Black Like Us – An Essay by Tunde Giwa

I forget now the exact public event I attended recently when I heard this bright, eager, 20-something year old Afro-French youth proudly claim that he had just created Africa’s first animated super character. This was a very debatable even if not-worth-challenging point. It occurred to me then that anyone who grew up in English-speaking Africa in the 60’s and 70’s would probably not have made that claim. They would perhaps recall a certain Lance Spearman.

Growing up in Nigeria, in what I choose to remember as a halcyon era with TV that ran from 6pm to 9pm, the Internet had yet to be invented, no one had ever heard of computer games, you played with your imagination and objects you found around you and comics were a great love. We treated them like gold and devised an elaborate barter system to establish what each one was worth. “I’ll give you two codis (tops made from garden snail shells) or 1/16th of a fizzie if you let me read your comic”. Being as it was, the immediate postcolonial era, these comics, regardless of where they came from, uniformly featured white characters.

In those days, comics exclusively came from the non-African world. There were the British comics that endlessly retold the victors’ tales of valiant British soldiers as they manhandled the hapless Germans during World War II. Many of the kids I went to school with could easily distinguish between an image of a British Spitfire fighter, a German Stuka dive bomber or an ME 109. There were the American Marvel comics with evergreen characters like Spider Man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and many more. Yet another quite popular comic book at the time was The Adventures of Tin Tin series, from Belgium. Back then, my personal favorite was Thor of Asgard, son of Odin. I also have fond childhood memories of the endless, deathly-serious, cyclical arguments with friends about who was stronger.

Into this culturally colonized milieu came a new comic published by Drum Publications called African Film featuring Lance Spearman, a raffish and nattily-dressed black super cop with an ever-present Panama hat. And we all instantly fell deeply in love with him. No one forced Spearman on us. For the first time, we had a comic hero who was actually black like us. African Film was very different from other comics of the time. Not hand-drawn as other comics were, it was a photoplay magazine that used actual photographs of real black people with the dialog typed at the bottom of each panel. Located in an unnamed but strictly urban setting, Lance Spearman was cast as a black James Bond type. It featured several recurring characters including the unforgettable eye-patch wearing arch-villain Rabon Zollo who once made his escape from certain capture using a jet-powered flying wheelchair. Obviously, as with any comic, they were not shooting for plausibility. But when Spearman took on a young sidekick called Lemmy, many of us almost died of jealousy – we so wanted to be in his shoes. African Film used cliffhangers to great effect, keeping us wanting more and eagerly expecting the next serial installment.

With the success of African Film came more from the same stable. Like Boom with a black Tarzan character called Fearless Fang, who battled the evil ‘natives’. One day, without warning, Fearless Fang suddenly morphed into a two-gun toting cowboy in a comic called The Stranger. Later, another photo comic called Sadness and Joy, which dealt with love, was released. With today’s sensibilities these characters, Lance Spearman included, would provide endless grist for the deconstruction mill. Fearless Fang would be particularly problematic. But we must place this in its proper perspective. This was in an era of Herge’s The Adventures of Tin Tin, when I would naively root for Tin Tin against the ‘natives’. Billions of blue blistering barnacles, how could I not see that those jet-black, bone-pierced nosed, bright red-lipped Sambo characters of Tin Tin in Congo were me? Even the name Lance Spearman upon further examination, is more than a little cringe-worthy. Could they have named him Rod Spearchucker?

But perhaps I am engaging in a little bit of revisionist political correctness. In its day, African Film brought many of us joy and not a little bit of pride in the blackness of its characters. None of the comic’s obvious shortcomings should detract from the fact that African Film helped create a hitherto unseen shared, Anglophone Pan African, cultural frame-of-reference that spread beyond the continent all the way to the Caribbean.

Tunde Giwa, June 2008

16 Responses to Black Like Us – An Essay by Tunde Giwa

  1. R. David July 11, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    You wake up memories. I feel like a child again. I remember FILM very well. Any plans of Re-Issues? That will be awesome
    RD

  2. Jude Akuechiama July 27, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    I agree totally

  3. Tunji August 28, 2008 at 3:45 pm #

    Tunde Pheeww. that was close as Lance Spearman would say. Clearly you were ahead of us in understanding the semiotics of a “lance spearman” Personally, I had always been suspicious of Tin Tin. Brilliantly concise critique. Well done

  4. Debo August 28, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    i am in search of copies of African film – any help in this endeavor would be deeply appreciated

  5. M Gitonga October 5, 2008 at 3:45 pm #

    I have been in search for copies of African Film for the past 30 years. Any assistance will be highly appreciated

  6. Vincent Kizza,Liason officer,Uganda parliamentary offie for science and technology April 6, 2009 at 3:45 pm #

    It is only now that I come accross a discussion on Lance Spearman and Fearless Fang,issues of which I would pay anything to get. Thinking about them makes me re-live my great childhood. By the way,were the characters themselves real??!! How I wish they were! Another thing…The series also had a great prediction about science-in the form of mobile phones..

  7. John Olusegun Afolabi September 22, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Please can someone, anybody lead me to contact the right owners of African Film (Lance Spearman). Thank you

  8. CJMambula1 January 12, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    I am search of African Film and Fearless Fang copies. Can anyone help?

  9. ic January 17, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    RE: I am search of African Film and Fearless Fang copies. Can anyone help?

    check with Glendora store in Lagos.
    google: Glendora Review

  10. Faith January 20, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    Wow, Tunde a great write up! In retrospect, African Film was one of the best things that happened to me as a child. I wish those days could come back!Debo, have you succeded in getting the copies yet, could you or anyone else let me know, what I need to do to get the African Film copies please ! As David expressed,that will be awesome” indeed.

  11. Carl Giwa March 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    Those were the good old days. I absolutely loved the Boom and African Film magazines. They were simply brilliant. Apart from Lemmy & Lance Spearman, there was also a police chief character called Captain Victor. I also recall that when Lance saw a pretty lady, he would think “Mmm, like
    Eartha Kitt.”

  12. biodun April 14, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    I too, relish the good old days of Lance and Fang. But does no one remember that a Nigerian hero also appeared briefly, i can’t remember the details except that thr late roxy mayford feated as a companion of the main charcter. by the way, did the carl giwa above ever attend st. catherine’s?

  13. Carl Giwa April 22, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    Hi Biodun. Yes! I was at St Catherine’s Model School, Suru-Lere, between the ages of 8 and 9.
    I’ve been trying to remember you, but your first name only is insufficient.
    My email is : carlgiwa@aol.com
    Thanks.

  14. Christopher D'Cruz September 1, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Hi Guys,
    Looking up on the Chimurenga Library website, I came across so many nostalgic comments on the Boom and Film mags from those who lived in East Africa in the 60’s and early 70’s like myself, which brought back so many heart-wrenching memories of yester-years. My God, how I wish I could turn back the pages of time again & re-live those years. I would gladly exchange all this modern tech entertainment for the simple but wholesome pleasures we had in those days-and truly, one of the best things in those days was waiting patiently for Saturday morning when the wonderful Boom & Film mags feat-
    uring The unforgettable Fearless Fang & Lance Spearman hit the pavements-being sold by the newspaper vendors. I remember oh so vividly now, leaving home on my way to school & eagerly looking for the latest issue of the Boom and Film peeping out from somewhere among the various newspapers which the newspaper vendor had neatly arranged on the pavement. And my joy knew no bounds as I saw the coloured covers of the mags depicting the Jungle hero Fearless Fang in all his muscular glory riding on his elephant Jumbo with the golden ferocious Simba running behind like a playful cat. I knew that when I got home from school, my mum or dad would have bought me the issues and then I’d sit and read the mags with such interest & concentration that I’d try to digest each & every aspect of the story
    more than I’d even do when I went to the movies. I must say that the editor or person responsible for creating those stories week after week was indeed a genius with a most vivid and fertile imagination and some of the stories had quite a bit of science fiction in them like a story about Fearless Fang and the Tree People- A certain clan of people who lived for centuries in the forest trees & worshipped the moon so much so that in keeping with their habitat, their bodies grew leafy branches and if these were broken it was as if one was breaking off one of their limbs etc.
    Todays kids and even adults are so fascinated with these modern science fiction stories & films-Like Dr.Who-the themes of which are similar to some of the tales in the Booms & Films of the 60’s but only those(the Boom and Film)stories were definately SUPERIOR compared to todays science fiction. I certainly would give anything if I could get hold of that collection today,and I can’t understand why magazines like Beano, Tarzan,Phantom etc which were definitely nowhere near the standard of the Boom & Film are still available today but these delightful enchanting mags have vanished like the dinosaurs. Where have the old dummy prints in the old publishing places that used to publish these mags gone? If those were found or maybe the kids or grand kids of the editor/s(who would be grown-ups now) could be traced, there may be a chance that these wonderfully entertaining photo comics-BOOM and FILM could be resurected. My God, how blessed myself and all of us would be to be able to re-live our childhoods-those glorious years again!
    But, until then we can only look back down memory lane to those wonderful days we spent in good old East Africa during the Boom and Film era and be thankful that we are the priviledged lucky few who were destined to enjoy those lovely books which even those living in Europe and America didn’t have access to.
    Chris.

  15. Bayo Fadairo September 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    Tunde thank you,good write up,what can I say,Good old days,all be on standby,am still searching for any one copy laying around.St Catherine’s Model School, Suru-Lere,UP SCHOOL!!.Am ‘Bayo Taiwo Fadairo.1965-1970.(08023211169)

  16. Ken Kimeli December 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    i have some issues of the spear magazine frm No. 100 to 208
    anyone having from No.1 to 99
    call me +254723410496.
    am in kenya

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