The comic book superheroes putting SA graphic novels on the map
Under normal circumstances, Ray Whitcher speaks quickly. When he gets enthusiastic about something, I abandon all hopes of keeping shorthand notes and hope that the dictaphone struggles to keep up. Because right now, enthusiasm doesn’t even begin to cover it.
“I’m getting goosebumps,” Whitcher says, “I’m so excited about where we’re going. In four or five years we’ve jumped from this weird mediocrity where we were sitting, dominated by corporate stuff, and now there’s so many big things happening.”
I’m talking to the mohawked young lecturer in a small cafe over the road from Greenside Design Centre, where he works. We’re drinking happy.me‘s bubble tea – a new and not unpleasant experience for me – and talking comics. Specifically, we’re talking South African comics.
“Over the last five years, the SA comic scene has just gone pow,” he says, “We’re starting to realise that comics aren’t just silly things for kids. I think it’s because of cinematic exposure – now all the biggest earning films are comic book films like The Avengers and so on, and the TV series like Agents of SHIELD and so on – we’re starting to get very exposed to comic book characters. And because of this exposure, so many people are going ‘oh, so comics are actually cool’. If you look in fashion, any average Pick ‘nPay or Mr Price will sell superhero shirts now.”
As well as a teaching, Whitcher is also a writer, illustrator and comic book artist. He’s currently preparing for a panel presentation he’ll be giving at the Design Indaba in Cape Town tomorrow (28th February), ‘ The Secret Identity of SA comics’. He’s one of the country’s leading authorities on graphic art, and will be talking alongside other industry heavyweights Moray Rhoda, Chris Beukes and Daniël Hugo.
“The Design Indaba is a huge deal. it’s bigger for us than Comic Con because now we have the local buys right where we want them. This is the most formidable creative festival of its kind in the world. And we want to go out there and say ‘this is what South African comics look like – and if you don’t believe us we’ve got 10 artists working on international labels right now.’”
When it comes to Comic Con, Whitcher knows what he’s talking about. I first met him at the A:MAZE Interact festival in Johannesburg last year – an appearance at which he was freshly returned from speaking at the first ever South African panel at the comic festival in San Diego.
At Comic Con, Whitcher, Rhoda and Australian-based colleague Neville Howard talked about the nascent comic scene in South Africa and their own anthology, Velocity They had a prestigious slot on the opening night of the conference. Velocity, which is a showcase of the best local comics now into its fourth volume, immediately sold out and was picked up by a US store too.
“The story behind how we got to Comic Con was the most dramatic, exciting and unbelievable thing ever,” explains Whitcher, “we literally had a month, they told us in June that they’d accepted our panel and we were invited. And we thought: ‘OK, that’s cool, but… crap!’. We had to print up all the comics and get all the air tickets and visa and stuff. Moray’s passport had expired, the US embassy had closed because Barack Obama happened to be here… it was such a mess.”
As an occasional publication lovingly put together in the editors’ spare time, Velocity had no budget to send the trio to talk in California.
“We crowdsourced our way there, using Indiegogo,” explains Whitcher, “Neville put out a notice that he wanted help to send his two colleagues from South Africa too and that they couldn’t afford it. We got lots of support from our friends and the community here, but the Aussies made up the rest – and obviously the Oz dollars go a lot further.”
Motivated by interest in Velocity, the team want to develop the anthology into a fully fledged publishing house that can help to bring exposure to relatively unknown South African artists.
“Within the local context, the battle that we’re having is that people perceive international comics as great, but local comics are sucky,” says Whitcher, an attitude he blames on dour, repetitive cartoon strips like Supa Strikes which are often thickly veiled vehicles for advertising.
“It’s expensive to print comics, I get that,” he says, “But at what cost do you want to create?”
As he warms to the subject, Whitcher reels off the names of local artists done good so fast that even the tape machine gives up. But he highlights gems like the long running CottonStar series (about a group of Capetonian pirates) and the Darker Forces collaboration organised by Velocity as good places for the newbie to start.
“Darker Forces is one of the coolest projects that I’ve ever worked on,” he says, “they chose a team of 34 artists from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and New Zealand, and they worked on two separate stories – one in Cape Town and one in Melbourne – which work together. So it starts off in Australia and jumps to South Africa. The best part is that it has characters like Ananasie, the spider god, and Seth, from Egypt. It takes in mythology from all over Africa – but essentially the story is that the world has been invaded by aliens and Australia and South Africa are the last bastions of humanity, where we rally to fight back.”
Darker Forces should be available here some time next month.
Another luminary of the South African comic scene is Lauren Beukes, whose forthcoming novel is set to be another international best seller. Her success has given the local scene a huge boost, Whitcher adds.
“Lauren Beukes credibility has helped us a lot. She’s often written for Vertigo titles, so she has that experience and she can recommend local artists. So she’s using her name to get our guys out there as well, which is great.”
As well as his fledgling comics career, Whitcher is also part of the editorial board that puts together bi-monthly alt culture magazine, Spliced. Edited by Pippa Tshabalala and designed by Chris Savides, Spliced is free to download and currently on issue three.
“Chris wanted a magazine that had more freedom of expression,” Whitcher says, “Pippa wanted a magazine that actually dealt with a lot more stuff. All the existing mags were so secular, so very niche. They focus on games, or hardware, or lifestyle. Nothing really dealt with geek lifestyle. And that’s what we wanted, like the Mens Health of geek lifestyle, only without the smut and with something that adds value in.”
Each issue is a labour of love, explains Whitcher, involving long editorial meetings and longer nights of work. Eventually, they hope to be able to put together a print version of the mag, even if it’s just a one-off at first.
“A lot of people are requesting print versions of the mag, and what we’re looking at is going down the print-on-demand route first, and then see how that goes,” he says, “But we’ve got to warn people that if we do print on demand special editions, it’s going to cost. It’s not cheap to do a print run for a magazine of 200 pages.”
Despite his reservations about print, Whitcher is far more ambivalent about digital publishing though.
“Digital is taking off,” he acknowledges, “Velocity launched on Comixology recently, and they’re doing pretty well on that side. People see it as cheap – it’s $2 for Velocity compared to R160-190. Personally I hate digital, I’d much rather have the paper in front of me, but I respect it as a medium because it’s accessible, and in the economic climate things are hard and expensive to print. One thing I like about digital is people who don’t have access to stores can use it. Even Durban only has one store, so people drive to Joburg. Until we get a way of shipping comics around the country we’ll have to go digital first.”
While Whitcher has plenty of ideas for solving that problem – online sales are an obvious route – he’s just happy that more people are reading South African-made comics and the genre is being taken seriously. His dream at the moment is to get through tomorrow’s panel and find some of the major chains – like CNA, Exclusive Books or similar – pick up on the rise of comics in general and start ordering in copies to stock. In the meantime, he’ll carry on getting the message out.
“Unless you’re extraordinarily good, it’s like the SA music scene,” he says, philosophically. “You can’t make a living off of just music. You have to work a day job. You can’t make enough money just being in a band. And it’s the same in anything creative here, there’s just not enough support. So all these guys involved with comics, it’s something you do on top of your day job. You work 9 to 5 in the day, then 5 to 4am in the morning. It’s just what you do. We’re in the birth phase of the SA comic industry, so I’m hoping that in the next five years or so we’ll see a legitimate ability to earn a living.”
[Images courtesy of Velocity]