One of Kenya’s most successful comic book artists was in Johannesburg this weekend talking about the Nairobi graphic novel scene, and says that one way to make a living writing stories for new media technologies is to adopt very old writers’ techniques – the cliffhanger ending that leaves the reader wanting more . Chief Nyamweya (“Yes, that’s my real name. No I’m not a chief”) said that he mainly pursues two business models for his work: the first is newspaper syndication and the second is the ‘freemium’ model.
“I publish about 80% of my stuff online for free,” Nyamweya said, “But you have to pay to get past the cliffhanger. I do everything I can to keep the audience gripped… The whole reason I got noticed in the first place was because I gave my stuff away for free – but I’m not using the internet optimally, I think I could still learn how to use it better.”
Nyamweya has published comics online through microsites and Facebook. In many ways, his use of suspense and cliffhangers goes back to the early days of comic publishing in the US, and even to 19th Century novelists like Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published through weekly periodicals. His ‘get them hooked then make them pay’ business model adapts traditional serialisation for the web – and so far it seems to be working.
A fair proportion of Nyamweya’s income, however, does still come through traditional syndication to newspapers. He also says that unusual partnerships are opening up thanks to the web. A charity dedicated to fighting elephant poaching, for example, has already approached him about involvement with his current series, Roba Versus the Poachers.
Nyamweya was speaking at the A MAZE ./ festival in Braamfontein, at the culmination of a week long celebration of digital arts and gaming. Nyamweya has pioneered a style which his calls ‘Kenya Noir, a gritty style of crime fiction that’s inspired by the likes of Sin City. He’s drawn to violent escapism, he says, and its what his audience wants.
“I am drawn to noir because it’s much more realistic,” says Nyamweya, “Characters have complexities and struggle to do good despite of themselves. Violent horror stories have a lasting appeal because they show you that your life could always be worse – it’s the oppopsite of reading Cosmo which constantly reinforces what you don’t have – the right clothes, the right weight and so on.”
His first work, Emergency Webcomic, was a fictionalised version of the life of Dedan Kimathi, hero of the Mau Mau Uprising against the colonialist British government which – arguably – set Kenya on the road to independence. While the intention behind it was to teach some of the younger generation about Kenyan history, and he plans to carry on telling African stories based in the real world, he says it’s not meant to be taken as literal truth and dramatic embellishment keep readers entertained.
“If people feel like you are giving them a history lesson, then they switch off,” Nyamweya says, “But you can point them at the original sources [and hope they learn more].”
He says that he rejoices in the fact that Africa – and Kenya in particular – is enjoying international recognition for the geekier things in life, like software development and hardware hacking, but laments the fact that comics aren’t often thrown into the spotlight. Nyamweya says that he believes South African comic creators should work together with other nations to establish a pan-African comic-reading culture and distribution network. There’s a huge opportunity for individuals to get their name known internationally, before their work is subsumed into a larger publishing brand as happens overseas.
“Afrca is hot right now, Nairobi is hot right now,” he says, “Tech companies from Denmark and Sweden set up in Nairobi and find a Swahili name just to be part of ‘Silicon Savannah’. Brands in comics don’t exist in Africa yet, though, so those of us working now have the advantage now that we have the chance to be known as an artist. It’s tough luck for those who come next.”