African comic books and France: the South African exception

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Exchanges in the field of comic books between Europe and Africa are unbalanced. While more and more African authors are coming to Europe to try their luck, the few albums published in the South do not travel beyond national borders. Very often, the bibliography of African authors starts with their European output. The European public therefore comes across practically no work conceived and realised in Africa (1). As stated by the Cameroonian Simon Pierre Mbumbo: « In Europe, publishers will not take the risk of publishing African comics which they are not sure that they can sell. They always suggest that we get into their mold, and come up with stories dwelling on familiar local themes (2) » A view which Christophe Ngalle Edimo, representative of the Association L’Afrique dessinée (Drawn Africa) shares : « […] the publisher maintained that there was a commercial risk involved and that nobody was going to buy a comic book talking of Africa: « It would be better if you deal with other topics… » We were disappointed because we wanted to address subjects related to Africa (3) » The conclusions are even worse for English speaking Africa which enjoys even less of the interaction with France which is proper to Francophone Africa. The sole exception, however: the South African case with which the exchanges are the most enduring and balanced in terms of translations and adaptation of works. Yet, during a long time, because of apartheid and the consequent boycott policy, these two countries have had very little economic and cultural exchanges. But, since the last few years, there has been significant progress, as South Africa progressively asserted itself as a continental giant, especially in the field of comic books, thanks notably to the geographical proximity between Réunion and Johannesburg.
The first South African story to have been translated and adapted in France is the Madame et Eve series [ mettre le titre original ici], a runaway bestseller in South Africa with 30 000 copies sold on average in a country where a best seller struggles to reach sales of 7 000 copies (4). Published in daily strips in 13 newspapers over the country and read by 4 million readers, this humoristic series is a « less distorting than you think mirror of relations between white and black, symbolised by a maid and her boss, a white upper class lady complete with a pearl necklace (5) ». The 12 original albums have been collected in 6 opus by Vent d’Ouest between 1997 and 2000 with a tangible critical and popular success: Enfin libres ! (1997), Votes Madame et Eve -T.2 (1998), La coupe est pleine T3 and Remue Ménage à deux T 4 (1999), Madame et Eve en voient de toutes les couleurs -T5 and Madame vient de Mars, Eve de Venus (2000).
More akin to the world of Anglo saxon comics than to Franco-belgian comics, [….] also owes its success to the political context and to the surge of interest in France towards the beginning of the nineties for the « rainbow nation », bearer of hope for a pacific post apartheird transition (6). In the ensuing years, those South African authors who have been published in Europe have mostly been authors from the Bitterkomix group, an underground comics magazine in Afrikaans, which has had 14 issues since its beginning in 1992. Founded by Joe Dog (Anton Kannemeyer) and Conrad Botes (Konradski),who both studied at the Fine Arts University of Stellenbosch, this magazine takes on a rather distinctly « trash » turn with pictures of a pornographic character as from the number 4. Other illustrators such as Joe Daly and afterwards Karlien de Villiers (as from issue number eight in 1998) joined in the magazine’s team. The bitterkomix have also published monographs such as Stet (1989), Gif Afrikaner sekskomix (1994) as well different best -ofs in English such as most recently the splendid « The Big bad bitterkomix handbook » (2007) (7). A rarity in an anglo -saxon country, the authors of the Bitterkomix movement have always claimed the influence of the French comic books world in their work. Starting from childhood, for Kannemeyer stated in 2004 that : « I grew up with Tintin ; it was very important to me (8) », which almost echoes Karlien de Villiers: « During my childhood, the only comics which I always read were the adventures of Tintin […] one can say it influenced me in a way… (9) »
But equally in their professional work, where the French influence is acknowledged and put forth since the beginning. « We were more French influenced,to bring a point across. Moebius, etc (10) », especially among independent authors as pointed out by Karlien de Villiers: « Anton and Conrad have also enabled me to discover over time the works of authors who have influenced me such as David B., Marjane Satrapi, Julie Doucet, […]Jean Philippe Stassen, Baudoin (11) ». As a result of cultural proximity, it is with independent publishers such as L’Association or Cornelius that the Bitterkomix authors have been published in France. In 2000, shortly after having been invited to the Angoulême festival of 1999, Conrad Botes and Joe Dog participated in Comix 2000 (12), a 2000 pages album of picture- only comics, drawn by 324 authors from 29 different countries on the occasion of the transition to a new millenium and which formed a non exhaustive but quite representative snapshot of independent comic book art. Afterwards, Conrad Botes and Joe Do were published in France in 2002 in the Number 31 issue of Lapin, a magazine published by L’Association et Conrand Botes, alone, in 2006 in the No 27 issue of Feraille illustrée, published by Les requins marteaux (13). In 2007, two authors from Bitterkomix have been published in France: Joe Daly (14) published Scrublands, a picture- only album at L’association, initially published by the American publisher Fantagraphic books and Karlien de Villiers published in May the first autobiographical comic book by a South African autor to come out in France, Ma mère était une très belle femme at Editions çà et là. Initially published in Switzerland by Arrache Coeur in 2006, under the original title Meine mutter war eine schone frau, then in Spanish by Glenat Espagne.
The references to France and to the movement L’association, here again, are quite constant as spelt out by Karlien de Viliers: « I am often asked whether Satrapi has influenced my work, and the answer is yes, undoubtedly, but only partly […] I believe that Persepolis has shown me other examples of possible affinities between history and comic strips, even if I cannot precisely explain in what way (15) » In 2008, the French edition of a book by Conrad Botes at Cornelius is expected, as well as the translation of The Big Bad Bitterkomix handbook at L’association. Other names are coming up, such as Brice Reignier, winner of the Vues d’Afrique competition at the Angoulême festival in 2006.
In the 80’s-90’s, the Cri du Margouillat venture grew up in La Réunion, with similar cultural characteristics to the Bitterkomix movement.
Those two currents were to get linked both at the human and artistic levels. Joe Dog, Conrad Botes, Jo Daly and Karlien De Viliers were almost systematically invited to the first four editions of the Comic Book festival of Saint Denis, Cyclone BD (16). The Le margouillat magazine which took over as from 2000 from Le Cri du margouillat, even published a story by Joe Dog, Noir (in issue number 13 of December 2001). The scenarist Appollo presents his South African counterparts in those words (17): « In South Africa, comic books seem to be quite successful. Although the country has no tradition in this field, the Bitterkomix magazine has blazed a trail for a committed and personal creation which can be compared to the European underground scene […] morality, taboos are roughed up, and post apartheid society discovers modernity through a magazine which hits hard where it hurts. Bitterkomix has provoked an ambivalent reaction because it is at the same time the bugbear of a society still steeped in a recent history fraught with the most violent of conservatisms and a racism which has in all likelihood not disappeared, and a kind of especially attractive mirror of what could be the new South Africa: young, insolent, uninhibited, avant-garde (18) »
In the same way, Francophone comic books are quite visible in South Africa. The three successive edition (2002, 2004, 2006) of the International Comic Book festival at the Cape, Comics Brew have made it possible, thanks to the unconditional support of the French Embassy, to invite several French and Francophone illustrators: Rabaté, Stassen (France) and Kalonji (Switzerland) in 2002, Huo Chao Si and Appollo (Réunion) Willem (France) in 2004, Lewis Trondheim and Michel Plessix (France) and Pat Masioni (DRC) in 2006 and to show their work in exhibitions and in the beautiful catalogue of the festival (The comics brew festival catalogue). French authors have also been published in local magazines. The other major offbeat South African comics magazine, Mamba comix (19), which includes Zapiro, the star cartoonist of the country (20), Andy Mason (21), future head of Comic Brew, Rico (Madam and Eve) and N.D. Mazin among its artists, has published a story by Jean Philippe Kalonji, The Search, in its first issue of 2003, The aliens issue (22). Bitterkomix has also published two stories by Serge Huo Chao Si and Appollo translated into Afrikaans, in their issue number 12: Chinese kos and 13: Die verhaal van die neger ysterwerk (23). Issue number 12 was a sort of « Special France » issue as it also included a strip by Hobopok, another illustrator from Le cri du margouillat, titled Meet Bitterkomix, and an article directly written in English by the abovenamed: Comics on Reunion Island (24), as well as a story by Pascal Rabaté, Welcome to Johannesburg.
For the past few years, the South African publisher Miodrag Pepic (Ed Pepic &Kraus) re-issues on the local market, solely from its own budget, French albums translated in English : in 2004, Pepic & Kraus has published four French albums: Gil Saint André (Vol 1), Lanfeust de Troy (Vol 1), Le troisième testament (Vol 1) and Titeuf (Vol 1). It met with a tepid response, as it itself stated in 2006: « We were able to sell about 400 copies of our first volumes of Titeuf, Lanfeust, Gill St André and Le Troisième Testament, and in view of these numbers, we may consider them as best sellers, despite the financial losses they have generated (25) » The numbers seem to have increased since then, for Miodrag Pepic claimed sales of 3500 copies at the end of 2007 for these first four albums (26).
In 2005, Pepic asked for support from French institutions to publish seven new titles: Captain Biceps (Vol 1), Titeuf (Vol 2), Le 3eme testament (Vol 2), Universal war one (Vol 1) and first two tomes of Zoulouland. The positive answer to this request (27) has enabled the issue in this end of 2007 of the volumes two of Titeuf and of Lanfeust, while that of the other issues will be spread over 2008 (28).
The next titles of each series (Titeuf, Lanfeust…etc) are actually under negociations for the ensuing years, which shows a genuine commitment by the publisher, who has already committed himself to publish at his own costs tomes 3 and 4 of Zoulouland, whose action takes place in the country.
This flow between France and South Africa can thus be explained by several reasons: firstly, it is obviously an absolutely necessary prelude, by a substantial pool of talent (29) and the presence of dynamic and enterprising publishers of books and magazines. However the clinching factor has been the presence in the region of a French department endowed with a genuine comic books tradition has also played an important role as a link and a conveyor between the two countries and, finally, the European origin of most of the illustrators has enabled them, undoubtedly, to benefit from contacts with Europe. The South African success can also be explained by the existence of an autonomous graphical current, which is underground, satirical, violent and insolent, in step with post-apartheid society and the bearer of a genuine alternative discourse which is open to other exterior currents (30). Thus, despite a rather limited run (1000 to 1500 copies) Bitterkomix has been considered by L’association and Le margouillat as a movement with which they felt affinities. This has led to, for once, balanced exchanges between a North and a South country.
My heartfelt thanks to Frédéric Jagu, Serge Huo Chao Si, Alain Brezault and Appollo
As this article does not have as aim to retrace the history of South African comics, I recommend to the reader the last issue of Bo Doi (Number 114 of December 2007) which includes an article entitled « Comics world tour en Afrique du Sud »

1. With the notable exception of Magie Noire by the Ivoriqn Gilbert Groud ; published qt Allbin Michel in 2003, and which has been drawn in Africa without a European public in mind
2. Les créateurs africains cherchent leur voie (African creators look for their way), L’essor (Mali), Issue No 15972 of 18 June 2007
3. Interview by Paul Yange given in grioo.com: http://www.grioo.com/pinfo11816.html
4. Their website, which receives 13 000 visits per day, is available on www.madamandeve.co.za
5. L’Afriaue du Sud se mire dans le miroir de « Madame et Eve » (South Africa gazes at itself in the mirror of Madam and Eve », Fabienne Pompey, Le Monde, 6 January 2003. See also « Madam and Eve sur le net (Madame and Eve online) at http://www.afrik/article7296.html
6. This series, which started in 1992, quickly attracted attention in France, for as from 1994, articles about it appeared in the French press. See La nouvelle société sud-africaine au crible de la BD (The new South African society through the eye of comics » Libérqtion, 11 January 1994
7. This abundantly illustrated book traces back the history of Bitterkomix as well as the « contemporary art » achievements of the magazine’s two founders.
8. Joe Dog, interviewed by John Lent, 30 October 2004, unpublished
9. From a conversation with Laurence Le Saux, Bodoi, April 2007
10. The outrageous art of South Africa’s Bitterkomix, the comics journal Issue No 275, April 2006
11. From Ma mère making of-2, blog at Editions çà et là, http://infoscaetla.over-blog.com/article-6881275.html
12. With, in the case of Joe Dog, a stunning pastiche of Tintin
13. The story entitled La passion du rat blanc (The White rat’s passion) republished in the integral album Reliure Ferraille illustrée No4
14. Joe Daly had published an album in South Africa: The red monkey-the leaking cello case-double storey book in 2003, of which an extract has been published in Africa comics 2003
15. From Ma mère making of-2 Op.Cit.
16. Only Karlien de Villiers was invited for the 2007 festival
17. Appollo, La Bd dans l’Océan Indien (Comics in the Indian Ocean), Le Margouillat, No 13, pg 14. This article comes with a strip by Botes and Joe Dog about their visit to Reunion : Duh boere a La Reunion.
18. It is to be noted that many years afterwards, and while he now lives in Luanda, Appollo still follows with fondness and interest the European tribulations of the Bitterkomix group, Cf his blog http://appollogue.blogspot.com
19. Cf.http://www.mambacomix.co.za/index.html.
20. Winner in 2005 of the prestigious Prins Claus, Zapiro has worked for the Sowetan, the Sunday Times and the Mail and Guardian
21. For those who read Italian, bibliographical notices may be consulted in Matite africane, still available on the website of Africa é mediterraneo.
22. This issue also included a drawn account of Karlien de Villiers’ visit to France : Paris, France
23. Chinese cooking and The Iron Negro, which had previously been published in issues number 10 and 12 of Margouillat.
24. This article was republished in the big bad Bitterkomix, Hobopok is the author of Le temps béni des colonies (The blissful times of the colonies) (1998) and the one who « discovered » the Bitterkomix, which he then revealed to his colleagues at Le Cri du Margouillat
25. Point export : Afriaue du Sud, Suprême dimension, No 3, April 2006, page 85
26. These figures enable us to relativise the success of French comics in South Africa.
27. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes over part of the transfer of rights and buys the CD’s containing the strips of the albums. As an accompanying measure, the French Embassy has granted an aid to the publishing of the albums.
28. Definitely very enterprising; Miodrag Pepic has also published two original albums in 2007: Kruger Park and Mustang Sally.
29. A pretty revealing illustration of this fact: South Africans represented 17 comic book artists out of 31 in the Africa Comics 2002 contest and 13 out of 41 for Africa Comics 2003.
30. The Chimurenga magazine, while having its own character, is clearly influenced by this current. This is also the case with Stripshow No 1, created by students of Joe Dog, and Lekker Comics (2006) founded by Daniel du Plessis.
This article has been translated by my friend, the Mauritian author, Amal Seewtohul, to whom I give my heartfelt thancks.///Article N° : 7215

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