Over the past few years, the Zimbabwean comic industry has grown significantly. In 2015, an artist collective called Comexposed launched Zimbabwe’s first-ever comic book convention. According to TechZim, it “highlighted the animation talent in the country and shed some light on the burgeoning local comic industry.” Since then, Comexposed has held multiple comic book events. Speaking at Comexposed 2016, co-founder Eugene Mapondera said that the event showed how the local comic industry has grown rapidly since the event’s inception.
Most of the international comic community hasn’t yet recognized the cultural and political importance of the Zimbabwean comic scene. Despite this, Zimbabwe — which has been described as a “great comic book incubator” — continues to produce talented artists like Bill Masuku.
Masuku is fast becoming one of the most well-known comic artists in Zimbabwe. He, along with the well-known Zimbabwean graphic artist Dananayi Muwanigwa, created a popular character named Black Zeus. Masuku went on to create the character Razor-Man, and that series, along with his other comics, are now being produced by Enigma Comix Africa, a subsidiary of Sigma-Digital Studios. Razor-Man debuted and then sold out at Comexposed’s Comic Book Day in 2016. Masuku is currently working on the fifth comic in the Razor-Man series as well as a superhero comic called Arcadia Knights. He’s also collaborating with Amanda Chaniwa on Drama Mama, a slice-of-life comic about five women experiencing life after high school.
Masuku has a consistent ability to combine beautiful line work, witty writing, and socially aware storylines to create entertaining work that pulsates with political themes. I spoke to him about his work, his social commentary, and the nature of the comics scene in Zimbabwe.
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Let’s start at the beginning: How did you get into creating comics? What attracted you to the medium?
I started drawing comics when I was in Grade 5 [age 11]. I really enjoyed it. Books are great, but they only give half a story. They don’t always convey what the author envisions. When I first read Harry Potter, for example, Hermione was definitely black in my mind, so it was quite a shock to see her as white in the movie. Comics prevent that issue because they’re both written and visual, and I was attracted to the union between those two forms of storytelling.
One of the biggest challenges was that the access to comics in Zimbabwe was nearly nonexistent. It was only much later in my life that I actually got to hold a comic book and look at how it’s done from start to finish.
Has the accessibility of comics changed since you were younger? Why do you think it’s important that young people in Zimbabwe have access to these books?
There are small bookshops that are importing more international content, and we, the local creators, are trying as much as we can to put out the books into as many places as possible. It’s something that the entrepreneurs of the comic book industry are working toward. One of our mandates is to get as many of our books into as many people’s hands as possible.
Having access to things like comic books is super important for younger people. The adult literacy rate in most African countries is really low, and maybe it’s because of access to books themselves. But it’s definitely crucial to be able to get someone interested in reading early, to get them to want to learn more, to read more, to be literate.
Your comics explore a lot of social justice issues. How do you think comics enable us to explore these issues in a way that other mediums might not?
I think when it comes to social justice issues, when I’m writing my comics, the four main ones I focus on are race, gender, class, and ableism. The term “tokenism” has developed because there’s not enough diversity in general media, and I think to balance that, as a writer, you need to be aware that the world you’re crafting isn’t in a vacuum. We need to have more people of color representing themselves, just not in isolation. Or rather, not having them represent an entire race on their own. Black characters in mainstream comic-book movies often provide comic relief or some type of singular characteristic that forms a blanket representation of the entire race or culture.
On the point of gender, women characters are often represented as damsels in distress or as eye candy. We only see one type of women’s body, or one kind of female character. There’s an entire spectrum of body shapes, characterizations, and sexualities and genders that aren’t shown in mainstream media.
I think the nature of comics is to be political, to push boundaries, and to broadcast ideas. To be able to send a message while still being entertaining is definitely one of the major reasons why comic books still flourish today.
We’ve spoken before about how being Zimbabwean means you face a lot of specific challenges when it comes to making your work visible. International publications tend to say that your work is too niche — despite the fact that they regularly publish articles about similar artists in the United States.
Yeah, there are definitely some socioeconomic differences between creating here and creating overseas, or even farther north in Africa. One example is Roye Okupe, who’s Nigerian. For his comics, he launched a Kickstarter, which immediately gave him a much wider visibility because of the nature of the platform. He’s able to crowdfund, so he doesn’t have to take out a loan or find another job to be able to make comics. And that same statement applies overseas, where comic artists can find more visibility. Because of economic sanctions, Zimbabwean artists can’t use services like PayPal or Kickstarter. Those two points — funding and visibility — are both major hurdles in garnering more interest and being able to push more production out.
Many artists have used comics to talk about social issues. For example, Hyperallergic has covered Joy Brabner, Palestinian artist Leila Abdelrazaq, and the comics newspaper RESIST!, which was recently distributed at the Women’s March in the US. Why do you think it’s important that we have Zimbabwean comic books specifically? How can Zimbabwean artists address the social issues Zimbabweans face in a way international artists can’t?
It all comes back to context. Because of intersectionality, race, gender, and class are all big things that affect us globally. But then colorism, tribalism, and the intricacies of intersectionality come into play when you’re in a different socioeconomic location, or even just a different geographical location. As a writer, it’s crucial to be able to raise awareness about these issues at home. For example, there’s no one talking about being gay in a country where that’s illegal, and what actually happens to you when you come out to your parents. When someone who is not from here [writes about that], they’ll miss the subtle nuances that make the issue relevant to someone who is here and going through it. Having an open-minded writer who talks about these issues creates hope for the reader.
What are you working on at the moment, and how does it tie into those issues?
The two big projects I’m working on are Razor Man and Arcadia Knights. The Razor Man comic focuses on the Zimbabwean idea that no matter your situation, you can “make a plan.” Every Zimbabwean knows that catchphrase. It reflects the idea that no matter how bad things get, you’ll make it to the other side. Arcadia Knights is a team superhero book about people who just found themselves with powers. They’re not super buff, they’re not scientists, they’re not billionaires, and they’re not experts in their fields — they’re just regular people who ended up with powers. It’s going to be one of my most diverse projects so far. There’s a young Indian girl, there’s a black guy who’s struggling with class issues, there’s a girl who’s struggling with eating disorders, but it actually leans into one of her powers. I’m more excited for Arcadia Knights than Razor Man, despite Razor Man being more popular at the moment.