Less than a decade ago, the comic book was the preserve of the nerd. Today not only is the word “comics” a misnomer since contemporary versions of this literature have little to do with humour (the name derives from the humorous or “comic” work which predominated in early American newspaper comic strips), but it is a literature form that has outgrown the nerd tag.
Not only has the comic book gained mass international appeal but it has been underlined by the Hollywood film industry where superheroes like Superman and Batman from DC Comics and Spiderman, Wolverine and X-Men from Marvel have been box office bonanzas.
The Kenyan creative scene — albeit in its infancy — has also witnessed the mushrooming of an artistic medium in which images incorporate text or other visual forms of information to express a narrative or idea.
While the central binary of good versus evil continues to be the mainstay and comic book characters are typically presented with enhanced physiques and supernatural abilities, its fantastical identity however seems to end there.
More and more, the stories told in local comics are strongly situated in Kenya’s social, cultural and economic context.
Shujaas (heroes ), arguably Kenya’s most popular comic is a story about a kid called Boyie who builds a radio station called Shujaaz FM and uses his broadcasts to discuss issues that affect the youth. Not only does such a tale resonate with the country’s youth, but it also parallels the popularity of the broadcast medium in Kenya.
Since then a myriad of comics have been produced by the creative industry including Dem Chungu by artist and cartoonist Movin Were, which features a crime fighting female inspired by Jim Holdaway and Romero’s Modesty Blaise and Home Guard from Kenyan rapper and emcee Point Blank Evumbi, which tells the story of two Kenyan detectives.
Kenya’s most recent comic however is Mau 2.0. A foray into popular literature by a Kenyan of Asian origin — Shamit Patel of merchandising company Myrobi — it offers a haunting commentary on Kenya’s socio-political condition, and explores a futuristic scenario through five friends who question and challenge the status quo.
Its title, Mau 2.0, is a reference to the freedom fighters of 1952 and 1960, and 27 year old Shamit suggests that the upheavals Kenya is currently experiencing may instigate a second movement masterminded by the youth.
“The Mau Mau was the first proper revolution we had in Kenya and this is version 2.0 of it,” said Shamit.
Set in a dystopian city where Vision 2030 has gone wrong, Mau 2.0 chronicles the battles of Kenia —an orphan — and his four friends: computer genius Kal (Hindi for tomorrow); rebellious pyromaniac Na’are (Kiswahili for matchstick); politician’s daughter Saa ( time); and the peace loving muscle Kobe ( tortoise).
“There is a sense of Afro-pessimism and this is where these five come in,” said Shamit. “They feel this sense of injustice so strongly that they fight corrupt politicians and a group called the Matatu Mafia.”
Although the comic is set in the future and explores transhumanism—“infusing technology into humanity to make things better for the future”— woven through the narrative of Mau 2.0 are references to local mythology such as the supreme god Ngai who lives on Mount Kirinyaga, which retains a strongly local flavour.
Each issue is presented in 24 pages of panel-to-panel transitions and a placement of text and lettering that is typical to the genre.
Shamit is loyal to the printed comic, and although he is tech savvy and sometimes enjoys reading comics online, he believes the quasi-visual quasi-verbal genre can best be enjoyed as a tangible book.
He plans to supplement the printed version of the comic with an online or mobile app, and later an animation, funds permitting.
These interactive media forms, he says, will enhance their multi-directional identity, and build on them as an active form of social participation.
At its heart, Mau 2.0 is a powerful and engaging commentary on Kenyan culture and society.