Can you tell us a little bit about your background as an artist and writer for readers who haven’t yet read your work?
Sure! I am not formally or traditionally trained in any art form or even writing for that matter. I’m a self-taught artist, which means that a majority of my learning comes from a combination of trial and error, searching for YouTube artists giving out tips, taking screenshots of art that I like to use as reference, doing quick sketches of people at the airport, and watching behind the scenes of animation and film.
As a writer I used to have a journal to note down any complicated thoughts, I eventually moved over to a blog where I shared stories that paralleled my real life experiences. I loved fiction, especially sci-fi, there’s something inspiring about someone’s random idea like video calls eventually becoming a real life norm. Fantasy is much easier to write though, there’s less rules and strict guidelines for practicality, reason, and meaning.
Self-publishing comic books was the only way to go in Zimbabwe because there are no publishers that cater to this kind of medium. It was such a learning experience figuring out paper, printing, distribution, and the like – although it took time away from my art, it influenced my artistic process in thinking about how the end product would feel and look in someone’s hands.
Fantasy writing is in as much of the same boat as comic books here. And I likely would not have published any long form writing if I didn’t meet my publisher in South Africa. At the time I had given up on fiction writing, so had started writing a biography of sorts building on for the blog posts I had made years earlier. When I pitched the book to my publisher as “A Town Called Graham”, she really enjoyed my ideas and then unexpectedly asked if I could add fantasy to it. I felt seen. The book is now called Misfortunism.
You have lived in both Zimbabwe and South Africa and been involved in the comic book world from a young age. How do the industries in Zimbabwe and South Africa compare and have you seen any major developments over the past few years?
In Zimbabwe, we try to avoid the word industry because we acknowledge that even after five or so years working collectively, that we have not gotten far in our efforts to monetize, distribute, and integrate ourselves with other art spaces. There are less than a handful of us working on making comic books full time, be it self-publishing or work for hire on other projects from the region, country, or overseas.
The local comic book events hosted by Comexposed focus mainly on highlighting animation, fashion, graphic designers, film makers, 3D artists. With local comic creators not being spotlighted or as an under marketed add-on.
South Africa’s comic book industry is in complete contrast. Granted it is a much larger country with a much more disposable income to purchase and invest in their local creators, this wouldn’t be possible without the tireless efforts of their comic convention organisers over the years.
Recently, Reed POP the organisers of New York Comic Con and their other comic con branded events arrived in South Africa to set up Comic Con Africa. The events in 2018 and 2019 drew in around 70000 – 80000 people to attend. Whereas the largest convention in Zimbabwe has drawn in crowds of around 200 to 1000 dedicated fans.
Even without the big brand power of Reed POP, FanCon in Cape Town South Africa brings in crowds of people. All while highlighting new talents on panels, featuring the writers and artists, having comic book artist and writers as guests interacting with people who are just starting, and just being a friendly community space that is constantly growing.
Because FanCon, ICON and Comic Con Africa happen in big cities, they are often inaccessible to people from smaller towns or with smaller budgets. That doesn’t stop die-hard fans from collaborating, pooling resources and hosting their own events. From memory, other smaller events that sprout across the country are: UCON, UPCon, ConEct, KINCON, and many more that are either community specific or hosted by a university’s anime society. These spaces formed hubs and calculable interest enough for companies like Reed POP to see opportunities to create these major developments.
You have two wonderful ongoing series entitled Captain South Africa and Razor-Man. Can you share a bit about where the inspiration for these characters came from and what your hopes and plans are for these series or for other projects you have been working on?
Captain South Africa was born from my love of super hero comics, while Razor-Man was born from my love of anime and manga.
Initially, Captain South Africa was man. An undeniable copy paste of Captain America but black, and African. I made the character without much thought other than wanting to see more African super heroes. But through reading more comics, through interacting with a lot of different brands of feminism through university – I felt I could do more with the character than have another buff guy in spandex punching another buff guy in spandex.
I thought deeply about what I was actually contributing to literature. Why would anyone want to read black Captain America from Africa, when they can just read Captain America? South Africa has some of the highest crime rates in the world, but that’s not information or statistics that you can look at in isolation. Poverty, income inequality, housing, access to health care/clean water, and so on – these sit as the backbone to many problems regardless of country. I thought that was something that anyone could read and resonate with. It was also something I had never seen in a comic book.
I started the book with a singular thought in mind, “punching criminals does not stop crime” and a whole new world of writing opened up to me.
The plans for the future of the series is to eventually finish the first arc of the book and hire writers from southern Africa who are also women of colour to script out stories for the book. I want eventually to gather enough interest in the book that it is self-sustaining, so that profits from the books can be used to pay writers, artists, colourists, and the whole creative team. The dream is that the book becomes a household name and we look less and less overseas for stories, heroes, and job opportunities for creatives.
Razor-Man is much more of a fantasy action story that is merging everything I love about the way popular anime is told with African cultures, myths, and legends. There’s more room to go wild with my imagination in Razor-Man, and so from the concepts, art, to even the philosophies of the characters, I’m pushing myself to get readers really lost in the pages.
A small hope is that there is a YouTuber that starts discussions on Razor-Man theories week to week as I have seen happening with many popular publications.
My production approach to Razor-Man will also borrow from manga, starting from 2021. Rather than an individualist creative team, I would like to work in a collectivist creative team. In American comic books there are 4 – 8 people who specialise in a particular area be it writing, pencils, line art, colour, lettering, and so on. But in manga production, there is an author who has a team of assistants each pushing the book along to meet the week to week deadlines. Over the years we’ve seen great manga authors rise after being assistants to older great manga authors. This system is handle much more like an apprenticeship for artists just starting out who need to learn the ropes before launching into their own series. Rather than having to already be a top tier colourist to apply for several jobs, they have stable incomes for the duration of months while the book is produced.
Ideally, that’s what I want for Razor-Man, to raise up new artists who may not have the resources to self-publish and teach them everything I know all the while getting help speeding up the production of the book to put it out more frequently.
You are the cofounder of Enigma Comix, a successful publishing house for comic books based in South Africa. What led you to start this publication and release your books yourself as opposed to pitching them to a preexisting publisher?
Because of access to information, I only knew of Marvel, DC, and some bandes desinee like Asterix growing up. I didn’t think I would ever be on their radar, let alone be able to work for them or pitch my stories to them.
I also knew that there weren’t any comic book publishers in my home town of Harare. Looking further, there were none in the country. I thought it was a mystery. I came up with the name “Enigma Comix,” but that was all the way back in primary school. So wouldn’t publish anything officially until years and years later.
Sadly, at that time, there were no comic book publishers around who were willing to publish my work. People who made comics yes, but no company that I could pitch too.
What are some of the challenges you faced along the way both as a publisher and as an author?
The biggest challenges have been sustainability, collaboration, and motivation.
Because there are no comic book shops, and bookshops are skeptical to stock our products, the sustainability of making comics comes under constant question. I rely on big conventions to make sales as well as selling my books digitally. During the off seasons I move away from my own work and do more work for hire/contract work on other comic books which helps fund my own work.
Collaborating is difficult for two main reasons. The first being that “why would I would on your project for free, when I can work on my own?” Many artists and writers want to be the break out talent and have full ownership and control over their property to the point that the idea of sharing sounds like a trap. Because of weak intellectual property laws, contracts between two creators have been flimsy and more of a formality rather than a legally binding document.
The other issue is motivation. Even if two or more people agree to work with each other. The differing levels of ambition becomes very evident. When it’s a hobby for one person and a career for another, most projects will die before even getting off the ground. We have to make allowances that people have “real lives” outside of comic book creation and eventually you run into a communication breakdown.
How do you think comic books from South Africa and Zimbabwe will develop in the near future?
I think because of the arrival of Comic Con Africa, the rise of several notable comic book artists and writers in the region, as well as a growing access to information and features of comic books on mainstream journalism platforms like CCN – we will see an increase of interest of young people who go into the arts thinking that graphic design is the only avenue they can pursue.
As more comic books are sold and comic conventions bring in more paying attendees in the tens of thousands – investors will seek ways to inject funds into either the comics themselves or into the events that host them. Eventually maybe a full comic book publisher that hires talent will be established in the region and will provide artist and writers with living wages.
As the intellectual property becomes more well-known there will be copycats and art theft, and the eventual need for stricter copyright laws on comic book characters and the stories and books themselves.
There is also the inevitable brain drain that will occur too, where comic book companies from overseas will see just how much talent is growing in the two countries and poach them. That would leave Southern Africa without its industry leaders and take us back several years. That or the IP itself is bought and licensed elsewhere, creating a disconnect that bring in to question if Africans can’t manage their own ideas and other such discussions.
Where is the best place for readers to find your work and keep updated?
My website billmasuku.com has pretty much my whole work history as well as a section to read any press, videos, or write ups on things I’ve been involved in.
For my social media you can find me by searching @billmasukuart, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. To specifically follow work that I publish please follow @enigmacomix.
Jasmine Mattey is doing an Ma in English Literature at Uppsala University and is affiliated with the research project African street literature and the future of literary form. She currently collects self-published literature, comics, slam poetry and other kinds of material that many archives have traditionally overlooked.