Capturing Kinshasa through comics
- 21 January 2011
- From the section Africa
For comic book fans around the world, a handful of cities evoke strong images: superheroes jumping from skyscrapers in New York; Tintin running across a building in a Brussels mural; wide-eyed schoolgirls looking for romance in Tokyo.
But colourful cityscapes, designed by local artists, are finally putting an African capital city on the comic map. The place is Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it is not difficult to see why.
Complete with dusty boulevards, monster traffic jams in blazing sunsets and so-called shegue, or street children, such comic portraits of the Congolese capital are among the main features of the style developed by home-grown talent.
Decades of shared colonial history with comic-mad Belgium certainly had an influence on the emergence of the Congolese comic scene. In fact, most books by Barly Baruti, the Congolese author best known outside his country, are published in Brussels.
Canadian artist Guy Delisle, who visited Kinshasa to lead a workshop with local artists last year, instantly recognised European influences in the work.
"I looked at the stuff they were doing," he says.
"It was mostly 1970s Franco-Belgian style comic books which are now very outdated in Europe. So I thought it would be nice to show them the new wave of comic books- the so-called 'independent scene'."
So late last year, Delisle joined a group of foreign authors to take part in the first international animation festival known as Kin Anima Bulles.
They experimented with short strip formats, images without speech bubbles and editing software to introduce their Congolese colleagues to new techniques.
In return, the combination of harsh realism and wild imagination that feeds the themes of Congolese comic books stretched visiting artists beyond their usual limits.
"I specialise in mystic-religious-secret comics. I want to go beyond human understanding," says Papa Mfumu'eto Premier, one of the most popular comic authors in Kinshasa.
So it is not surprising that the story that broke ground for Mfumu'eto in the 1990s was The Python that Ate a Woman in Kinshasa.
Despite this, most comic strips in DR Congo are based on daily life around the country - from family affairs to the vibrant musical scene and, of course, the violence suffered by much of the population in the successive wars of the past 15 years.
"I wasn't prepared for that," says visiting French author Stephane Oiry of the horrific stories of death and suffering used by local artists during the workshops.
He was also shocked to see that most of Kinshasa's cartoonists hardly had any pens and paper to work with.
Some of the drawings in a recent collection, Congo 50, covering the history of the country since independence, depict bloody massacres in refugee camps as well as all-night, beer-fuelled dancing parties.
The juxtaposition of comic strips also invites the reader to relive independence hero Patrice Lumumba's famous 1960 speech under the eyes of a very sweaty and uncomfortable Belgian King Baudouin.
Deborah Ngale, a graphic arts student who visited a recent exhibition featuring Congo 50 strips in Kinshasa, was struck by how subtly history could be told through comics.
"It expresses hidden feelings and tells about events in the history of the country that many people do not know about. Comics can reveal a lot," she says.
Indeed, the conflict and the ensuing international peace effort had an unexpected effect on Congolese comic books.
Many artists have lent their drawings and speech bubbles to aid agencies trying to get messages to the population. Bruno Luya has authored several of these "sensitisation comics", which have become a genre in themselves.
"For the elections, we worked with the Canadian co-operation agency," he says.
"We offered comic books as a tool for sensitisation. It was not their original plan, but they saw it could work and we published three books on elections here."
Luya has also promoted the work of United Nations' peacekeepers and the prevention of HIV/Aids in exchange for some money. Yet he also needs to work in the music industry to make ends meet.
For his part, Mfumu'eto is proud that he never had to resort to commissions from donors.
"It is hard to earn a living from comic books, but I did for 10 years," he says.
His career took off in the 1990s when ailing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was forced to allow a degree of freedom of expression. Mfumu'eto said he then drew and printed home-made fanzines and sold them for the price of a loaf of bread.
"There were 10,000 or 15,000 print runs. Comics used to feed me. I never had to do anything else. But now I see others must be constantly sponsored or publish 'sensitisation comics'."
Sadly, however, the war has crushed DR Congo's fragile publishing industry as well as readers' purchasing power.
"Producing and selling comic books in Kinshasa is very difficult because there are virtually no bookshops," explains Apollo, a French comic scriptwriter who also teaches at the French school in the capital.
He got the Kin Anima Bulles festival to help local authors promote their art and he hopes to go further by making it a regular occurrence. He also plans to open a comic book library in Kinshasa.
In the meantime, however, there is no shortage of material in Kinshasa for those who wish to toil away at the cartooning craft.