Carl Collison (People's Post, June 2015)
SPEECHLESS: South African Comic artists on The State of the Nation
CC: Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born and raised, where did you study, your career highlights etc.
AM: I was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1954, grew up in Durban, went to a private school, majored in English and History at the University of Natal, was involved in NUSAS and editor of the student newspaper, Dome, and drew the comic strip Vittoke in Azania, which appeared in both Dome and Varsity, the UCT student paper. After university I joined Ravan Press in Johannesburg and worked on Staffrider, a black consciousness literary magazine, where I became friendly with young black radical poets and artists like Matsamela Manaka, Jaki Seroke, Ingoapele Madingoane and Mogorosi Motshumi. With Kevin Humphrey and Mzwakhe Nhlabatsi I then co-founded The Graphic Equalizer, a production studio in Braamfontein. After that I worked as assistant editor on Upbeat, a youth magazine, and drew comics for Upbeat, Staffrider, Learn and Teach, New Ground and other anti-apartheid publications. I also drew Vusi Goes Back, a South African history comic for The People’s Workbook, and was co-creator with Mogorosi Motshiumi of the township strip, Sloppy, which ran in Learn and Teach until the mid-90s. After my first child was born we moved to Durban where I co-founded Artworks Communications, working there as creative director for 20 years, designing, illustrating and publishing books, magazines and campaigns around democracy, human rights, Street Law, teen sexuality, HIV/AIDS, organisational development, entrepreneurship and other social issues.
After the 1994 elections I took a couple of months off to travel and surf in the USA, Hawaii and Australia, and it was on this trip that I decided to become a full-time artist. It’s taken 20 years to realise that dream. In the process I got my MA in Cultural and Media Studies, moved to Cape Town, co-founded the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts (CCIBA) at Stellenbosch university, wrote a book on the history of South African cartooning (What’s So Funny?), published the first volume of my collected comix (The Legend of Blue Mamba) and co-edited and co-curated a number comic art anthologies and events such as Co/Mix, Open Book Comics Fest, GrafLit and our current show, Speechless, at the Erdmann Contemporary Galley, co-curated with Su Opperman.
CC: What drew you to your appreciation for comics?
AM: I grew up in the Silver Age of American comics and read all the great British weeklies like Beano, Tiger and Hurricane, and later 2000AD. At university I discovered Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix, Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the whole underground comix thing. I was immediately hooked. It’s an addiction I’ve never been able to kick. I’ve spent decades drawing thinly disguised autobiocomix and encouraging other aspiring comic artists and animators to do the same.
CC: What are some of the misperceptions people have of comic art?
AM: There used to be a lot of misconceptions, the most common ones being that comics are for kids, that they’re incapable of addressing serious themes, and that they aren’t “real art”, but only poorly informed people hold these views nowadays. Graphic literature is the biggest growth area in world publishing and if you look at how many of today’s big budget movies, franchises and games are based on comics you’ll quickly realise that comics are the backbone of the contemporary entertainment industry. When I grew up it was primarily an audio culture in which music was the lodestone of hipness. Today it’s illustration, graphics, animation, graffiti and the like. With Instagram and all the other visual platforms there’s never been a better time to get into drawing. Pop music has gone to hell in a hand basket and all those introverted comics nerds of yesteryear are now dictating what we consume through our eyeballs. It’s the revenge of the drawing nerds!
CC: Does comic art enjoy much appreciation in Cape Town? If so, to what would you attribute this?
AM: Comics are huge in Cape Town. The city is bursting with insane graf and mural art, drawing clubs, animation projects, comix collectives and ‘zines. Everyone who is into comic art and the related disciplines is either here or wishes they were. Triggerfish Studios, with two hugely successful movies under their belt, are firing on all cylinders, youngsters are packing the animation schools, every second kid on the street has a marker in their hand or a spray can tucked into their jeans. Or if they don’t they should have. In township schools, where the performance arts have tended to dominate, a new generation of young art rebels are staking their claim. Even old ballies are remembering their enthusiasm for the comics revolutions of the 60’s and 80s, and encouraging their kids and grandkids to draw. I run a Friday night comics stall at the Muizenberg market and you’d be amazed at how many grizzled ole wrinkles crawl out of the woodwork to come and drool over Raw magazine or Love and Rockets comics from yesteryear.
CC: How important, if at all, is comic art as a socio-political tool?
AM: Anyone who doubts the political impact of cartoons has been on vacation on Mars for the last decade. Political cartoons are the whetstones on which ambitious populists like Julius Malema sharpen their teeth. In fact, many of our leading politicians love cartoons so much that they have started to act like cartoon characters. Reality has become so crazy of late that it’s as if we were all living in some madcap local version of The Simpsons, with the lights going out at random, hoodlums running wild and jokers calling the shots.
CC: What are you hoping the comic art market and colloquium will achieve?
AM: I’ve only got a couple of major aims in life these days — to make as much art as I can before I kick the bucket, to spread the gospel of comics and to help fill the world with crazy characters mimicking our stupidest foibles and teaching us that, irrespective of whom we may think we are, we’re all just temporary souls hanging by our fingernails for a few brief moments on a spinning rock in some obscure corner of a vast multiverse. So get over all the arrogant posturing and money-grabbing power hunger and be nice to each other. I think comics are an ideal medium to convey this universal message.
This interview was conducted at the time of the exhibition SPEECHLESS: South African Comic artists on The State of the Nation, June 2015. Curated by Andy Mason and Su Opperman.
Keith Bain (Khuluma magazine, December 2014)
Words Don’t Come Easy
‘What makes comics valuable as a medium is that they don’t cost much. I can sit down right now and create the story. With pen and ink and paper, and perhaps a Photostat machine if you want to duplicate it, you can circulate a form of entertainment that is bitingly critical of society. And you don’t need much money to do that.’ – Andy Mason
The first time I had an inkling that I might have subversive tendencies was also the only time I got hauled into the headmaster’s office. I wasn’t alone. With me was the school’s best cartoonist. We’d started a magazine, printed on the school’s Xerox and sold on the premises to cover costs. We were just having fun, expressing ourselves. But we apparently crossed the line with our second cover.
We’d previously lampooned our principal, depicting him as a goofball academic superhero-in-tights. He’d blushed, but hadn’t complained. We felt invincible. But then we caricatured the supreme authority. We showed PW Botha – Die Groot Krokodil – in a mildly unflattering light. Until then, I’d never imagined cartoons having the power to evoke outrage, fear, or strong emotions. I’d spent childhood immersed in foreign comics that either made me laugh or enabled escape: Beano, Archie, Richie Rich, and Tintin. Mad magazine was as close to anti-establishment as my childhood comics got.
But when I saw the anxiety in our headmaster’s eyes, I was suddenly aware of the power a drawing could have. Just imagine: We were teenagers and the grown-ups were scared.
Twenty-five years after my brief flirtation with political controversy, I found myself listening to a wordy speech by Jonathan Shapiro, creator of the most controversial, politically outspoken cartoons to have appeared in post-apartheid South Africa. Zapiro was guest speaker at the launch of the Azania Mania Art Kollektiv (AMAK), a comic bookstore-gallery in Muizenberg. AMAK is the brainchild of Andy Mason, a marvellous long-haired hippie-intelectual whom Zapiro described as the guru of South African cartooning. He’s authored underground cartoons since the 1970s, when he developed Vittoke in Azania, as a student. He’s also authored What’s so Funny?, the definitive book on South African comics, and has influenced the careers of most of our significant cartoonists, including Zapiro himself.
When Andy stepped up to the podium, it was to make an even more longwinded speech. I quickly realised that cartoonists have a lot to say. Which is why they’re at their best when compacting their tremendous ideas into pictures.
Later, when I meet Andy without the crowds, he turns out to be one the most fascinating South Africans you’ll ever meet.
‘I’m an anachronism,’ he says, ‘I live in the past.’
The past Andy occupies is one where he can surf and draw and do what makes him happy. Pursuing his dreams rather than chasing profits. It’s why, he jokes, he lives in Muizenberg, where he moved ‘to become a penniless author and cartoonist after abandoning a successful educational publishing business in Durban’.
He says he took the plunge after a Jungian therapist helped him unravel a dream about a one-legged man made of plant matter. ‘He was walking normally on one leg. I drew this figure in my notebook with a dotted line for the missing leg. The therapist asked what part of me was missing that I’d compensated for with this dotted line.’
The missing leg, of course, was Andy’s latent artistic identity, ignored because, growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, ‘it wasn’t a serious career option.’
‘Back then you could be a doctor, teacher, lawyer, accountant, or a baker or motor mechanic. But you couldn’t be a publisher or comic artist. Commercial art was looked down on.’
Andy grew up during the so-called Silver Age of comics, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reinvented Marvel Comics with Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk – characters with internal battles. Andy says to some extent the quality of those comics – the level of drawing and storytelling – also stifled his latent inclinations. ‘I never imagined I could become a comic artist, because those were so well drawn. I was good with words but didn’t think I could write stories like that.’ Besides, his parents wanted him to become a lawyer.
From The Underground
Things changed at university in the Seventies, though, when he was exposed to underground cartooning. ‘I turned to comics that tell different narratives – stories about how we feel as ordinary people, instead of how we’re told to feel by society. Comics like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, by Gilbert Shelton, and Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix.’
‘This was the immediate post-Woodstock period, and you were either straight, meaning conservative, or you were a hippie with long hair and beads, into smoking dope, living in a commune – a bit like living in Muizenberg today. I was a freak because I had an earring and an Afro and was enmeshed in the rhetoric of the Marxist Revolution. It was a very politicised time with many left-wing radicals around.’
That politically charged climate, plus exposure to international anti-establishment cartoons inspired Andy’s first underground comics, published in the student newspaper. Vittoke in Azania was about a bunch of hippies – Porl Vittoke was a dope-smoking surfer, his girlfriend Alison Wonderland was the bare-breasted feminist, Sigmund Froyd the radical lefty, and Moses Avid was this spaced-out guru.
‘They represented different parts of who I am or what I observed around me,’ says Andy, who drew under the pseudonym ‘Pooh’, and later, ‘N.D. Mazin’.
‘Looking back, those characters represented a good assessment of the milieu I came out of, and am still part of. That’s why I live in Muizenberg and not Constantia. Because those people – the mystics, feminists, arty types, political radicals – still live here.’
Over the years, Andy has kept those same characters, while newer cartoons have included the Blue Mamba, which he started drawing in the late-1990s. ‘The surfing industry was changing. Great surfers were offered money to represent big surfing clothing companies. That became a symbol for the way in the capitalist system works to exploit everything to get money out of it.’
Blue Mamba was a surfer who sold his soul to the devil (the head of Toxacorp, Andy’s stand-in for corporate evil) in a Faustian pact. When he tried backing out the deal, Toxacorp’s goons stripped off his face, claiming his likeness was part of their corporate identity. They left him faceless and bleeding in the gutters, where the story really begins.
‘We live in a crazy world,’ says Andy. ‘My stories are reflections of what I see in the world. I don’t make anything up. I think my comics are very realistic, not surreal or weird – an accurate reflection of everyday life.’
Critical of South African artists who reduplicate the stereotypes and tropes of Western comic-making, he says he finds fantasy boring and repetitive – ‘I’m not interested in escapism.’
Besides, he says, ‘South African comic artists who’ve tried that get nowhere. Cartoonists who have made international names for themselves are radicals, the ones who’ve gone for the jugular.’
It’s why, when asked to list our most important post-apartheid comic artists, he names Brett Murray, Zapiro, and the creators of Bitterkomix and Madam & Eve. The latter, he says, is one of the crowing achievements of South African cartooning, because it’s the only one that really penetrates to the reality of South African life and it does that through the relationship of domestic employment and it presents both sides of the story.
Zapiro, he says, was influenced by the same underground cartoon movement that inspired Vittoke in Azania, but during apartheid it was deeply buried because you could be arrested for certain types of expression.
Proper underground comics only really exploded here in the 1990s, when the dismantling of censorship ‘heralded unparalleled artistic and cultural freedom’. ‘Into that gap,’ says Andy, ‘came Bitterkomix.’ Its creators, Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes, identified with the American underground cartoon movement and flaunted its techniques. ‘They attacked their own culture, linking sexuality and political oppression to depict how deviant apartheid society was. So, behind the fences of meticulously drawn houses there exist seething cauldrons of lust and sexual deviance. Radically subversive and underground.’
‘The politics I’m interested in is how the enormous allure of wealth and power and greed – the evil capitalist system – has us in its grip and is destroying our planet. In my comics, Toxacorp represents the evil of capitalist power in the world, and the heroes are hippie-surfers.’
‘It’s a great debate whether a cartoon ever changed the world,’ says Andy. ‘Zapiro has had massive impact, but I’ve no such aspirations.’
What Andy does aspire to do, is foster a new generation of cartoonists. He believes that a popular indigenous comic art culture is lacking. ‘We’ve never had that. With the exception of a few Afrikaans titles, we’ve never had our own comic books that you can go and buy from the corner café. We’ve always bought foreign comics.’
It’s a gap that Andy wants to see filled.
Addicted To Drawing
‘It’s a project for people who can’t stop drawing,’ says Andy. ‘We’re working with young people who are addicted to drawing, such as graffiti artists.’
According to Andy, we have two very different cultural norms in South Africa, when it comes to creativity. ‘European culture privileges the loner approach, while African culture is about group interaction. Talent, however, is evenly distributed across the human race, irrespective of culture. But in a culture that privileges performance, a child who’s good at drawing, who sits on his own, is a bit of a misfit. There’s nowhere for him.’ It’s these children – particularly those from the townships – that Andy hopes to nurture.
His project is about combining these two cultural dimensions by bringing young people from different backgrounds together and having them work in groups to create comics depicting stories from their own lives. If Andy’s dream plays out, it will lead to a thick graphic novel, called Parallel Lives.
‘We all live together on this peninsula, but we live these incredibly segmented – parallel – lives. I wanted to create a project that cuts across that.’
Working with these youngsters, though, made Andy aware that ‘parallel lives’ has another, potentially more immediate, meaning. ‘All kids who draw have a parallel life through their drawing. Often they’re disadvantaged in some way. And in their drawings they can compensate for that and create a world where they are in charge and in which they’re telling the story. It’s a parallel universe where they’re empowered.’
This interview was conducted after the opening of AMAK (Azania Mania Art Kolektiv), at Alive Café, in Muizenberg, October 2014.