Kickstarter Interview - Kugali

Kugali are a collective that specialise in African comics. By selecting creators from all over the continent, they aim to show the rest of the world the diversity and the culture that so many people remain unaware of. Beginning as a site that aims to collate existing comics from the continent, co-creators Ziki Nelson and Tolu Olowofoyeku are taking to Kickstarter to fundraise for the first issue of their eponymously named book: The Kugali Anthology. We were lucky enough to sit down with them and they told us exactly why you what they're doing is worth your money.

Panel Patter: We are a site that primarily reviews and discusses Western comics. For readers who primarily consume Western entertainment, what would be your pitch to draw them into Kugali?

Ziki: In the US and in the UK, even though people are used to reading DC and Marvel - your Dark Horse and your Image and even get some indie comics - there is also a lot of interest in Japanese manga which is very different to what we have in the West. In the East there’s Manga, in the West there’s American comics and so in Africa we have Kugali.

Tolu: African storytelling is very different to anything else out there. The same way that right now - I don’t know if you guys watch Indian movies over there - but Indian movies have a very different feel from Hollywood movies. In that same way, Nollywood movies have a different feel from Chinese movies, so it’s not like it’s "like this one but better"; we aren't saying that it’s like American comics but better. It’s just so different that it’s a totally unique experience for people that are only used to one particular kind of comic.

Panel Patter: So you’re saying that it will give them some variation and different approaches to storytelling that they’ve not seen before. 

Ziki: Exactly. However, I will also say that a lot of the comics featured in the anthology do draw some inspiration from both Japanese manga and Western comics so it’s a combination of what’s familiar combined with a touch of African culture to create something new.

Panel Patter: Do you have any examples of which parts of it come from which culture?

Ziki: For example, Kayin & Abeni drew a lot of inspiration from Hellboy in terms of the art style, by Mike Mignola, so if you’re a Mignola fan then you’ll see a clear influence there. 

Mumu Juju draws a lot of inspiration from Japanese manga in terms of the storytelling structure - it doesn't take itself too seriously. There are a lot of really cleanly illustrated panels, but then others are really simply drawn and it mimics that Japanese Chibi illustration technique.

Panel Patter: So you’ve said that you draw inspiration from cultures outside of Africa. Do all of the characters in this anthology draw from existing African mythologies or are some original creations?

Ziki: It’s a mixture. Off the top of my head, more or less all of the stories are at least inspired by various African cultures. 

For example, Under a Jovian Sun is set in Morocco and it’s essentially just thinking about what modern day Morocco looks like and then extrapolating that as to what it will look like 1000 years in the future. Morocco is a bit of a melting pot for different cultures because it’s where people go to when they’re trying to get to Europe - so you have a lot of people from Sub-Saharan Africa there - and you also have a lot of Europeans coming into Africa there so this is the kind of diversity that transposes onto the comics.

That’s taking a very contemporary influence, but some of them have taken influences from ancient kingdoms - it kind of varies.

Panel Patter: In that respect, did you have to do any adapting in terms of dialogue, aphorisms or content to account for the fact that the comic would be viewed outside of Africa?

Tolu: Between the two of us, I’m the one who has actually spent more time in Nigeria. With the vernacular, I would say out of the all of the comics Mumu Juju probably has the most.

We know that outside of Nigeria we have to make an allowance because Mumu Juju has a lot of humour in it which is only natural when it’s in the natural vernacular of the creator. He has to write certain things and there’s no way to directly translate them into regular English, so he has to put them in Pidgin English and then later on have a page where he explains all of the phrases. We actually have a reward on our Kickstarter where we give out Pidgin English flashcards that show you small version of the Mumu Juju characters explaining the various phrases. 

In Oro they speak regular English, they barely use Pidgin, but then sometimes characters will speak Yoruba. When they speak Yoruba, we usually have to put subtitles somewhere else on the page -there’s always that allowance - because when Nigerian creatives or African creatives in general are creating something, it only feels natural to you if it’s the way that you would speak in real life - a joke you would crack or an expression.

This is a very common joke in Nigeria: they say if a non-Nigerian gets suddenly hit they’re going to say “ouch”, but in Nigerian if you say “ouch” then they know that the thing didn’t really hurt you - you’re pretending when you say “ouch”. If it really hurt you and the exclamation came from your soul, then you’re going to say “yaay”. So it’s like, why would you be writing a comic and your character is saying “ouch” - it’s not natural.

Panel Patter: The point of the anthology is to showcase people from Africa telling stories that themselves, in the first issue at least, are very influenced African culture. Is it an anthology that in the future could have stories that were more directly influenced by Western stories, or would that not fit with the intention of the comic?

Ziki: In the short term, I don’t envision us publishing any Superman-esque stories only because DC and Marvel already do that so well, so why do that in the first place. However, for us we don’t necessarily want to impinge on the creative process that our artists and writers engage in, so our criteria is actually based on three things.

Our questions are: is the creative team from an African country, have they ever lived in an African country and are their stories set in an African country or African context? As long as they can tick two of those boxes, then we’re happy to work with those creators. However, if someone ticked two of those boxes and they wanted to essentially write Spider-Man, we’d be very unlikely to pick up that project because we don’t think we’d be able to do anything with it.

Tolu: Have you seen manga that wasn’t created by Japanese people? There’s always that conversation about if a non-Japanese person creates a comic in the Japanese style, is it manga or is it not? The fact that you can immediately look at something and instantly recognise that this style is Japanese - that says a lot about what they’ve done for their culture with their comics.

Panel Patter: So you want to do a similar thing where you’re trying to create a tone and an aesthetic for African cultures?

Tolu: Even though we’re not necessarily creating the guidelines for the aesthetic, we think the aesthetic already is out there and we’re just trying to pull it all in one place unit people start to see the similarities. We want to get to the point where someone can see something and immediately know: "Hey, that’s Kugali - that’s African".

Panel Patter: Does that mean that all of the stories came to you fully formed?

Tolu: Most of them had a pilot or maybe two issues out by the time we approached them, but when we see it and we think “this looks good enough” then we speak with them. So they usually already have it all planned out, but they are not done creating all of the issues.

Ziki: The other thing I would say as well is that for me personally, I’ve been developing my story over the course of running Kugali and I did enlist the help of embers of the team to help me refine certain concepts. We want to do more of that going forwards, looking at the next volume of the anthology in particular.

For this particular round of stories, most of them either had one or two issues out and then we helped them expand it to maybe, say, five issues. But for the next generation of stories, we’re more or less looking at building these stories from scratch.

Panel Patter: So does that mean that for this first volume, all of the entries are exsiting books that people can then go and buy?

Ziki: No, because some of them, the creators might have done the first 20 pages and they didn’t have the means to more; we helped the creators get all of the stories to completion. There are one or two that were already fully completed, but the vast majority were only partially completed by the time the creative teams joined Kugali.

Panel Patter: Do you plan to carry on working with them and launch them into their own spin-off books from this anthology?

Ziki: 100%. One of the key facts I’ve gotten from comic conventions is that people love the anthology. But there are some people who just like sci-fi and that’s all they want to read, and there are some people who love fantasy and that’s all they want to read. So we do want to give the comics an opportunity to connect with their own fan-base, so, while the anthology is a great idea, at the same time we want to give these stories the opportunity to grow on their own so we will eventually publish individual issues of most of the stories that will be featured in the anthology.

For example, the first Raki anthology will have Oro, Kayin and Abeni and Iku, but after the anthology is over, if people want to continue exploring these world then they’ll be able to buy the individual graphic novels related to this titles. That is the plan that we’re going with at the moment.

Panel Patter: So you mentioned there, the "Raki" edition. What are the differences between the two versions that you have on the Kickstarter?

Tolu: It’s very simple - the "Regular" edition of the magazine is designed for all-ages - it’s designed for everyone. Parents should be able to buy it for their kids, read it with their kids or whatever. The "Raki" edition is designed for people who want more mature themes in their comics and things that may not necessarily be child friendly. It’s not like every comic in the "Raki" edition is blood and gore every time - it’s just that there are certain things where we can’t tell the parents to buy this for their ten year old kids.

Panel Patter: Are they distinct books then? Should you buy both if you want everything or is there an overlap?

Tolu: There’s no overlap at all.

Ziki: If you want to experience the full spectrum of what Kugali has to offer then you definitely want to pick up both the "Raki" and the "Regular" edition.

Panel Patter: I’m going to force a false binary here: if you had to choose a favourite sequence of panels or a page from the first issue, what would it be and why?

Ziki: This is a bit hard for me because my comic is featured in "Raki" and there’s a particular sequence I really like in the first couple of pages, but at the same time I admit that there is a bias there. Do you know what? I generally tend to put the spotlight on the other artists, so I’m going to be a bit greedy here.

My favourite sequence in my comic actually is the first couple of pages because it starts off with a child just crying on a beach and there’s three panels at the bottom of the first page that show the water behind him then you see something, maybe it's a head, but we're not sure what it is and then you see this shadowy figure emerge from the water. Why I like that page is because it has zero dialogue and so you’re not really sure what’s going on; it forces the reader to build their own interpretation and the visuals are so strong that you get a perfect idea, or you think you get a perfect idea, and then everything flips on its head eventually.

Tolu: I think the very first two pages in Mumu Juju: they’re fighting these zombies, but the zombies are so comical - it’s different from any zombie I’ve seen anywhere else. Remember Plants vs Zombies? It’s goofy zombies like that with glowing body parts. The two characters are just kicking the zombies asses and that whole page just looks awesome.

Panel Patter: The reasoin that I brought this question up is that there’s a sequence in Kayin and Abeni and it’s when Kayin jumps out of the ship and then transforms in midair and then lands on the ground with a huge crash.

Tolu: we thought that sequence that was so coll that we made a motion comic with that one sequence!

Ziki: To be honest that is the best one - I was just being a bit biased to be honest. [laughs]

Panel Patter: My final question is probably quite a broad one: from your experience working directly with people from African cultures who make comics, what would you say is the one thing that makes African comics so different and worthwhile?

Ziki: When I went to the Lagos comic-con in 2012, I picked up this anthology called Taboo which was a collection of horror folktales set in Nigeria and it was so different to anything I’d seen before. When you watch enough films and read enough comics, you get used to the standard Western - and even Eastern - horror tropes, but these were new tropes that I hadn’t come across before and that made it actually scary. I don’t scare very easily but, for a horror comic, it was pretty striking.

That opened my mind to the possibilities in the sense that there was an opportunity to tell new stories, to enrich the genre and tell stories that people actually haven't seen before and certainly the specific elements that are unique or that are more prevalent in African culture.

It’s hard to pinpoint because it’s kind of a combination of various things. The fact is that our mythology, our art style and our storytelling techniques are different so the stories are inherently different. In African storytelling, there’s a lot of absurdism. For example, in the Yoruba Earth creation myth, the world was created because the Earth was one massive continent and there was also a chicken. You know how chickens scratch the earth and spread dirt? A chicken did that to a super massive continent and that’s how the world was created, which sounds pretty absurd.

Tolu: You missed out the fact that the chicken was sent by a deity.

Ziki: Yeah, yeah. So that’s the kind of absurdism that you see in a lot of our stories. It’s weird because one of the things that opened my mind to it is a book called Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman . He's obviously an English author, but he gets the storytelling spot on.

Tolu: When it comes to African creators, I’ve found that there are two main types: there are those who are so heavily influenced by what we’ve been seeing out of the West that they end up creating clones of their favourite Western cartoons and Western comics. They literally clone Superman and then instead of someone who looks European, the character looks African instead.

By the way, don’t you find it weird that every superhero who is an alien who ever came to Earth only happens to look like one race on Earth? Anyway.

We tend to ignore those because that’s generally a thing that you do when you are 14/15 - I used to clone Digimon and rewrite it with my own characters - that’s not really creative. When you get older and more enlightened, you create unique stuff that is based off of things people have not seen too much of in the media. When we see creators do that, that’s when we approach them and is how we found most of the people on our team.

The one thing that they all have in common is they are tapping into something from their own culture. We have people from Zimbabwe, Senegal, Nigeria - some of which I’ve never even been to - but those creators put out something different from everything that I’ve seen elsewhere. That’s the one thing that they have in common. That’s the one thing that we look out for.

Kugali have already reached their fundraising goal, but with such a culturally rich creative venture, they deserve so much more. The Kugali Anthology Kickstarter is running until March 28th.

Go and check it out.