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The Best Comics on African History

By Sophie Roell

Graphic narratives can be a great way to learn history but they need to be both good history and good comics. That’s a  combination that can be hard to find. Trevor Getz, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, picks out his top comic books on African history.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Before we get to the books you’ve recommended, could you give me your thoughts on graphic histories in general? As a historian, would you say comics can be a good way of learning history?

I think the bigger story here is that human society flattened what we consider to be serious work into one medium for a while, and we’re now in an exciting place where we recognize that there are lots of media. While there are some things that a text-only book can do best—including the delivery of densely packed information—other media, whether documentary video or comics, can be meaningful.

Comics have a couple of advantages. The first is that it is a medium native to many students. The second is the ability to really slow down and focus on the way that the art and the text communicate together. The third is that the artistic part of it is intrinsically empathy driven. We identify with shapes that look like human faces. We can understand and look at contexts that can speak to us.

I don’t want comics to be used for teaching just because they are engaging, but they are also engaging. I work with hundreds of teachers with the OER Project, and they all love comics because students are immediately engaged with them.

How did you pick out these five comics about Africa’s history? What were your criteria?

There are a lot of bad history comics out there. They either contain bad history, or they’re bad comics containing good history. What we want to do is call out and specify, and help people understand, how a good nonfiction (or semi-nonfiction) graphic narrative can communicate things that can help you to develop your sense of the worlds that are being talked about. I picked these five because I think these are the best for communicating African experiences, African pasts and their meanings to readers today.

The comics I picked are, in my opinion, good histories. That doesn’t mean they don’t contain any fiction. Sometimes assumptions or connections or historical confabulations have to be made. They’re also good comics. Those two things don’t often come together.

Let’s start out in the South Africa of the 1970s and 80s, with a book called Crossroads: I Live Where I Like by historian Koni Benson and illustrated by the Trantraal brothers and Ashley Marais. Tell me about this book and why you’ve chosen it. Also, maybe start by explaining where Crossroads is?

Crossroads is in the Cape Flats, a very impoverished, sandy windblown area between the beauty of Cape Town and of the Cape Winelands. It’s where disposable people were put under apartheid—people who were needed for labor on the farms or as domestic workers in the city. They often moved there illegally from the overcrowded Bantustans (the so-called ‘black reserves’) in search of work. They weren’t supposed to be there, so they built informal settlements. They lived there and made an inconvenience of themselves to the apartheid government.

The story told in Crossroads is not about their suffering, per se. It’s the story of their resistance, told in their own words. It’s a history of an informal community that wasn’t allowed to exist and the women who successively resisted attempts to dismantle it, force everyone to move, and bring it into line. Koni worked closely with the local community to pull out their experiences while these women are still alive. The things they went through are horrible, but the ways in which they fought back—putting on plays, grabbing sticks and beating police informers and such—are amazing.

For the women in this book and the women who lived after them in Crossroads, it’s still a struggle to exist. This fight did not end with the end of apartheid. Both the apartheid government and the current government have tried to clear this area. It’s still a struggle to be in a place where, even in post-apartheid South Africa, they are not allowed to be. For Koni, this an ongoing, living story.

Most comics anywhere in the world are heavily influenced by either the French school or the Japanese manga school or American superhero comics. This book—not so much. You can’t look at this and say it’s a manga, because it isn’t. You can’t look at this and say this is a bande dessinée (BD). It isn’t. The artists, the Trantraal brothers, this is their style.

Koni Benson was a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape until quite recently. She wanted to do a ‘communography’: a biography of the community that she was working with as a scholar. She did it through oral histories—almost all the text is from oral histories or is explaining the oral histories—and then workshopping it through scholarly groups in the community. It’s beautifully group produced. It’s amazing.

“I work with hundreds of teachers…they all love comics because students are immediately engaged with them”

There are a lot of times where Koni and the Trantraal brothers—who are from the local Kaaps Afrikaans community—use visual metaphor. For example, Piet Koornhof, this horrible, apartheid-era Minister of Cooperation and Development, is shown as a snake, seducing the men into abandoning this movement for local rights, which was led by women. On that page, you don’t see the woman’s face, you only see her back, because she’s getting silenced. You’ve got to pause and take in that metaphor. It’s beautiful. You could turn to any page and the way these human beings are lovingly created—not hyper realistically, but empathetically—makes this book a great comic. And it’s also a really good community oral history.

The next African history comic you’ve chosen takes us to Côte d’Ivoire. Tell me about Aya by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie.

This is the story of young people growing up, falling in love, getting in trouble, and fighting with their parents. It is a story that could take place anywhere, except in the Western imagination it couldn’t take place in Africa. In the Western imagination, we have no space for people having everyday lives and doing young people things: Africans are either starving or at war or living with crocodiles.

Aya and her friends grow up in a big city. Côte D’Ivoire was pretty wealthy at the time, at least in the urban areas. But the main character in this story are working class. They go out, they go to dances. One of them gets pregnant. It’s an incredible imagining of these things.

When Marguerite Abouet wanted to write about her life, she was really inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is perhaps the best-known classroom-friendly graphic history of all (even more so than Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is getting banned in the US now). Although Marjane Satrapi comes from Iran, she was living in France, and she created a very French-style comic.

Stylistically, Aya is like that. It’s a French bande dessinée. Its colors are a little bit more West African—there are soft greens, soft yellows, soft reds. It’s hand-lettered, which isn’t always the case these days in bandes dessinées. Clément Oubrerie’s lettering is very friendly and draws you into these stories that are meaningful for a young person. There’s sex in it and these sorts of things. Stylistically speaking, what’s interesting is the use of slightly exaggerated facial features to show emotions, which is a little bit manga-ish.

But this book is about memory of one’s youth. For me, it’s so important. I assign it when I teach at Stanford, in particular. It gives you a sense of everyday social experience, which is so rare to find in the sources we tend to look at about Africa.

And it’s set in the 1970s?

It is. The thing about Abidjan in the 1970s is that after independence, the Ivory Coast under Houphouët-Boigny was the most French-friendly, French-centered capitalist of the West African successor states. Ivory Coast continued to produce pineapples and bananas for French tables, and it remained prosperous as a result. My students are sometimes surprised that the people in this book are wealthy.

Eventually, agreeing to simply continue to be a producer of desserts and beverages turned out to be a bad thing. It doesn’t really develop a country.

Culturally, it’s the 1970s. The music you can hear in the background is Afro funk. People go to discotheques.

But, in contrast to Persepolis, there’s no big political event in the background?

No, there isn’t. It’s a trilogy, and if you read all three books the gradual decline of Ivory Coast becomes clear. But in this book, it’s not. It’s about the incredible drama of a young girl. That’s all. But that’s history, too.

Let’s move on to All Rise: Resistance and Rebellion in South Africa (1910-1948): A Graphic History, edited by Richard Conyngham. What’s this one about?

Conyngham is the mover behind this book, but he found a whole bunch of different South African artists to do the art. It’s a collaboration. Although there is coherence across the chapters, you have some very different kinds of art, which is quite interesting. It’s about resistance and rebellion in South Africa, but it takes place almost entirely before apartheid (though the last chapter does go into the apartheid era).

It’s a book that comes out of the archives of South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal. At the end of apartheid, the new government built this incredible Supreme Court, with an archive, to provide a beacon of law, if you will, for across the continent. You can go there, it’s open. Richard Conyngham looked in this archive and pulled out all these stories about resistance and rebellion. They’re not all about race. Some are about class and labor, which may be surprising to some people. But before 1948, that’s appropriate, because class mattered as well.

They are sketches of stories of the people who make up South Africa. It’s about Indian resistance to being forced to register. It’s about mine workers who are on strike because of horrible conditions in the mines. It’s about the way that colonialism appointed these state-controlled chiefs, and the way people revolted against these chiefs acting as stooges to control their movement and labor.

Part of the reason why I think it’s a great work of history is that each chapter has not only the artist’s work (and as a historian, I can tell how deeply they had to delve into photographs and such to get the context and images right), but also a section that gives you, the reader, a sense of what came out of the archive—what this is based on. You can look at the original sources, you can look at the photographs they used, and then you’ve got the chapter.

Now, because this is a comic, there are times you need conversation. You don’t necessarily know what people said, but you have a sense of what might have happened in certain conversations or what was reported. There’s a little bit more imagination that needs to be used to have the dialogue, but in general, this a solid historical archive of these six court cases in comic form.

Does it follow individuals, telling the story of one person for each case?

Essentially, yes, because most court cases don’t involve a class action suit but follow the prosecution of a particular individual within a wider court case. That is one of the things about comics. They work because there are humans you identify with. The most boring comics—often—are ones where there are no characters you can really identify with.

All of the art in here is good. There’s a chapter called “The Widow of Marabastad”—Dada Khanyisa is the artist. I find the soft colors, and the figures, the way that the noses and the faces are drawn—it is not an attempt to be hyperrealistic, it’s representational. It’s beautiful art. Artistically, it’s my favorite chapter.


Let’s go on to the next graphic history you’ve chosen, which is set in the Belgian Congo during World War One. This is Madame Livingstone, by Barly Baruti and Christophe Cassiau-Haurie. Tell me more.

This is an unusual story. Part of the reason that I love it so much is because, although influenced by that Francophone bande dessinée style, it comes out of the mind of an African comic genius, Barly Baruti. It’s in the Francophone tradition, but very much Congolese. He creates an amazing story, loosely based on historical fact. The loosest thing is that it seems like the German ship that they’re all hunting gets blown up by our heroes, but that is not what really happened. It wasn’t sunk but was eventually abandoned by the Germans. I’m completely willing to forgive that detail.

It’s about a real person named Madame Livingstone—a local man who was a scout for the Belgians. He dressed in a kilt, which is why he was sometimes called Madame. He claimed to be descended from Livingstone, the great explorer and philanthropist, who allegedly had a relationship with a local woman. There are two tiny pieces of evidence that this might be true, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s not Barly Baruti who makes up that story. He is this stunning figure, who guides Belgian pilots to attack this German ship.

It captures the complexity of colonialism. It doesn’t pull back from the fact that the Belgians did some terrible things, but it isn’t about that. It is about this mixed-up mélange of weirdness and tribal identities. World War One is all about tribal identity: the Germans are a tribe, and the Belgians are a tribe. It tells the story of this crazy situation in the middle of Africa, where the Belgians and the Germans are fighting it out in the middle of Lake Tanganyika, with a very human and empathetic touch.

I should mention the second author, Christophe Cassiau-Haurie. While I’ve focused on Baruti because he’s a genius, Cassiau-Haurie has deeply researched Francophone African comic creation and is empathetic. If you’re going to have a European co-authoring an African comic, he’s the guy you want.

I was looking at the first pages and it just looks so beautiful.

There are a lot of pages that need very few words indeed. This story is told by the art. The art is gorgeous, and it’s variable. There are a lot of brushstrokes on some pages, it’s really textured. Then you get these amazing dark pages that are very much black and white. A whole encounter can be told without any words at all—you get a sense of it from the sweat dripping off the faces, and just the variety of panels. This is comics work at its finest, and that’s all Baruti. Baruti is probably my favorite African comic artist of all time, and this is why.

Judging from the forewords, the book is partly drawing attention to the fact that a lot of Congolese were fighting for the Belgians.

Yes, it is, but I sometimes think the forewords want to make something of it that it wasn’t necessarily. This was not a political act by Baruti and Cassiau-Haurie. This was an act of making a really good story. It’s a Tarzan-ish adventure story with a more up-to-date conscience.


Let’s get on to Kariba by Daniel Clarke, James Clarke, and Daniel Snaddon. I spent my year off teaching in Zimbabwe, and because my dad was a civil engineer I was very interested in dams and visited the one at Kariba, which spans the Zambezi River. I was shocked by a placard showing the number of people who died building the dam. Tell me about the book and why it’s a good one to read, because I don’t think this is a work of straight history.

For me this is a manga. It has Japan all over it, from the way that people are drawn to the way the page is composed and sounds are represented, to the little ephemera lines that show people are moving. It’s also emplotted like a manga, with stories wrapped within stories within stories. It’s myth and history and adventure story, tied together in the way that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli does. I’ve got a whole bunch of Japanese historical texts, which also happily push this line. That’s fascinating to me.

The authors are all in Cape Town. There are three but it’s mainly the Clarke brothers. Daniel Clarke is an illustrator with a definite Japanese influence, James Clarke writes fiction at the intersection of history and literature.

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The reason I love Kariba is that it’s a good comic: it lets the art do the work and makes you care about the people in it. It’s mixed with this myth of the Zambezi River god, Nyami Nyami. It reproduces that myth quite faithfully and ties it up with history, which is about the dislocation of people for projects like the Kariba Dam. People die building these dams and they also have to move to make way for the water. That has a real impact.

I think that in a cosmopolitan age, when Africa is very much part of these circulating styles and narratives, Kariba represents an authentic contribution that draws upon Japanese style, and at the same time accurately represents African characters, African stories, African myths and histories. Is it history? I don’t know. But it exists somewhere in a historical universe.

Finally, I’d love to ask you briefly about your book, Abina and the Important Men which is set in 19th-century Ghana and tells the story of a young woman, Abina. How did that come about?

I read a court case where a young African woman, Abina Mansah, who didn’t speak English, went before a British judge and complained that she had been enslaved. She said, “I could not take care of my body and myself.” I wanted to know what she meant and what her experiences were. I followed that for many years, trying to understand what was going on.

In my classroom, I wanted students to understand how historians struggle to hear the voices of people like her and what tools we can have to do that. It suddenly occurred to me that the way I could do that best was to give students my interpretation of her words in comic form, and then to give students the tools to question or come up with their own interpretations of what it meant. That’s what my comic book is. More than anything, it’s a teaching tool. It’s an attempt to help the students understand why we should listen for these voices and how we can do that.

What did students do, having read the comic?

We made lesson plans and things, but different people use it in different ways. Truthfully, I was not prepared for the fact that it was successful. I’ve since corresponded with people who use it. Teachers come up with their own lesson plans. Some of them have students create comics in the end. Some of them have students send me comics in response. It’s in its third edition now. The responses are so good that they force me to go back and do new editions, making changes, and explaining why I made changes, based on the way students have responded. You create these things and you let them out into the world. If you create something for classroom use, you never know how teachers are going to use it. It’s been really great.

I worked with a fantastic artist, Liz Clarke, who also contributed a chapter to All Rise. I wasn’t the worst kind of historian to work with on a comic because I love comics. I had read lots of comics, but I didn’t know how a comic worked. Liz taught me how they worked, and I’ve gotten successively better at making comics since then.

I would say that anybody who wants to make a history comic has to know something about history and how it works, but they’d better love comics. If you don’t love comics and you’re doing it just because you think it’ll sell more copies, then you’re going to fail.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

July 26, 2023