AFRICAN PULP: The Spear in Racist Pulp Fiction’s Heart!
Throughout Africa, storytelling has always been an intrinsic part of society, used to recall historical events, impart wisdom, debate and communicate messages from the divine.
Storytellers – called Djele, Sanusi, Babalawo, Iyanifa, Okomfo and other titles, depending on where, on the continent you go – are revered and are usually also skilled in spiritual and healing practices as well.
Tales of powerful heroes, megalomaniacal villains, sorcerers, witches and fearsome creatures abound in African folklore, thus I was not surprised at my recent discovery – thanks to Paul Bishop, author and mastermind behind the Fight Card brand of Fight Fiction books – that Pulp magazines, created by, and about, African heroes were highly popular across the continent in the 1960s through the 1980s.
Sold under the brand names African Film and Boom, these magazines – called photo comics, or “look books” – were illustrated with stunning photographs instead of drawings, giving them the uniqueness, creative flair and do-it-yourself spirit common throughout Africa.
With heroes like the Tarzanesque Fearless Fang (Boom) and the “African Superman”, Son of Samson, children and adults alike waited eagerly every month for latest edition to hit the newsstands.
The most popular photo comic magazine was The Spear (African Film), which featured Lance Spearman, the super-spy / detective whose coolness James Bond and Derek Flint would envy. The Spear drove a Corvette stingray, sported a panama hat and well-tailored suits with a bow tie and smoked expensive cigars. And in true Pulp fashion, he had a bevy of beautiful women at his beck-and-call.
Lance Spearman pursued the bad guys with zeal, outwitting their conspiracies, kicking much ass with his African martial arts and saving the day…all in one issue!
These popular Pulps – a portfolio of black and white photos, complete with speech balloons, narration boxes and all the “bam-pow” sound effects that a kick and a quick upper cut to the jaw makes in any comic book.
Unlike the popular Pulps of the Western world, however, which were rife with racist tropes of uncivilized, uneducated, spear-chucking cannibals, or damn-near naked noble savages, with objectified, ample body parts, Lance Spearman was sharp, stylish and sophisticated.
Even the jungle stalking Fearless Fang was intelligent, witty, brave and well, cool.
Combining Western references with a distinctly African cultural identity, these amazing African Pulps presented a critique of colonialism and a significant variation in how the genre classically figured normality and otherness.
And they were entertaining as hell!
Published first by publisher Drum Publications in Nigeria in the early 1960s and later also published in Kenya and Ghana the photo comic had a powerful and lasting influence in fostering postcolonial pride and identity.
Its combination of extreme violence, melodrama, romance and glimpses of the glamorous life preceded and influenced the Blaxploitation craze in American cinema in the 1970s and its use of inventive DIY tactics to overcome budget constraints influenced the booming Nollywood film industry.
“Ok, you’ve told us about the photo comics, but how, and why, were they created?” You ask? “
Well, Drum Publications of Nairobi, Kenya – tired of the clichéd racist images of Black people in contrast to the heroic images of white soldiers and superheroes in Western comics – decided to create comic books that would appeal to Black men. They began photographing black men in adventures that were designed to appeal to the Black African population.
Drum would buy stories and then send the scripts to Swaziland, where a photographer would takes pictures of a cast of Black actors. They would then send the photographed strips to London, England, where the magazines were printed. Finally, the photo comic magazines would be distributed in West, East and South Africa.
The Lance Spearman title was the most popular publication, with circulation figures estimated at 100, 000 in West Africa, 45,000 in East Africa and 20,000 in South Africa. In fact, Lance Spearman had a greater circulation in Kenya than any of the local daily newspapers at that time.
The writers of these look-books were Black Africans, who were paid $65 – equivalent to approximately $508.00 today – for every script they produced.
Expected in the scripts were lots of fistfights and the bad guys always losing in the end.
The readership of these photo comics included men, women, boys and girls from small rural towns to sprawling urban cities; from the barely literate to highly educated professionals.
The man, who played the character of Lance Spearman, was Jore Mkwanazi, originally employed as a “houseboy” in Durban, South Africa, scrubbing the floors of an apartment for $35 a month and as a musician, playing the piano in a nightclub for $1.50 a night, when photographer Stanley N. Bunn discovered him and decided he had the tough, cynical, sophisticated face that was needed for The Spear. In the role of the super-spy, Mkwanazi earned $215 a month.
Here is the original Drum Publications information, found in every issue of their photo comic magazines:
Drum Publications (E.A.) Ltd
P.O Box 43372
Editor: J. Singh
Printing and Packaging Corporation Ltd
P.O Box 30157,
But the story of photo comic magazines does not stop here.
In fact, it is just beginning.
In the summer of 2014, I will publish my first photo comic book, The Siafu: Revolution.
The Siafu is about escaped prisoner, Jamil Brown, who suffers a virus-induced myostatin deficiency that gives him enhanced strength, speed and endurance. Jamil is hunted by his makers, while gathering others like him to help fight against the corrupt system that made him.
For those of you who don’t know, siafu are army ants that, while small, are powerful and – in large enough numbers – can bring down an elephant.
So, be on the lookout for this amazing new graphic Pulp science fiction novel in a few months.
Get ready for The Siafu.
Get ready for Revolution.