Jember A New Hero for A New Generation

Since the launch of various cinematic universes from different comic book companies, demand has been created for stories from all over the world. Africa, one of the biggest consumers of Western media has not yet capitalised on its full potential in terms of comic book narratives. Now, Etan Comics, an imprint based in the United States, founded by Ethiopian-born Beserat Debebe, is trying to fill that gap, with its first comic book, Jember released five months ago. EBR’s Menna Asrat explores the future of Ethiopian and African comic book art. 

Comic books have been taking over the international pop culture scene for quite some time. With the surge in popularity of printed and online comic books, as well as blockbuster movies from comic-inspired cinematic universes, an increasing number of adults have started to revisit the comic books they loved in their childhoods, as well as introducing a new generation to the art. 

Yet few characters native to the African continent have been depicted in comics since the beginnings of the modern comic book. Trying to address this gap Etan Comics, a brand started by Beserat Debebe, an engineer by trade, is trying to revitalise the comic movement in Ethiopia, as well as across the African continent, with Jember, a new comic book. 

Having moved to the United States at the age of 14 with his family, Beserat studied Engineering at the University of Maryland, before earning a Master’s degree from the University of Indiana. Then, in February 2018, Beserat, and Stanley Obende, an artist, launched Jember, a series of comic books that depicts the life of Alemayehu Tilahun, a recent graduate, who finds himself with superpowers in the midst of a frustrating job search in Addis Ababa. Since then, the comic book, whose main character was inspired by the lives and experiences of young Addis Ababa residents, has spawned a following all over the world. 

“Representing Africa through our work means a lot to me because I know how it feels to be misrepresented or not represented at all,” Beserat the creator of the characters and the writer of the stories told EBR. “I love and crave for more fantasy stories based on African characters, so I find being a creator of such stories rewarding and gratifying.” Even though Beserat writes the stories, the drawings for the comic book are done by Stanley Obende.

When he set up the imprint, Beserat chose a name that reminded him of his childhood in Ethiopia. The brand name, Etan, is a reflection of African heritage. “Etan (Frankincense) is used a lot in Ethiopia and has a religious and social role,” he explains. “So when my cousin suggested Etan as a possible name I accepted it immediately. Great stories also have a way of developing and strengthening family and social bond.”

Since the first Jember was released, it has inspired younger artists to take the plunge into a new medium. This is good news for Africa where comic books have not taken hold even though they have been very popular globally. For instance, in the United States, sales of comics and graphic novels have been rising for years; reaching close to one billion dollars in 2016, up from USD265 million in 2000, according to Marvel Worldwide, a publisher of American comic books and related media. The major reason for comic book gains is spillover interest from the movies adaptations that have dominated the box office in the past decade, which have brought in not only new readers but also new demographics of readers.

Even in developing countries like India, the comic book industry is worth between USD100 million to USD150 million. In Africa, a few book activists from Nigeria have been producing comic books which highlight African superheroes from diverse backgrounds long before the release of Marvel’s much-loved black superhero movie, Black Panther, earlier this year. 

Beserat says comics have already proved they are a viable business in many countries. “They are the bread and butter of the Hollywood movie industry right now. In time, African countries will also realize this potential and setup the appropriate business infrastructures to ensure artists and writers thrive in this industry.”

But for the moment, art tends to be, at best on the backburner for most people living in Africa. As such, the narrative art forms of comic books are not the medium of choice for most people, which discourage new artists and writers from exploring the medium. But Beserat sees changes on the horizon for African comic books.

“The reason art is being put in the back burner in most African countries is because there is a perception that art is only for leisure and can’t be a source of income and investment that is able to make a positive impact in the economy,” Beserat argues. “As a result, the infrastructure to support the business side of the art is not as strong as other fields.” 

But a few people have proved that the comic industry has potential in Africa, partly because of the popularity of superhero-themed films.  Guardian Prime, a black Superman and a popular South African comic, Kwezi, or “star” in Xhosa and Zulu, created by designer and artist Loyiso Mkize, and Razor Manare amongst the superhero characters  or comics that have already emerged in Africa. Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nigeria as well as Zambia seem to be the most advanced countries in the African comic industry. Likewise, as a 21st century story of Africa, work on Jember began in a quintessentially 21st century way: online.

“We met through online platforms and developed a good relationship,” explains Beserat. “I discussed the project with Stanley, and he was very interested. He discussed it with his colleagues and they also came on board. So we began collaborating over the phone, video chats and emails to get the project underway. Believe it or not, we still have not met in person but the plan is definitely on the books.” 

Other than Beserat and Stanley, line artist Brian Ibeh, color artists Akanni Akorede and Waliu Edu, and letterer Rebecca Asah are all involved in the production of Jember, which includes themes from all over Africa, not just Ethiopia. In fact, the characters are a mix of African lore and history, such as the history of the East African civilization known as the Kingdom of Punt. 

The response to Jember has been overwhelmingly positive, a reaction that ties back to the desire for African narratives in more modern forms. For instance, Etan Comics recently made an appearance at the Ethiopian Soccer Federation in North America (ESFNA) festival.

“It has been very positive,” Beserat says. “We got incredible support from fans. We were also featured in OkayAfrica, a platform that specifically tailors to the African diaspora. Since then our diaspora audience has increased a lot.” But there are more platforms that he is hoping to engage in soon. “Lagos Comic Con is in its seventh year. We are hoping to participate in that soon. Additionally, we hope to host or attend a Comic Con in Addis one day where talents across Africa can participate.”

Beserat is hopeful about the future of this type of art in Africa, where comics are a growing concept. “With projects like his bringing new and young artists into the medium, telling unique stories will become the norm in comic books,” he says. “My hope for this platform is to be an outlet for talented writers and artists who want to tell their own stories and to keep building the Etan Universe a character at a time.”


6th Year . Aug 16  - Sep 15 2018 . No.65


 

 

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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