5 things you can learn from the creator of a South African superhero
Words: Max Lazarus | Art: Loyiso Mkize
When it comes to superhero origin stories, there’s very little new ground to cover. When you’re operating in a niche creative industry that’s already experienced a gold and silver age over half a century ago, there’s barely any room to really shake things up. This was the challenge that presented itself to Loyiso Mkize when he came out with the first edition of Kwezi comics back in 2014. Three years down the line with Kwezi – South Africa’s very own homegrown superhero – selling out in print with every edition, Loyiso is making his own mark on the local comic book industry, and sharing his insights and reflections. He recently shared his story at a Cape Town Creative Mornings talk; here are 5 things we learned while listening.
Loyiso enjoys recounting the sceptical reaction he’d get from friends when initially conceptualising Kwezi. He’d explain his rough idea saying “What are you going to do? Put a black guy in spandex and a cloak? Fight the tokoloshe? Really?” That’s not to suggest that his friends weren’t supportive, but rather to highlight that when starting a creative project it’s often easy to focus on the limitations – to point out who's done it before and use that as a reason not to push on.
“With this concept, I had to dig deep ‘cos creating a carbon copy of what we’re used to, with DC and Marvel, it’s just not going to really work, not with the terrain that we’ve got, not with the landscape of South Africa.” It’s in the differences that we find Loyiso’s recipes for success.
So, what are these differences then? What makes Kwezi, a 19-year-old resident of Gold City, any different from other comic book heroes? Initially, Loyiso admits, it wasn’t much. He wore tights, he was a pure hero, fighting for good for the sake of being good. But then, back at the drawing board, he decided to step back and to walk the streets the story is set in and really understand how it would be if a kid in this context got superpowers.
He spoke to his younger cousin, who was in matric at the time, and asked him what he would do if he had super powers. The answer, Loyiso recounts, putting on an excited voice is a teenage guy’s list of essentials for 2017: “I’ll try make the money, I’ll try get the girls, followers on Twitter. All of that!”
“All of the answers were self-serving, boost himself, boost his own profile. It was such an honest answer and an authentic answer, that I realised the character could not deviate from that. He doesn’t wear the spandex – he wears jeans, All Stars and a leather jacket. Sure, we have to figure out what happens when he rescues people from a blazing fire, it will burn off. But that’s not important.”
He’s right: no South African kid suddenly endowed with superpowers would suddenly go full Sea Point mom and pull on head-to-toe tights. In the years since first hitting the shelves, Kwezi has earned fans from as far off as Brazil and Germany, but Loyiso is adamant that the story won’t get diluted to accommodate them: “If you’re going to read our comic books and our content and our culture, then that’s what we’ll keep serving.”
Loyiso shows how important external inspiration is in creating a deep, textured story, especially when illustrating comic book characters. He researched different cultures, different histories, different African aesthetics and customs. Then, as he described it, he “superimposed the classic superhero model onto the more ‘peripheral’ ancient South African cultures.”
There's so much depth and range to the mythology in our country that's mostly ignored, and what better way to explore and celebrate it all than through using comic book characters? For this reason, each of the heroes with whom Kwezi interacts add a starring role to somewhat sidelined cultural elements in our country. They include a Zulu maiden, a Basotho warrior, a Khoi San archer, and when you place these guys in the background of modern South Africa, “it’s just a goldmine!”
Furthermore, when you make them interact with the unique aspects of modern South Africa, with fictionalised caricatures of local rappers, comedians and celebrities, what you’re left with is fictionalised yet authentic. It's a legitimate work of heart, designed for consumption by actual South Africans, and those who fall in love with the backgrounds and individual South African cultural narratives long neglected – possibly due to an encouraged national desire to be one uniform rainbow nation. A parallel: it’s hardly as if the Thor comics was made due to the world’s unquenchable demand for new adventures featuring classic Nordic heroes, but the original mythology had enough juice in it to squeeze.
HUSTLE, HUSTLE, HUSTLE
“I was doing all of this after hours, ‘cos had my day job at Supa Strikas. So all-nighters spent doodling and conceptualising and building. I realised very soon after that I can’t do it at all myself.” By this point, though, Loyiso had enough down to get people on board. It starts with one guy, but he brought on some friends and acquaintances, and now there’s a full team assisting in colouring, inking and conceptualising.
And the publishing? "After pushing and trying we eventually met up with the people at New Africa Books," Loyiso explains, telling the story of a warm, older white woman meeting with him and taking a look at the book, “This is amazing. Lovely lovely. Let’s give it a try!”
“We gave it a try and we sold out on the first try. Who would have thought that South Africans would go out of their way to bookstores, with book shelves, and buy physical comic books to take home?” But credit where due: the man is clearly a canny marketer, also. He’s bridged the gap between his fictional world and reality, with the creation of the above-mentioned caricatures, whose real-life versions enjoy seeing themselves woven into the narrative, and whose fans then go on and spread the word of Kwezi. All it takes is a retweet. Furthermore, Loyiso is always prepped with spare Kwezi issues in his bag, knowing that if he happens to bump into someone of note in the streets, a far-reaching selfie can do double the work of conventional marketing. Just like Kwezi, Loyiso is always hustling.
“To me, it’s always been important to make characters that look like us and speak like us and dress like us. That was the thinking.” He recounts his first attendance at Free Comic Book Day after publishing Kwezi, and overhearing people audibly celebrating finally having their own comic book hero. It is noteworthy to him also just how much praise he gets from older women excited, presumably excited to have their kids grow up with relatable protagonists who they can inspire them.
This is recognised by Loyiso, who insists that despite any conflicts that the protagonists may encounter, the stories for now need to remain positive ones. No need for gritty reboots just yet. But one of the more interesting anecdotes comes from earlier this year when he addressed some primary school kids at a quite-larney private school in Johannesburg. A short white boy, who had been really into the talk and super excited, raises his hand and earnestly and innocently asks Loyiso when he’s going to put a white character in the comic, “a character who looks like me.”“We need to recognise the importance of that question, that he saw a story he enjoyed but he couldn’t place himself in it. That spoke to the exact same sentiment that I had, that led to me eventually creating Kwezi in the first place! Then there was an Indian kid in the class, who piped up and said he wants a character who looks like him. So we’re creating a narrative that’s inclusive, and it’s kind of happening organically. I like that.”