Comic Collecting In South Africa - My Experience by Bheki Latha
There really aren't that many South African comics. With the exception of a few talented cartoonists, namely political cartoonist Zapiro, or Dr Jack, whose work is most likely to be seen in spot illustrations for publications like Financial Mail these days, the hugely successful 'Madam & Eve' strip by (latterly) Stephen Francis and Rico (Schacherl) and a somewhat obscure adult comic anthology called 'Bitterkomix', South Africa hasn't produced much material of its own in any mainstream vein as far as super-heroes or 2000AD style action, fantasy and sci-fi comics are concerned. For those we, like most places, looked to the West and the North, towards the UK, and the rest of Europe (Asterix!).
For decades, locally produced reprints of American, and occasionally British, comics were the big thing, then it was just a thing, then it was nothing. As this blog -southafricancomicbooks.blogspot.com - reveals, this dates back to the 1960s. The first comics I ever saw were those produced by Supercomix, a company reprinting DC Comics and Marvel material. Superboy , Superman and Spider-man for sure, plus Thor, Captain America) and others, Popeye, Tom & Jerry. Then Supercomix ceased to be, probably in the late 80s or early 90s.
The company Americom was prevalent for a long time, producing works from the Harvey Comics stable -Casper The Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Little Dot etc. - and were there at the end of this reprint industry. Americom launched BattleAxe Press, who would produce 10 issues of Superman and Batman ( wisely opening with the origin stories of those characters by John Byrne's 'Man Of Steel', and Frank Miller's 'Year One' This alongside Lobo and Spawn ( which caused a controversy which required that a Mature Readers label be tacked onto the covers). These were launched around the same time as Meteor Press's titles - Spider-man, X-Men, Wolverine, Hulk, Generation X, Prime (formerly of Malibu Comics), a second Spider-man title for younger readers, and some Simpsons comics. Along the way, BattleAxe published a Batman Forever comic adaptation and added 'Judge Dredd: Lawman Of The Future' and just the one issue of 'Gen 13' to its stable. Meteor Press published the Age Of Apocalypse, with special extra-sized issues. BattleAxe reached the 10th issue of their initial launch titles, and 'Meteor' reached the 11th, and then, without a word or warning of any sort, nothing. They were gone, taking Casper and Richie Rich and the rest along with them. The era of reprint comics in South Africa was over. This was in March 1996.
I won't talk about the photo-comics that were published by the Supercomix people - they were there for a long while too along with MAD Magazine reprints, which lasted until 2008. And I won't talk about the more recent attempts at producing home-grown comics, like 'Mshana' from 2007 which was a youth magazine masquerading as a comic, or was it a comic masquerading as a magazine? It folded after less than 10 issues. Supastrikas though, with its story of a fictional soccer team, albeit laden with sponsors' logos in every panel of every page, is still kicking. It spawned an animated TV series and produces giant-size annuals. This is kind of a big deal! It appears in a 1 page weekly instalment in certain magazines and a free full-length monthly issue in one of the major national newspapers. The art could be better in my opinion (except the one page instalments - those look great), but they may have finally found a formula for a lasting South African comic.
My comic-collecting experience began in one of my local corner shops back in the day. I don't know how or why I discovered those comics stacked there behind that particular aisle, behind the arcade machines, but I did. I've read that a contribution to the demise and specialisation of the American comic book industry was the death of newsstand distribution. These days, you can't walk into a cafe and buy comics, you would have to go to a newsagent or comic shop and newsagents no longer stock them as they used to. And the comic shops aren't exactly littering the streets. The local corner cafes offered great variety, if not consistency, and you could walk into almost any shop and find a rack ready to be spun and analysed for the latest (outdated) issues of your favourite characters. South Africa's main newsagent is CNA ( Central News Agency) who have been around forever. They consistently stocked certain DC and Marvel comics, and for many years 2000AD as well. Then suddenly, just as the issue when 'Anderson, PSI - Half-Life' was to begin it's run in the Megazine, they stopped. I don't think I had seen an issue of 2000AD in there for a while either.
CNA had never stocked much comic material from other companies apart from Malibu Comics, their Ultraverse line, and while it existed, Tekno•Comix ( later Big Entertainment) in the 90s. Alongside the few DC and Marvel titles, Archie Comics' titles have been a mainstay at CNA for decades. But the DC and Marvel range has been greatly diminished since my youth. Comics aren't a major thing for them anymore.
The world has changed. What's that line from The Sopranos? "It's the death of the little guy." The old bookshops and flea-markets have all but disappeared in South Africa, certainly in Durban where I'm based. There are still a few, but far between. And the lack of them means a lack of exotic, musty smells and a bohemian owner sitting in a corner, not to mention the feeling that it was always a good idea to check in every now and then, because you NEVER knew what new old thing you may or may not find. South Africa has a decent number of comic shops, so you're at least able to keep up with the latest releases, but they have their limitations. Which is where the internet comes in. Yes, everything is ultimately traceable (Thanks again, Andy), I know this because I'm constantly searching. The future of comic collecting, with it's inevitable deep (and not that deep) roots in the past, is kept alive through the internet and the lines of communication that it opens up. With all that we're losing, and have lost, that's kind of a comforting thought. I guess the internet ain't so bad. It, for example, gives space for a piece by me right here.