Comic Books: The Art of Cultural Inspiration

By Kalkidan (Qal) Fessehaye

Picture courtesy of Etan Comics

Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe took the world’s attention with giant blockbusters, comic book culture was very popular in the West in the 1930s and 40s. The phenomenon in Ethiopia, although still existing in certain niche groups, became a trend in the early 2000s. By the time The Avengers Endgame movie came out in 2019, the potential for storytelling of the medium had made its case worldwide and quite a few Ethiopian creators were coming out with their own comic books.

It may seem like the comic book culture came to Ethiopia in recent years, however, a version of the art form was practised in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since the 17th century. It came in the form of drawings set in sequential form on manuscripts that unfold like an accordion to unveil a story. Similar to current comic books, it used individual panels and minimal words. The likes of Etan Comics make a point to pay homage to this heritage.
“Comic Books or as we call them Sensi’ils are part of the Ethiopian identity,” says Beserat Debebe, founder of Etan Comics and author of comic books like Jember and Hawi. “We have been telling visual stories in sequential art format for years. In our own way. Our own art style, colour palettes and our own language.” In this regard, Etan Comics has been actively trying to promote and advertise the history of Sensi’ils on social media, reminding the public that the art form is not one borrowed from the West in the 21st century but rather one that the church practised in the past.

Picture courtesy of Etan Comics

Ethiopian comic book creators have made their distinct relationship with the art form, not only appreciating it as a concept imported from the West but rather as a cultural heritage that can be improved upon. Says comic book artist Shiferaw Yinessu, “Though most modern forms of the medium can be attributed to American and Japanese creators, using sequential art as a form of visual storytelling has been around for ages in different from like in Greek pottery, Mayan carvings, hieroglyphics of Egypt, etc… The Ethiopian Orthodox Church art is one of those unique instances that takes the history of comic books further back.

Ethiopian Orthodox Churches illustrated gospels in full graphic novel format. The illustrated homilies from the Gondorian period are treasure pieces. These pieces, I’ve noticed, take the reader on a journey like no other, page after page depicting each story beat. One can understand the whole narrative without needing to read the text.”

The visual nature of comic books allows the creator to express profound information easily. There’s barely any language barrier and this makes it accessible to a range of cultures creating a commonplace to learn and experience new things.

Fast forward to today, Jember, an early Ethiopian contemporary comic book, tells the story of a young graduate trying, without luck, to make his way in Addis Ababa and suddenly finding himself bestowed with superpowers. With its setting in contemporary Ethiopia, it eventually goes on to explore culture and history, reimagining our way of life, allowing us to localise and understand the superhero concept we’ve come to appreciate from Western literature.

“I am drawn to reimagining African traditions,” says Fanuel Leul, founder and creative director of Qedamawi Comics. “One of the comic books I am currently working on features African history reimagined with fantasy.” Fanuel’s art form, blending futuristic elements with fantasy, distinctly expresses an imaginative alternative culture to the one we know and have today. His fans love his work because it provides an inspirational window to what our cultures could be. “The comic book I am working on right now, Bugnad, explores an ancient Ethiopian kingdom and its subjects,” says Fanuel. “The story mainly revolves around themes like strength in unity and finding this unity in differences. It also explores complex themes like war and politics. I believe the story can impact the audience in two main ways. It inspires the audience to learn more about Ethiopian and African history. This is because the story is inspired by real Ethiopian events and legends that have happened through time. We’ve placed hints of historical events as easter eggs in the comic book. I also believe that it would move the comic book industry one step ahead. We have worked hard to maintain excellent art standards with storytelling.”

Picture courtesy of Qedamawi Comics

There aren’t enough comic book artists to make an industry in Ethiopia. But there’s some hope for the platform as artists that can blend their identity with popular comic book styles become more and more prolific. There isn’t a mainstream market set up especially for the comic book culture and in fact, while art is part of the formal education scheme, artists that explore the comic book aspect of storytelling remain few in number.

Many local artists in Ethiopia are self-taught. Even if there is a chance they could go to art school, those who choose to explore comic books are those who probably grew up reading them or have been exposed to the medium in some way. That coupled with the personal desire to become better at the craft is likely what creates the Ethiopian comic book artist. “I basically locked myself in my room for months and rage drew until something I didn’t hate turned up on the paper,” says Shiferaw Yinessu. “A couple of years into my journey I discovered David Finch and my skills tripled after adapting some of his techniques.” Similarly, Fanuel Leul says, “I consider myself self-taught. When I got into art school, I learned how to hone the craft of drawing and painting. Around graduation, I started exploring more on Photoshop and trying out digital art. Playing around with it, I unknowingly found my own style.”

Picture courtesy of Ased Comics

The rhetoric that comic books are a western idea or that they are books for kids have challenged the industry all over. While the literary culture in general is on a decline, the desire for the public to pick up a comic book goes a step further. But what drives the artists to keep making them and to hold out hope that perhaps things will change soon is that drive behind the movement. Michael Asrat, creator of the comic book Melkit believes that superheroes help us imagine and believe in something greater. “It helps us aspire to be a better version of ourselves,” he says. “Comic book trends in Ethiopia can be improved by telling stories that are spiritually Ethiopian and yet something anyone around the world can relate to.”

“The comic book sector here in Ethiopia is growing even though it is in its early stages,” says Fanuel Leul. “There are few comic books that I have come across and enjoyed. I believe in working together, and I also believe that there are great artists and storytellers in the country. If we come together and work to tell our own stories I believe we would be unstoppable.”

“Art is the way we pass knowledge and wisdom. It’s how we preserve our values and heritage, how we build a bridge from one generation to the next,” adds Beserat Debebe. “That is the responsibility we carry at Etan Comics. That is our big why. There are many kids, Ethiopians and Africans who feel disconnected from their rich heritage, who feel ashamed of their identity, who will grow into adults who do not trust themselves, who do not believe that they are as capable as others. We exist to help them because everyone deserves to believe in themselves and the world becomes a better place when we are all encouraged to reach our full potential.”

Some comic books are in fact made for kids, like Beserat says, to create an appreciation for one’s own culture and identity as they grow up. But that need isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to the young. We could all benefit from reimagining our cultures and building empathy towards our diversity in this way. The likes of Batman and Spiderman became the icons that they are because of the dreams they inspired. If given a chance, if given the attention, there is no way the likes of Jember and Meklit couldn’t do the same for the coming generation of kids.

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