African heroes – representing local culture in comics

Until recent years, African representation was virtually non-existent in the world of comic book heroes – born in the West. South African artist Anathi Hadebe is among the artists changing that with an African approach to comics and animation.

Hadebe, originally from KwaZulu-Natal, began studying fine art at Durban University of Technology before moving to Johannesburg to complete her studies in animation and make her mark in the art industry.

As a youngster, growing up reading comics, Hadebe said African representation was rare.

Image from the storyboard short film, Abahlali, which Hadebe is working on.

“It does a lot for active trust if a child grows up and sees a black superhero. Imagine if Superman was black and kids grew up seeing themselves in that picture. It makes such a difference. Instead, we admired someone who didn’t look like us,” the artist said.

Additionally, he believes comics can help redefine the way the world sees South Africa.

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“South Africa has not been represented in the right way, and it is up to us to represent our country. It’s not just about clothes or culture; it’s about experiences. As an artist, I wonder what the African experience is – right now it’s a question everyone in Africa needs to answer. There are so many facets to explore, for example, think of the community living on the Cape Town apartments – no one has ever documented what life is like in terms of people’s experiences there. The past can tell us where we are going, but it does not represent our current experiences,” Hadebe said.

Animation and cinema

Hadebe has a passion for animation and cinema – and it all starts with comics.

“Comics are storyboards just waiting to be movies. I was drawn to animation because I wanted to see my drawings move. My biggest dream is to direct and produce one of the best movies of Africa and giving back to young people – they need us,” Hadebe said.

The artist is well on the way to realizing this dream. Hadebe is one of 10 artists working on Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, a 10-part anime anthology created by emerging talents across Africa. The animated series, powered by Disney and Triggerfish, will premiere on Disney+ this year.

Hadebe also recently directed Naledi, an animated short written by Lola Aikins. The film will be released the same day Comic Con Africa opens: September 22. The film tells the story of a grieving athlete who gets injured and must find a way to get her life back on track.

In this work, Anathi Hadebe depicts a Xhosa woman.

“It was the first time that I made a film. The process was tricky, but it was a great experience and I learned a lot. The story goes deeper than the story of an athlete. It’s about running, but also about running towards what you want in life,” said the filmmaker.

Artists who have inspired Hadebe include Mike Mignola, Lesego Vorster, Wonderboy Gumede, and Musgrave comic book artist Luke Molver (Billy Pineapples).

“Billy pushed me to work harder – he showed me there were opportunities in this field, especially if you can draw. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but [Molver] showed me that I didn’t have to wait to become a filmmaker; I could start with comics,” Hadebe said.

What is Vovo Stayela?

With her niche work, Hadebe is increasingly following on Instagram. Visitors to his page, art_of_chapter_six, will find an explosion of bold lines and colors that bring African culture to life with iconic comic book-style art.

“I’m a sixth-generation artist in my family – Chapter Six in a line of people who work with their hands – carpenters, potters, artisans and artists. I’m the first in my family to work in animation. I don’t couldn’t have done this without the support of my family and the support of my girlfriend, Nosipho Mgcobo. She believed in me. I wouldn’t be where I am if she didn’t push me,” Hadebe said.

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The artist described her style as Vovo_stayela. The word, vovo refers to a stick used to stir Zulu beer and stayela is familiar for the style.

“Vovo_Stayela is about taking insights from the western comic world and translating it into an African artistic language – a way for African children to see themselves represented in comics, short films and animation,” said Hadeb.

Hadebe created a comic called 2060, which tells the story of time travel and space invasion. This hasn’t been released yet.