the popular animated TV series The Boondocks, King Leopold II of Belgium and Cecil John Rhodes spewing all of that tripe. His ill informed but well-worth-the-consideration point is almost completely drowned out by the hot mess that is his tirade against the things that both inform a general/common Afrikan identity as well as inspire a sense of pride in these identifiers that are ultimately proudly Afrikan.

He ignores that all other cultures still hold onto certain elements they deem essential to their identity going forward and in the west they dub these the “classics” or declare their proprietors and ambassadors “cultured” and yet when we do this, hold on to aspects of our past that we would like to carry forward with us, it is, in Mapondera’s opinion, us being “unsophisticated” or “tasteless” or “backward” or “derogative”.

What is derogative is how he looks upon things such as spears, beads and animal skins in this way because although we now tog “skinnys” and hoodies, we also still wear beads and dashikis and kente, capulana, chitenje or mudcloth (all commonly known as “Afro print”) outfits, not to mention that spears and animal skins and drums are still very present in a lot of modern and if anything affluent spaces from our homes to hotels and offices all as part of what is considered “sophisticated” décor.

Mapondera appears to be so blinded by his apparent inferiority complex that he seems to confuse himself a little in his article when he uses conflicting strands of reasoning to praise western and eastern creations on the one hand and to tear down Afrikan creations on the other.

His adulations for fictional and very fantastical western characters like Superman, the X-Men and vampires do not call to question the unrealistic characteristics and qualities of these characters, neither does he interrogate the impracticality of Clark Kent’s “disguise”, the unrealistic indestructibility of Cyclopes’ eyelids by his own death ray or the ever changing vulnerabilities of the blood sucking (and nowadays “vegetarian”) undead for instance but he will challenge the practicality of the Afrikan comic character’s costume which involves being topless/bare breasted and argue “protection against the elements.”

He also uses Marvel’s famous comic book (now turned movie) The Avengers as an example of “sophisticated” characters in comparison to their “woefully” primitive Afrikan characters and yet he appears to ignore the fact that Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (inspired by Germanic mythology) is a part of the Avengers team, complete with his very archaic and somewhat impractical gear and arsenal which is solely made up of a non-battery powered hammer affectionately known as Mjolnir. Wait, there’s more, in addition to the Germanic man-god, the avengers team also boasts the skills of Captain America in his American flag inspired spandex, I repeat spandex, costume – he must share a tailor with Superman as he too has a costume that is inspired by the star spangled banner – but this, this, Mapondera does not have a problem with.

He does not consider these ever consistent trends a sign of tedious or clichéd unsophistication but he will bemoan the red, yellow and green colour scheme of Afrikan characters.

In his citation of the definition of sophisticated he conveniently omitted to include disambiguations of the term as sophisticated can also mean “to alter or pervert” and the antonym for this, which I suppose by implication would apply to the current nature of Afrikan design would be “unadulterated; pure; genuine” which in a way is a compliment despite the fact that he meant it as an insult.

I was particularly intrigued by Mapondera’s and the site administrator, Sigma Scribe’s responses to comments that called into question the author’s barrage against particular aspects of Afrikan character designs.

Sigma Scribe dismissively responds to a comment made by Shaudzirai Lowe Mudekunye Mawunganidze that calls into question Mapondera’s choice of words to describe what is inherently a lot of Afrikan peoples’ heritage using what appears to be sarcasm when s/he comments to the academic nature of the comment as though to imply that there is no room for that kind of analysis or rhetoric on that platform.

This dismissal of the intellectualization of the article in the debate exhibits a refusal to welcome practical criticism or to be encouraged to self evaluate and interrogate the flaws of the author’s argument for the sake of progress and the actualisation of the sophistication he and his supporters so audaciously claim to advocate.

In addition, the comment made by the scribe about him being “unapologetic” and “revisionist” almost as if to imply that he is a revolutionary of some sort is also a bit worrying because, again, it completely refuses to review opposing postulations that may or may not be valid from the get go.

It also negates the fact that if indeed Mapondera is viewed as some sort of post modern revolutionary of his “sophisticated” Afrikan ilk, there is a difference between being a revolutionary and just being stubborn and arrogant. Besides, it is not all self professed revolutionaries who make good/ideal revolutionaries.

After all men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Kony are considered revolutionaries in certain circles and I find Mapondera’s choice of words a little too close for comfort to the colonialist and Eurocentrist view of the Afrikan to be deemed a positive inspiration.

What I believe Mapondera misses completely in his article is an opportunity as an informed, experienced and articulate artist and instructor to advocate for an amalgamation of modern and urban Afrikan spaces with their respective heritages.

To challenge us, and more particularly his students, to set our own and possibly the rest of the world’s, standards on progress, advancement and development and inspire a resurgence of an Afrikan renaissance of sorts in this area of pop culture.

Instead he chooses to use this opportunity to pit modernization against cultural heritage and identity and in his article and subsequent responses to comments, he ignores the fact that Afrika does not need to turn itself into a quasi America or Japan in order to be a powerhouse in the global comic arts scene.

What he does manage to do is callously betray his own privilege and completely disappears the realities of the majority of the peoples of the continent, including those of the very same Zimbabwe he both hails from and presently resides in.

He completely overlooks the fact that Sub Saharan Afrika survives at approximately 60% (urban) and 14.2% (rural) access to electricity, or that access to computers and the internet and microwave dinners and Justin Beiber/ Miley Cyrus etc are still more of luxuries enjoyed (or suffered, depending on which side of the fence you stand) predominantly by the privileged or that majority of the people identify more with heroes like King Shaka, Mbuya Nehanda and Queen Yaa Asantewaa or Shango; Orisha of Fire and Thunder than they do Thor and Aqua Man.

In a bid to abate his fears that this will only serve to restrict Afrikan comic books to the continent and context specific locale I will point out that the Green Lantern was inspired by Irish folklore and heritage so if the Irish can successfully export their own culture via the Green Lantern why cant we do the same with our own heroes?

C. Matthew Hawkins so aptly put it when he said:

“Comic book heroes personify societal mythology, and mythology tells people who they are and what they can be. A society that only imports its superheroes, but never produces heroes of its own, is a society that will always look to others to solve its social and environmental problems.”

We have been taught for centuries that we will never be better than the lesser and that Afrikans have always been primitive and backward and that it is only the global west or the global east that can set the tone for what is and what isn’t progress and sophistication. Mapondera’s article is a manifestation of the inroads that this dogmatic indoctrination and miseducation on the history of the world and its peoples have made in the minds of the oppressed.

Digital artists and creatives like Ghanian computer game designer Eyram Tawia and Zimbabwean designer, founder and director of Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts and author of Afrikan Alphabets Saki Mafundikwa (who applies the philosophy of Sankofa in his work) are in my opinion much healthier for the young minds of digital arts students because at least they, although keeping up with the times, still exhibit and encourage pride in our Afrikan (creative) heritages and the need to keep them alive in both our work and in our journey towards becoming leaders in the global digital arts world.

In my opinion, and if history is anything to go by, assimilators are neither inspirational nor influential. However, those that set themselves apart are. Afrikans need to thrive to be Afrikans, yes perhaps global Afrikans/ Afropolitans, but Afrikans all the same, not Americans or Japanese or Britons. We need to give our children s/heroes they can identify with and who look like them and sound like them. We need to create these s/heroes from the rich and full repository of our history, folklore and mythology not that of others and we also need to be selective of the kinds of international icons we draw our inspiration from.

Not all things trending are worth duplication. We need to give our kids roots with which to hold their identity firm in the ground in order to sufficiently nourish the magnificent plants they will grow and blossom into based on and informed by their identity and origins and yes inspired by the world around them presently. We need to use pop culture to change the negative narrative that Mapondera so obviously buys into and retell our own stories to share and inspire the rest of the world. There is a reawakening/ revolution a-brewing in these here parts of the world and it should be digitized.

Doreen Gaura is a female, brown skinned Zimbabwean creation rights activist, womanist, Afrocentrist and writer/blogger/poet who will soon be entering into ubungoma (traditional spirituality and medicine) as an initiate. She currently resides and works in Cape Town for a children’s rights organisation. She has written articles that have been published in journals, online publications as well as mainstream print publications across the globe and she has contributed to other blogs such as herZimbabwe and Chimurenga Chronic. When she is not contributing to other blogs, she writes posts for her own blogcolouredraysofgrey.wordpress.com .

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