Born under French and Belgian colonial rule, comics in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean are a vibrant source of cultural expression and sociopolitical satire. Starting in the 1930s, the first comics appeared in newspapers and magazines in urban centers; though often aimed at both European and indigenous readers, initially they were almost exclusively produced by European cartoonists. Topics ranged from religious instruction and didactic tales of moral education to energetic satires of urban life and parodies of colonialism’s social structure and mores. Alongside local publications and of greater importance, both France and Belgium also imported Francophone bandes dessinées and bande dessinée magazines such as Tintin, Spirou, and Pilote, thus providing a rich source of inspiration and artistic formation for young African cartoonists. Moreover, these imports served as industry models for later African production.
Due to economic and logistical obstacles including limited production and dissemination resulting from a lack of publishing infrastructure and resources on the continent, readership was and remains usually confined to urban populations. Furthermore, because of the threat of government censorship after independence in the early 1960s, the development and production of comics throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean has been uneven and has resulted in innovative alternatives to the European model of the hardback bande dessinée. Many earlycartoons by African cartoonists consisted of weekly newspaper strips or didactic leaflets sponsored by state governments or NGOs addressing literacy, agricultural practices, environmental protection, and health and safety issues.
The 1970s and 1980s saw slow yet crucial strides. Cartoonists began recounting local histories and traditions, often blending elements of traditional culture with adopted aesthetics from French and Belgian bandes dessinées. For example, the two-volume Il était une fois… l’Afrique by Serge Saint-Michel, Jean-Marie Ruffieux, and historian Ibrahima Baba Kaké uses the figure of the griot—a traditional orator of prestige who serves as an essential repository for local history—to tell the history of Togo from before colonialism up through independence and to celebrate the rise to power of Togo’s President Gnassingbé Eyadéma. In addition, cartoons sparked creative dialogues with other art forms. Examples range from the adoption of word balloons and sequential narratives in urban paintings and billboards such as in the work of Congolese artists Chéri Samba and Moké to celebrations of local artists and musicians, exemplified in Barly Baruti’s tribute to international Congolese musical icon in the aptly titled Papa Wemba: Viva la musica!
In fact, Barly Baruti’s contributions to sub-Saharan African Francophone comics cannot be overstated. In the mid-1980s, after gaining local recognition in his home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Baruti traveled first to Angoulême, France to train in writing comics and then to Brussels, Belgium where he worked at the Studios Hergé. Upon returning to Kinshasa in 1991, he cofounded ACRIA, a studio dedicated to mentoring new cartoonists and providing career assistance. At the same time, he contributed to collective bandes dessinées and, in the late 1990s, worked with French scenarist Frank Giroud on two successful series: Eva K and Mandrill. One of the first internationally-recognized cartoonists from sub-Saharan Francophone Africa and still producing bandes dessinées today, Baruti not only paved the way for other cartoonists, but has also played an unmistakable role in their successes.
Subsequently, the 1990s marked a turning point for many reasons. First, like Baruti, cartoonists and their on-going cartoon strips gained in local popularity. In Dakar, T. T. Fons’s on-going strip Goorgoorlou about the often humoristic quotidian trials and tribulations of the title character has become such a cultural icon in Senegal that he has been adopted for television appearing in commercials and short television spots. In Kinshasa throughout the 1990s, traditional painter Papa Mfumu’eto self-published 115 different titles, all in Lingala, and sometimes with a print run of up to 100,000. Once again, the main themes covered by Papa Mfumu’eto include the social, cultural, political, and economic contours of local life.
Second, the rise of international festivals on the continent such as BD Boom in Gabon and Coco Bulles in the Ivory Coast brought together cartoonists and publishers from Africa and Europe, thus providing sites of cultural exchange, artistic apprenticeship, and networking. These festivals also often resulted in the publication of anthologies, which in turn paved the way for the emergence of cartoonists’ collectives that published weekly magazines. The most striking examples of this are Gbich!, started in the late 1990s in the Ivory Coast and Le Cri du Margouillat from Reunion (a French Overseas Department) in 1977. Featuring the work of cartoonists from throughout Africa and the Indian Ocean, both magazines are still published today and, thanks to the internet and social media, both enjoy new readerships and serve as instrumental platforms for upcoming cartoonists.
Third, international competitions, museum exhibits, and festivals outside the continent and their attendant publications also offered many opportunities. As with festivals on the continent, competitions such as the one held by the Italian-based journal Africa e Mediterrano each year have launched the careers of many cartoonists including Congolese Pat Masioni who has worked with French documentarian Cécile Grenier on the two-volume Rwanda 1994 and also, more recently, with American comic book writer Joshua Dysart on the DC Vertigo series The Unknown Soldier.
All of this activity created a positive environment in the international marketplace, an important factor that propelled the success in the mid-2000s of two highly influential cartoonists: scriptwriter Ivorian-born Marguerite Abouet and Gabonese political cartoonist Pahé (Patrick Essono). In 2005, French publishing giant Gallimard published the first volume of Aya de Yopougon written by Abouet and illustrated by French cartoonist Clément Oubrerie. After winning the prize for best newcomer at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, five more volumes were published and the entire series, set in the late 1970s and focusing on the eponymous main character and her cast of friends and family in a suburb of Abidjan, has been translated into many languages including English. While Abouet and Oubrerie are adamant that Aya de Yopougon is not an autobiography, it is nevertheless greatly influenced by Abouet’s childhood memories in the Ivory Coast. Similarly, French publisher Pierre Paquet upon meeting Pahé, suggested he recount his childhood in bande dessinée and, in 2006, Paquet published the first volume of Pahé’s autobiography, La Vie de Pahé: Bitam, and the second volume, La Vie de Pahé: Paname, two years later. Furthermore, while Aya de Yopougon was adapted into a full-length animated feature that premiered in 2014, La Vie de Pahé was adapted into an animated television series that aired in Belgium and France starting in December 2010.
More recently, there has been a surge in publications by cartoonists from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean. In particular, the work of French librarian, African comics specialist, and scenarist Christophe Cassiau-Haurie has brought older titles to new audiences and simultaneously created a niche for new ones. In 2010, he spearheaded a newly minted subdivision of the Paris-based publisher L’Harmattan devoted solely to bandes dessinées, which has subsequently published upwards of twenty titles. Alongside this activity, other mainstream and independent publishers have also added titles by African cartoonists such as Malamine, un africain à Paris (2009) by Christophe Edimo Ngalle and Simon-Pierre Mbumbo and Pari(s) d’Amies (2015) by Rokhaya Diallo and Kim Consigny.
— Michelle Bumatay