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Bill Masuku: Adding to Africa's Fictional Heroes

Bill Masuku is a Zimbabwean comic artist, writer and founder of Enigma Comix Africa. He attended the University Currently Known as Rhodes in South Africa where, as he puts it, "the comic-book scene was still grassroots but the political scene was exploding."

Bill's first comic book, Captain South Africa, had a short run in 2013 and will be relaunched in January 2018 - this time as a female superhero that he says is inspired by the "many strong and opinionated women whom I came to respect through my university career."

This character neatly bookends his career so far - which has seen him work with fellow Zimbabwean Dananayi Muwanigwa to create the popular character Black Zeus, and sell out his first trade paperback comic, Razor-Man, at the 2016 Comexposed Comic Book Day. On the 29th of November this year, eight days after Robert Mugabe resigned the Zimbabwean presidency, he previewed a new issue of Razor-Man called Silent Coup.

Bill spoke to us about the African comic book industry and how the medium is intrinsically political.

Tell me about the comic scene in Zim. You've described before how funding and visibility are limited by structural conditions such as economic sanctions.

Well, comic books are a business - and a niche business at that. So when looking for outside investors and/or crowd funding, the usual platforms aren't accessible because funds are being blocked. Trying to register a bank card with PayPal brings up consistent errors. Outside of international platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, even the local withdrawal of money is strictly enforced by banks as money runs out in the country. This creates subsequent problems for us, where as much as someone would like to buy a comic book, disposable income isn't so disposable. Different companies tackle this in different ways. Using mobile money platforms like ecocash, taking on the Nigerian free model and selling merchandise of the content instead and several other methods.

Tell me about the African comic scene - give me the continental view.

The African comic book scene varies from region to region really. But somehow each of their emerging creative productions all began around the same time. At present the Nigerian market is the powerhouse of the continent with two big studios pushing out the most recognizable content and making headlines in international news. In tandem with their creative content their business model has worked in their favor- having free content hosted on their websites and relying on advertising revenue to fund continued production. This approach easily gives them the biggest readership as the world shines a spotlight on Africa.

Kenya follows Nigeria closely with their combination of animation and comics. They take their marketing in a different direction as they move to the use of apps under one banner company. Egypt hosts a fairly large Comic Convention. But news of domestic titles is hard to come by, so their success is speculative. South Africa stands as the southern gate keeper of the comic book content, its flagship title being the superhero book Kwezi, making the most notable progress being sold in bookstores across the country.

Other titles make a strong departure from the super hero world and are more fantasy and adventure titles, expanding ideas that are held against comics in Africa. Zimbabwe has the most volatile economic climate but still manages to make its mark thanks to the advent of social media marketing.

What is your favourite African comic?

My favorite African comic book is Umzingeli, the African bounty huntress. While there are many reasons to love the book, particularly the painted art style, the intelligence of the titular character had me re-reading.

Far too often black characters' strengths are physical strength or mysticism. Rarely are they the smart, sharp-minded characters, and even then it's usually implied and not demonstrated so wonderfully as is done in Umzingeli.

Where do you buy your comics? How did comics become a part of your life?

There's a bookshop deep in an up-market suburb that regularly stocks comic books, which is a rarity among the shops as it's still seen as childish (even though they have children's coloring books!)

In high school a friend of mine had a stash of some collectibles, mostly Marvel comics that had already been out of print for decades. I was already drawing my own when I had first contact with them but it was like the doors of destiny blew open and showed me the way when I turned the first page of a real comic.

Describe your process - are you at this full-time? If not, when and how do you develop your ideas?

The process is long and long! I'm a comic book artist full time, taking other creative projects on the side during off seasons. But the process is the same: an idea is formed and hashed out for practicality and how well it fits into the greater narrative of ideas, it's written up in script form much like you would script for a movie or TV series, the script is used as a set of instructions to draw out the idea and then is finalized with words to complete the book.

Ideally the person with the idea or script writer has some experience with comic books and can inform the artist what kind of layouts they would like to be used, contributing to a more fine tuned visual language.

You say that "the nature of comics is to be political." What do you think it is about this medium that lends itself to that?

I think it falls to three major factors: imagery is easily consumable and quickly evokes many emotions, hypothetical/theoretical conversations can be had and elaborated on in the worst and best case 'what if' scenarios, and more importantly the combination of these two things coupled with the serialization of the medium means you can have stories that run parallel to current events. This gets people who presumably don't watch news or follow world affairs to engage with what's happening.

How do you address issues of identity and intersectionality in your work?

It has been a task to knit together these very big social issues into the pre-existing dialogue. But the more books that I do the easier it is to see how I've laid out running themes of class and race and femininity/masculinity. Characters who have conflicting ideals has been the fastest way to do this. My new release in January sees a woman, Captain South Africa, who is trying to tackle the hiking crime rates and deepening poverty gap all while facing resistance in her ideals because she has hit the glass ceiling of superheroism.

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