Open Book Fest

The less funny side of the comics industry

Co/Mix: Glocal is Lekker, 22 September 2012, The Bank


From Left to right: Craig Nadelman, Pete Woodbridge and Moray Rhoda

It's a sunny afternoon and I walk into The Bank, one of the venues for this year’s Open Book festival. A wide-angle camera shot would reveal more than a hundred people crammed into every inch of a well-lit space filled with comic strips, graphic novels, a variety of sketch-art notebooks, and, of course, the artists responsible for some frankly fantastic work.

As part of a day dedicated to the sale and enjoyment of comics, I’m here to listen to three men, Craig Nadelman, Pete Woodbridge and Moray Rhoda discuss their own roles in the local comic book industry, as well as the current fate and future currency of the comic book in South Africa and beyond.

Nadelman is the corporate presence at the table. The managing director of Mamba Media, he introduces himself by summarising what it means to be the head of a “mass-market” production house that has “Soccer Warrior” as its flagship. “Soccer Warrior” is an educational comic strip featured weekly in the Sunday Sun, with 320,000 copies sold every week.

As Mamba Media's main brand, “Soccer Warrior” relies on a careful balance in its content. This balance is between the corporate interests of big-name brands (through product placement) such as Coca-Cola, Snickers, Adidas and Lucky Star, corporate sponsorship by the likes of Metropolitan Life, Anglo and Pick ’n Pay, and, most importantly, educational input channelled through a focus on problem-solving by the eponymous hero, who is an “incidental” soccer player in the same way that Clarke Kent is an “incidental” journalist. Nadelman finishes his introduction by stating that his belief in good storytelling fuels his long-standing interest in comic books and the commercial opportunities to which they give rise.

Next up is Moray Rhoda, a Cape Town-based designer and illustrator involved with the local comic scene since 2000, when he founded Igubu Comics Collective. Rhoda informs us that after leaving Igubu he self-published two Clockworx comics and co-organised Comics Brew 2006 with Grant Muller; he was the art director at Media 24′s Beat Comics studio, producing the comics “Unicity”, “Mzansi Beats” and “Kasiwash”. The studio was working on a new soccer-themed comic, “Tsamaya Classics”, when it was shut down. He is currently self-publishing a South Africa/Australia graphic novel anthology, “Velocity”, to be launched simultaneously in October 2012 in Australia and South Africa.

Moray Rhoda, Cape Town-based designer and illustrator, speaking at Open Book 2012

After Rhoda’s introduction, Pete Woodbridge introduces himself as a professional illustrator with more than 20 years of experience in creating book and comic illustrations for a range of clients. Pete is also in demand as a caricature artist, and frequently does live drawing events. Together with Elaine Woodbridge, he started Studio Woo.

With introductions out of the way, the trio get down to the business of discussing the trials and tribulations of the local comic industry. If such a phrase seems a little dramatic, consider the fact that the global comic game in a time of recession has taken a turn for the worse, and that (according to Nadelman, with agreement from his fellow panelists), the artists involved in the industry constantly struggle to reach a wide audience locally.

Nadelman offers the example of South African Joe Daly, now based in London, who sells less than 2% of his work locally. He stresses that independent comic retailers sell to a “really small market” and that global comic houses such as Marvel, Image and DC often outsource their own marketing and distribution. He offers the figure of 100,000 units as a general ceiling for any of the globally popular comics, such as “Batman” and “X-Men”. He then gives a telling example of the need for film spin-offs to generate viability and income: Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan battle at Thermopylae, was released in 1986 but sold more copies in the six months after the film version was released than it did in more than 20 years on the shelves.

Nadelman calls on Rhoda and Woodbridge to discuss their experience of working in the industry. It is here that two points emerge strongly: first, the adversarial relationship between the corporate industry and the day-to-day vision of individual artists, particularly regarding the “integrity” of their ideas and artworks. Second, both Rhoda and Woodbridge concur on the need to draw for oneself; drawing for “somebody else” ultimately becomes possible only when the artist himself is happy with what he is doing. They feel that one must be thick-skinned and never “precious” about drawings coming under the “circling red pen”, ever ready in its merciless swoop to denigrate one's work as “kak”, a word hilariously described by Nadelman as a “technical term” in the industry.

What emerges in the final third of the hour’s talk is that technology makes it increasingly viable for local, independent artists to get their work out there. Websites like Amazon and are now the ideal platform for the well-to-do comic artist. Even with no capital at all, one can barter for funding (from corporate or individual investors) with the reward of an original artwork or signature piece offered in exchange. As Smartphones have virtually eliminated the need for artists to spend much time behind PC screens when marketing their work, networking and distribution have become opportunities rather than a challenge.

Finally, the question at the heart of the discussion is posed: Does it have to be “kak” if it’s local? Do our local artists have what it takes to be internationally recognised comic artists?

All three panelists insist that a good comic, like a good story, must be "universal": it must transcend borders and barriers, make the reader feel and engage with characters, and move beyond the local. Rhoda mentions how Frank Miller isn’t a Spartan Greek but that he had the vision to tell a good story emanating from a particular space and time. On the local front, DC comic book artist Jason Masters is our notable success story: he has not only worked for MTN, Cell C, and Alexander Forbes, but also on storyboards, producing work for Warner Brothers in collaboration with DC Comics.

To conclude, Nadelman expresses his enthusiasm for South Africa’s stories and the as-yet untried potential of a comic series that pits Voortrekkers in space against armies of Zulu vampires. If an American comic about zombies such as The Walking Dead could become a global television hit, how about we create another District 9?