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 - which kind of people are you?
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, Herero, 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.
WINDHOEK. Sketches for the next spread. Two main pieces of business here: introduce the heroes’ main conflict on the island (against two obnoxious brothers who try to keep them from making a decent home) and how they’ll respond through the rest of the book (by writing a series of standards for how a home should run - exciting!). Somewhere near the bottom of the lefthand page, a weird thing happened to me: my fingers suddenly remembered how they used to draw speech bubbles when I was a comics maniac at age 12. Tiny little thing that felt ridiculously good to this jaded adult, a free trip back into a childhood headspace that I’d lost for 20 years.
I have to follow the order of the standards as they appear in the original government document, which unfortunately means we’re starting with the rules about founding a new children’s facility: the most bureaucratic of the bureaucratic bunch. Talk talk talk - waaay too much dialogue to get through these pages, look at how it crowds out the pictures everywhere - but oh well, throw in a cannon to lighten things up, move on to more entertaining pages as fast as I can.
While I’ve been working with the kids, the ones over 13 have been much less into drawing comics about their own characters - but several of the older teens have started churning out pages of written dialogue instead. The girl who created Catalya, the long-haired brunette, has been getting a particular kick out of writing confrontations with the Boom Bang Boys. Those are her lines on page four, when she calls them little freaks and Ricky responds like a precocious little greaseball. A lot of her exchanges are pretty hilarious:
Catalya: I don’t take orders from any of you….. I can be rude to silly butterfly heads.
Ricky: Oh is that so? Well listen, your beauty will follow my sexy body.
Catalya: Do you know the meaning of sexy?? Look at you and your body, don’t even talk about your age, 11-year-old boys…..
Awesomely inappropriate! Still, I have a feeling Ricky will be letting his sleaze flag fly on future pages.
WINDHOEK. After the first page of the comic, I wanted a huge, splashy spread of the island where the heroes wash up. Set the scene with a bang, and telegraph some of the forlorn vastness around them. Above are two successive takes I tried: The big changes are the angle I drew the island from, and how I dealt with two of the female characters.
When I was researching what the place would look like, I fell for Gough Island, a surreally pristine little speck not too far off-route from Antarctica. I imagined introducing each of the heroes as they woke up onshore there, looking out to sea - but my first sketch (at left) failed to convey that it’s actually an island. My second attempt (right) is less realistic, but I think it situates you better: It’s little a fishbowl world where you can spot waterfalls, animals, new people. I wanted to balance this cozy cuteness with a recognizable sense of isolation - not sure if I managed that, but at least it should be fun to look at.
Here’s a question: When you want a character to get injured in the wreck so you can talk about disability standards, how do you choose? I asked for volunteers, and the 13-year-old boy writing the old man surprised me by stepping up. So instead of a token disabled kid, we get a superpowered old man with a bum leg. And who do you trap under a tree so he can reveal his strength? Not his grandsons, who’d already know about it … which leaves the military guy, or a damsel in distress. I went with the scrappy survivalist brunette, because at least she’d fight back. (I think I handled this better in the second version, by tightening the action so she doesn’t start out stunned and passive.)
My biggest failure so far has been with this one hangdog 20-year-old who said she loved to draw. She always wanted to sit by herself, diligently recopying the same old portrait I’d done of a girl in Japan. We made plans for her to draw the Japanese girl’s story, or illustrate stories other kids had written - and for a month and a half she never followed through. (Sounds vaguely like me at that age.) So when the government told me the characters should be Namibian, my guilty thought was: Can we drop hers? She accepted with a hangdog yes. Her Japanese schoolgirl was in my cover picture and at the far left of my initial sketch here, but she’s not in the revision at all. And in return, I get a streamlined cast, and fewer but better-defined female characters.
Next: Who are the mysterious figures on the hill?
WINDHOEK. Well, the government gave me its first feedback on the comic. This had me chewing my nails, because I thought they’d want to put the kibosh on all the kids’ thieves and revenge narratives. But the response has been basically … gushy. Other than asking to change the Zulu chief to a Namibian tribe, their e-mails have been all “Oh wow” and “I am really impressed.” Yesterday when I met the head social workers about the opening pages, they were laughing over local expressions to add to the dialogue: In the third panel up top, when the ship is entering the storm, the kids had suggested yelling “Oh my gosh,” but now this will be a dialled-up Damara exclamation: “Etse!”
On the seventh I mentioned the kids wanted to shipwreck their heroes on their way to Antarctica: This first page is just exposition to get them there. It starts off at home, at the Namibian port of Walvis Bay - which has well-known wrecks for foreshadowing. When I was trying to figure out how they’d get to Antarctica, I got a kick discovering that South Africa has its own Antarctic research program and icebreakers: This ship is modeled after theirs, but it’ll fly a neutral international flag instead of Namibia’s or South Africa’s, on account of how fast we dispatch it. Of course I always throw in a map wherever I can, and I was relieved that the kids immediately got what it was about.
My process has been to sketch out the panels and voice bubbles like this, then show the kids my draft so we can brainstorm better dialogue together. On this first page, they didn’t throw in much until the ship got into trouble - and then you can see they suddenly started yelling all sorts of stuff. “I wanted to catch a fish”? Their idea. I like the vibe this ended up giving: The closer the heroes get to going down, the more the panels get crammed with frantic, overlapping shouts. It works.
WINDHOEK. The photo on the left: You want the long version or the short version?
While I’m working on the comic, the children’s home has also asked me to come in once a week to do extra activities with the older residents who aren’t in school anymore. Let’s see … random Canadian in his 30s, and a handful of eye-rolling 20-somethings who’ve lived at this facility most of their lives. I thought, well, maybe I can help them set up their own blogs? That might work, whatever they’re all into. And then of course I found out the home’s computers are all locked away and offline - so if I can get them internet access, that’ll at least be something.
When I saw them last week I helped them get on e-mail and Facebook - which they seemed into, once they finally showed up - and then they didn’t have their own pictures to upload, so yesterday I brought in my camera. I showed them different angles to shoot each other from, in front of different backdrops, and suddenly they started improvising ladders to stand on and digging around in a storeroom for props. The lefthand photo was one they had me pose for. (The other photo was one of my first impressions when I visited the home. Another organization had been scrapbooking journals with some of the teens, but I couldn’t ask to take photos of them, or look in their private books. Afterward, between two tables in the empty gym, they’d left this tiny pair of cutout eyes on floor.)
As I was packing up my camera yesterday, the 20-somethings started talking about their home for the first time. They’re desperate to work, but they say the staff mostly tries placing them in the army or at the docks. Drilling me for advice on studying or au-pairing overseas. Telling me how house-parents bend over backwards for their biological children but get suddenly helpless when an orphan gets into trouble at school or with the law. Accounts of insults and slaps.
I know they’re all on the hustle - the guy in the photo laughed and admitted as much at one point, and hey, in the end aren’t we all - but the whole reason I’m here is a book to teach kids about their rights. The official standards say Children are provided with support to enable effective transition from the residential childcare facility to the family and community; when a home falls short, Complaints expressed lead to concrete measures to solve the situation. This is a group of young adults already. They shouldn’t be at the home anymore, period. But who do they have to turn to?
They asked me to talk to the “head office” - I’m on a first-name basis with the government workers overseeing their facility. But what am I supposed to do? Badmouth the government’s flagship children’s home? Try to get people fired, and then replace them with … who?
The best strategy I can think of is to bring in the social workers next week, to see if we can start discussing a black-and-white plan about the futures of these oldest residents. No quick fixes, but where they might be in six months, five years. It’s a new social-work graduate and two interns, who’ve only been here a few months. Waaay too little time to make a dent in things, but maybe still a little idealistic and independent-minded too - and the kids think they’re okay.
And meanwhile, the Canadian who’s only been here a few hours? I sighed and said, “Okay. Next week, we’ll solve everything.” To which one of the girls was like, “That’s right - no fun stuff next week. We’ll start talking to the social workers right away.”