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