WINDHOEK. Thoughts on some of the comics that friends sent my way these past few months. From Pardis, Cracked's “5 Most Insane Moments in Indian Comic Books" - which get as awesomely unhinged as you’d hope. Meet Nagraj (the green-suited Snake King pictured above, alongside wrestler Lou Albano and selected superfriends), who can shoot live cobras from his arms and “kill tens of elephants with his teeth,” or Super Commando Dhruva, whose debut cover “sported Dhruva unhelpfully waving to a random old man being devoured.”
It goes without saying that high-minded educational comics tend to avoid mistreatment of elephants or the elderly like the plague, despite the fact that kids gobble this kind of action up (and that’s without getting into any glaring copyright issues). You can see how safely public-health practitioners played it in an HIV comic by South Carolina juvenile detainees, which Sean saw in The New York Times: The teens wanted to write about high-school football stars, but despite the rock-’em-sock-’em potential, the result seems to consist almost entirely of beautifully drawn, eat-your-vegetables talking heads (see this USA Today video, starting from 0:15).
Why choose didacticism over shooting snakes from your hands? After a hard lesson from our U.S. donors yesterday, I can all but guarantee one thing: The American educators had focus groups, and the Indian writers didn’t. To be scientific - and yes I’m all for science - you need a focus group so you can get well-selected experts on the record, saying: “This is more than the raving of some random dude. We vouch that it will do children good, not harm.” So I was all set to print this week, with the kids excited and the ministry waving me ahead - but no formal focus-group report. And as a result, our donors have halted the whole thing until they can get the minister to sign off on it in writing.
Chris, who’s helping Namibia eradicate its last cases of malaria up north, told me about a health comic he never forgot. Apparently a few years ago, someone here produced a malaria booklet that caricatured mosquitoes like Namibia’s turn-of-the-century German colonizers: stinging with the spikes on their oldschool helmets, zzzpeaking wizzz a buzzy German accent. My immediate delighted reactions: That’s brilliant, I actually want to read that, people will actually feel something, how did they get away with something that un-PC?
Well, maybe they got away with it by not putting it through a focus group. And maybe that got it buried - it doesn’t seem to be anywhere online today. I’m not sure where to draw the line between engaging originality and focus-grouped acceptability, but there’s probably just one way to find out. Next time, stage a focus group and take it from there.
WINDHOEK. Colours for all the remaining pages of the comic (click to embiggen).
I’m really happy with how much goofier I got with the palettes by the end: less shy about using darker, high-contrast tones, and off-shades that work better with the page as a whole. Up on page eight, the fire doesn’t really glow, because I didn’t have the nerve to give it the near-black background it needed - but by page nine I’m like meh, wooden kraals at night will be baby blue; on page 10, my joke-to-self about old EGA computer monitors, the indigo tarantula plays off the cyan panels where it shows up. Still, I’m miles away from a serious pro like Thanh Phong - the best artist of any kind I ever came across in Vietnam.
Another salute, to a cartoonist I probably owe a bigger debt to than I ever thought: When I was three or four, my parents got me these First 1000 Words in French and Russian books by Stephen Cartwright, who hid a little yellow duck somewhere on each page. I used to pore over his drawings, looking for the duck and wondering how any actual human being could be that good an artist. As soon as I started this project, I wanted to do something similar to help draw the kids in - so there’s a little green parrot hiding on every page.
Time to lay out the print-ready version, and get the kids ready for the launch. A local radio worker met them with me this weekend, to start brainstorming ideas for their performance. It looks like they want to do a new sketch from scratch, with the Boom Bang Boys trying to hook everyone on benzene. The ministers should love it - more soon.
WINDHOEK. Spread four of seven, from sketch to final colour (click to embiggen). Two major changes here: When I spoke to the children’s author, she suggested no baboons in the heroes’ home - it might look like a slur. Warthogs instead, then? Totally fine. And Namibia doesn’t actually have any coconuts, so we changed it to maguni fruits (AKA monkey oranges, AKA Kavango lemons, AKA Strychnos cocculoides, AKA “monkey brains” because of what you find when you crack open the shell).
I’m trying for different lighting from page to page: pre-dawn purples on the left, sherbetty sunshine on the right. I think the waterfall in the first panel and the view with the maguni trees came out the best - and I do like that chief’s necklace. Cool setting for the cameo when he appears (crossing my fingers as always that the connotations are okay).
And finally, that slang. It’s no shocker that Namibian English has borrowed a bunch of African words, but what does surprise me is that over and over, even when people I ask say a word is local, it looks like it’s actually from South Africa - where all the cool words come from, I guess. Urban Dictionary traces “aweh" across the border, and here’s a 30-second podcast with some white DJs in Cape Town saying "nxa" (it should probably be spelled "nca" there) like they grew up making that click.
Next: The military man is back, saying “yebo" like everyone does here - even though that’s Zulu, and the nearest Zulus are like a thousand miles away.
WINDHOEK. Spread three of seven, from sketch to final colour (click to embiggen).
When I described writing these pages back in March, I complained they were text-heavy (true). In secret, I was especially frustrated with the big lefthand panel where the Boom Bang Boys unveil their crummy home: It was supposed to be the showpiece of the whole spread, full of fun details to linger over (the scattered labels were supposed to look like Scott Pilgrim), but in the original pencils it just disappeared into all the text. After fixing the island on the last page, I realized a top-down, map-like view just doesn’t offer the sightlines you want to guide the eye - but if I redrew this looking up at the towering statues, it would help give the page a focal point that pops through the noise.
I get a kick out of drawing the Boom Bang Boys the way the kids designed them. The Rockstar letter-and-star combo on their shirts to distinguish them, the scar that tags Ricky as the worse of the two - these are all great pieces of comics shorthand, and it all came straight from them. The other day I asked where they even learned to put scars on bad guys like that, and they really couldn’t tell me. Cartoons just seem to be in the air.
WINDHOEK. Spread two of seven, from drafts one and two to the final colours, with yet another totally different view of the island (click with extreme prejudice to embiggen). Some people joke that this is shaping up like Lord of the Flies, some people say Lost.
Back in March I described why I changed the establishing shot in draft one, which looked out to sea, to the one in draft two, which focused on the island - but I still wasn’t happy with the “sense of isolation” it got across. The final version has more soul, I think. It still invites you to pore over the whole island, but it sets the mood more like I wanted, within the vastness of the sky and open sea. In version two, the God’s-eye perspective and all those outcroppings hugging the main island kept it from looking remote enough.
Now that it’s coloured, you can see the time lapse I wanted to suggest, running from left to right: the raging storm when you start reading, giving way to a clear dawn as you finish scanning the page. And at the same time, the characters on the left still sprawled out flat, and slowly getting up as you move to the right. I just wish I’d thought to show more of the storm off to the left in the final version - it would help drive home the idea that the island is far away from things, if you could see that space on both sides.
No time, though. Got to get all seven spreads to the printer’s by June 3.
WINDHOEK. Page one, from initial sketch to final colour. I’m really happy with how the opening shot turned out: I’m never sure about my colour skills, but it does gives you a sense of summer sun. As for the rest - can you tell what’s going on at all in those jumbled storm pictures? Would different colours help?
No huge changes here, aside from switching the order of the narration and map: It didn’t make sense to see the ship setting off on the globe, then hear the characters are getting onboard. My idea was that the ship would gradually turn to the left as it travels, as if the page were one big, steady pan. (Normally it makes more sense to have things travel to the right on the page, with the direction of reading, but here that would jar with the map, which shows the boat heading west … If it feels a bit off, ah well, I figured it goes with the whole doomed voyage thing.)
Also, a chance to “pay tribute to” (steal from) some of my favourite comics: The motif of thin, stacked page-wide panels helped make Grant Morrison’s excellent All-Star Superman series suitably epic, and naturally I formatted the page numbers like Tintin, because why would you want an adventure comic any other way.
The ministry is starting to gear up for the launch on June 14, as part of its Day of the African Child events - it looks like we’ll do it at Windhoek’s downtown mall, it looks like we’ll have a band, it looks like we’ll even try get the comic serialized in one of the papers. More on that as events warrant. (And - how else can I credit the kids in the space I have on this page? Call them “Modern Heroes,” instead of “Namibia Children’s Home”? They’ll get personalized shoutouts at the end too.)
WINDHOEK. Last spread (click to embiggen). The kids suggested a scene where the heroes tell their stories around a campfire, then a lonely double-page shot of the island before the frantic treasure hunt that rounds out the story. I really like this take on the island - I was never quite satisfied with my splash page for the original shipwreck, and I’ll be changing it so this one calls back to their arrival.
This one 14-year-old girl asked to rejoin the group on our last day of drawing, and I was perfectly happy to oblige. She’d been the one kid who said she liked folk stories, and she’d designed the prototypes for the Boom Bang Boys. Above are a few panels she drew based on some backstory by the older kids, about how the boys’ village first exiled them to the island.
The other kids thought the local stuff she threw in was hilarious and weird. I loved it. Even in these simple drawings, it’s plainly a Herero village: the “nawa” in greeting, the women’s headdresses. And then she’s fused it with a Western fairytale logic: the chief’s crown, his crystal ball that sends the boys to the island.
The heroes pull together to find a treasure that I based on her crystal ball - and the cop-out cliffhanger comes courtesy of an idea from my dad last year. When readers turn the page, they’ll see a nothing but an empty spread with the words: “Where do the Modern Heroes go next? Do they get their prizes in Antarctica? Do they go back to their homes in Namibia, or travel the world? Do the Boom Bang Boys join them? It’s all up to you … These pages are your chance to draw their next adventure!”
Next: Yes, there’s a next. Now I have to go back and colour everything starting from page one…
WINDHOEK. Spread six of seven (click to embiggen). Little example of my language barrier here: I just learned Africans call them “baboon spiders.” When I called it a tarantula in an earlier draft, the kids had no idea what I was talking about. (They finally decided, “Ohhh, you mean a tarentaal." Except no, then I found out that’s what they call a guinea fowl - which wouldn’t be nearly as good for the gross-out gag I had in mind.)
When I started this project, I knew I had no real clue about the world these children live in - so the first thing I did was ask a few basic questions: their home language, their favourite story. I thought their birth families would have spoken different Namibian languages - Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Damara - but all two dozen children who answered, no matter how black or mixed, just said they spoke Afrikaans. Seems like the language of the children’s home was their only home language.
As for their favourite stories, they were pretty much Western. One girl’s choice: “She’s the Man.”
It took me a second to place it. “You mean … the Amanda Bynes movie?”
Yep, nailed it. So they’d probably like whatever Disney Channel knockoff I came up with - but I wanted the comic to show some regard for where they came from, too. I contacted the only person who publishes traditional Namibian children’s stories here, I dug through manuscripts at the university, and finally I found the story you see above. The publisher wrote back: “It’s really hard to find folktales here, I guess you were determined.” It’s not much - but hey, when does straight-up Disney Channel fare give you casual polygamy references?
WINDHOEK. Spread five of seven (click the pic for sharper version). Knock wood, but it looks like the ministry is actually going to green-light the crazy little revenge-fantasy plot on the lefthand page. Partly I just wanted to see how far they’d go - teenagers like reading the Hunger Games more than government pamphlets, right? - and partly I felt like this was staying true to the characters’ backstories. The 14-year-old who wrote the military guy nodded thoughtfully when I asked if his character might solve his problem this way - so it looks like I have the go-ahead I need.
My layouts are getting more confident, with a visual setpiece that draws the eye at center of each page: the repeated panels of the chief’s inaudible heart-to-heart with the military guy, for a bit of suspense as the princess looks on; the girl whistling for her rampaging elephant.
And a bit of sparing help from the social-worker figure is going to resonate. In the storylines that my office tried to collect from the kids before I got to Namibia last year, the children always portrayed themselves as passive in the face of their problems: Time and again, it was a social worker who turned their lives around, like everyone’s fairy godmother. In one of these early stories, a boy named James is silent after losing his mother, until she comes to him in a dream and tells him to open up. He goes straight to the social worker: “The social worker listened very carefully. James kind of liked her and so did she.” His life slowly gets better, until lo and behold, “James’ dad met a girl who reminded him of his late wife … when James saw her he made a big smile and said you made the perfect choice. It was the home’s social worker.” Not sure if my lanky chief is quite the same dream come true, but he’ll do in a pinch.
WINDHOEK. Spread four of seven (click the pics for sharper versions). With the setup out of the way, now each page can be a better-paced, standalone episode. On each one, the home faces a hyperactive mini-crisis, various heroes use their powers to come up with a solution, they draft the relevant standards that show up at the end of the page, and finally the Boom Bang Boys react with a little punchline coda.
After one of the 13-year-old girls in our group drew her princess character, she realized the older kids had a pretty dim view of what a princess is like. During our brainstorms, they kept saying she should shriek or get grossed out by things, and I could see the 13-year-old sitting there, silently rolling her eyes. This, when she was actually one of the most talented artists there: With hardly any prompting from me, she spun out elaborately pencil-crayoned, multi-panel stories, where the girl didn’t start out a princess at all, but was lost in a desert, stumbled across a huge castle, and received new clothes from the princesses there (one sporty, one short-tempered, one shy).
I suggested she give her character some extra feature of her own, to help her stand out: Could she see in the distance? Heal people? The page I’ve posted up top was something she dropped in my hands as she was running off. She must have just farted it out when I wasn’t looking - none of her usual elaborate artwork, just quick scrawled marker - but it’s easy to see her frustration with the rest of the group: “Don’t need any of your help sorry / I’ll show you all … I will build my own !!! house.” You can see how I repurposed this for the lefthand page above: She says the same thing, but to the antagonists of the story, and her ideal house is identical, just expanded to reflect the full standards. I still need to see how she reacts: I think she’s spunky enough in the final version, but will she feel like I toned down her defiance too much?
My other big question is about the righthand page: This is where the Himba chief appears. The Himba are some of the baddest-assed, NSFW-est people in Namibia. They’re back-country cattle herders who refuse most Western customs, and in interviews both the men and women come off as independent-minded and funny. And I have zero access or insight to do them justice. I’m just responding to an offhand request from my government clients, none of them close to the tribe either: “Why not make him Himba? They’re a minority group, that would be good.” So I looked up their dress online, draped it over the pre-existing character, and now I have the Magical Negro to end all Magical Negroes. The answer is obviously to involve a Himba in writing him, but that’ll be tough here in the capital - so I’m open to fresh ideas.