We are living in the age of the comic book. From tv adaptions such as Arrow and Jessica Jones, to box office smash hits such as the Avengers and the Batman movies, comic book properties have never enjoyed such immense popularity. In Zimbabwe, Marvel and DC have many diehard fans and loyal readers. Admittedly, I am one of them (Team DC all the way). Despite my unwavering love for all things comics, I couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t more African based comics – comics that would speak true to the realities and stories on the continent. That’s why my interest was piqued when I heard about Bill Masuku and his work.
Bill The Illustrator
Some of Bill’s rough sketches
Bill Masuku recently graduated from Rhodes University with a degree in Commerce, but he chose to pursue a career in comics full time. His relationship with them began thanks to an overactive imagination as a child. “I was but a wee lad (when his fascination with comics started), although reading comics religiously came in Form One.” He created his first full comic when he was in Grade 5. His first reader base were his fellow classmates, and Bill’s creation was a hit amongst his friends. “It was about a group of kids with superpowers fighting tyrant teachers. Shamefully it was titled BillSaga.” From the moment he saw how people received his comic, it was the beginning of a life of combining illustrations with compelling storylines.
“It was like self actualisation, like the precipice of my human potential.”
Bill the Storyteller
However, after this preliminary break, Bill took a break from comics. Not only was schoolwork a major factor, but he still couldn’t wrap his head around the art of the good comic story. “My ideas for a good story were incomplete. Writing takes time and it’s a constant refining process.” For example, his first was to create a story around a team of superheroes whose origins were in South Africa, with the plan of eventually expanding the team to include heroes from across the world. Such a team made sense in Bill’s mind but translating it on paper proved harder than expected. He decided to cut down the team and keep the focus on Africa. This was the golden idea, and with this in mind, Bill started to flesh out the story, incorporating elements from his imagination and current African events to produce an interesting yet relatable story. “There was that proposal from Gaddafi to initiate the United States of Africa. Tearing down trade boarders, unifying the currencies and just being great. In my current universe, the African Union, or the United States of Africa, is in effect by 2014.” In addition, Bill plans on reviving old forgotten folk tales, an audio series, as well as a separate title he calls ‘The Third Chimurenga’, whose premise is a cross between speculative literature, sci-fi, and historical fiction:
Blending fact and fantasy, the story starts in the Rhodesian Bush War, where scientists conducted experiments to create a human weapon. With the death of the lead scientist and the end of the war, the test subjects were put into suspended animation in a facility located a few kilometres outside of Harare. An unfortunate stranger stumbles onto the site, unleashing these human weapons into modern Zimbabwe.
Creating the stories behind the comics is a long process for Bill. Not only does he do historical research, but he also has to test out the plausibility of the powers he gives to his characters. Bill explains his current concepts: “I’m currently struggling with human flight – somewhere between warping one’s own electromagnetic field against gravity and or adjusting the density of fluids in the body and treating the atmosphere as a liquid.” Bill adds to the superpower factor by grounding his characters to ordinary, relatable people that Zimbabweans encounter on a regular basis:
“The secondary theme I’m following is what would an ordinary person do with powers. Not a super buff millionaire or an alien. A kombi conductor with the power to teleport. The circumstances of his life. And what choice would make him a hero or villain. Because in my universe, there is no evil.”
However, he’s hit a few speed bumps when it comes to fleshing out his stories. Especially when it comes to writing female characters, Bill wants to present heroes that are complex but don’t fall into the stereotypes and tropes that have come to characterise representations of women in comic books. “It’s harder to write believable female characters that weren’t raped, recovering from some trauma, or the converse depiction of them as a Mary Sue. A lot of thought has to be considered. It’s even more difficult for a black female character.”
Bill the Strategist
As invested as Bill is in his craft, he is not naive to the realities of the comics industry in Zimbabwe and Africa. The industry is growing – with independent publishers in South Africa, and Nigerian comics gaining more prominence and publicity. However, comics as a business is still not taken seriously – at least in Bill’s opinion. “The obstacle,” he says, “is getting over the idea of ‘maPopeye’ and stagnant creators.” MaPopeye in this case refers to the old style of animation, where people produced brief 10 minute clips of cartoon, such as Popeye. “It’s good for 10 minutes of laughs, but not really a career path or anything of value.” For young artists and creators to have some kind of success, they have to continue in this old model without exploring their own artistic avenues, leading to a stagnant market. Bill remains optimistic of the comics industry, and points to the Comics Conventions held in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Zambia.
“The number of dynamic creators has risen tremendously, but the perceptions mean that we can’t make a living off it and it becomes a sub-craft, coupled most commonly with graphic designers.”
With his recent graduation Bill moved back home, and whilst Zimbabwe’s economic situation isn’t the most ideal setting for a young illustrator like him, he’s learnt to appreciate the little things that are to his advantage. “There are some pleasant conveniences, like EcoCash. It’s the card that registered my patreon account. I have more time free time to research and draw.” To get some funding for his work, Bill set up a Patreon account, which works in the same way as Kickstarter or GoFundMe. His mother and his friends have been supportive thus far, but he needs financial support to expand his work and produce more comics. “I need to buy a scanner, so that as soon as I’m done with a piece I can edit and upload. Then partner with a printing store so I can sell at conventions like AfriNerd Con and maybe even HIFA. Later I’ll buy a tablet so I can do digital art.”
“Why walk when you can teleport?”
Bill’s drawings and story arcs illustrate a growing artistic industry and space in Africa. With non-African comic companies and creators possessing the lion’s share of the readers and collective imagination, it’s high time that young Zimbabweans like Bill get the opportunity to represent their narrative in comic form. Who knows, perhaps in a few years, the continent could see its own crop of comic book adaptions. And one of them just might be one of Bill’s creations.
If you’d like to support Bill via Patreon, check out his account here for the details.
For more illustrations and comic creations, follow Bill on his Instagram at @billmasukuart