Abdulkareem Baba Aminu writes:
When news broke that brilliant, brilliant fantasy/sci-fi novelist Nnedi Okorafor will be writing a story in a one-shot anthology special called Venomverse: War Stories for Marvel, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Also, it was to be drawn by super-cool artist Tana Ford. I gobbled up the news hungrily (on Bleeding Cool, of course), even as the internet buzzed with Nigerian fans super excited about a new character called Ngozi being introduced, to star alongside Venom, Black Panther, and the Rhino. As the news raged on, major news outlets picked up on the story, with the BBC scoring a short audio chat with the author.
In the three-minute interview, which is a clip from the BBC’s ‘Newsday’ program, Okorafor is asked what sort of control she has over how the pictures are drawn, and the interviewer asks further: “Do you sort of ask for, suggest, demand what Ngozi looks like?” To which Okorafor answers:
“Because I write a script, and I tend to write a very detailed script, but even before that I had asked the artist to make Ngozi in the likes of one of the Chibok girls. I had various pictures of some of the Chibok girls from Nigeria, the missing girls from Boko Haram, and asked her to draw Ngozi in her likeness.”
Now, there are a few problems with “making Ngozi look like one of the Chibok girls”: it sounds trite, it extremely limits the artist, and it comes across as rather patronising. Not to mention insensitive. I’ve interviewed the parents of a couple of the girls for a story, so that tragedy is rather close to me — and millions of Nigerians. After all, the Chibok girls were forcefully taken by bloodthirsty, maniacal terrorists in a dramatic incident that saw over 200 of them seized from their school in North-Eastern Nigeria. Less than half that figure, after more then three years, have been rescued or released through negotiations, with the rest remaining with their captors. There are probably millions of photos of Nigerian girls of Ngozi’s age that could’ve been given to Ford as reference. There certainly was no need to mention the Chibok girls, still a fresh tragedy for many of us.
Then, back to the transcript a bit. Okorafor attributes the girls to be “from Boko Haram”, when in truth they were kidnapped by militant Islamist group Boko Haram. As if that’s not confusing enough, the BBC interviewer declares, while asking a question, that Black Panther is “famously the first African-American superhero in Marvel.” More head-scratching stuff, as I’m pretty sure T’Challa is from Wakanda, a fictional African nation.
Also, Ngozi can’t be the first Nigerian superhero, either, as there’s been the Marvel super-heroine Oya (real name Idie Okonkwo), who was a member of the X-Men and other mutant groups over the years after first appearing in Uncanny X-Men #528 in November 2010. She was created by Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, and Whilce Portacio, no less. How do I know this? I looked it up. Oh, there’s more: Shango, Yoruba god of thunder, who first appeared as far back as in Thor Annual #10 in October 1982 by Mark Gruenwald and Alan Zelenetz. There are even a couple more, but those are villains. Many Nigerian fans, some of them comic-book creators here in Nigeria, found the misinformation irksome.
Still on the Chibok girls in American comic-books, Mark Millar and Raphael Albuquerque‘s Huck (Image) had the titular hero rescue them from Boko Haram’s murderous leader Abu Shekau, depicting the factual kidnapping of schoolgirls by insurgents as having happened in East Africa, when the stated Sambisa
Forest is shown in the comic book to be in Nigeria, which is in West Africa. The error is a bad one, which a simple Google search would’ve helped. Then don’t get me started on the third issue of the current Batwoman (DC), written by Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion IV, drawn by Steve Epting (one of my faves), wherein Ibadan, a famous ancient city in Nigeria was drawn to look rather like Victorian London. Come on!
But it’s not horror stories all around: I do remember the excellent John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake run of Firestorm (DC) in 1990, Vol. 2 #95, wherein our hero meets and goes toe to toe with African deities, and DC’s version of the Yoruba thunder god Shango in Ibadan, Nigeria, for a truly memorable tale. The artist, in a few panels, and during a time when there was no Google — or heck, even just internet — drew one of the most accurate depictions of any city in Nigeria I had ever seen then, or have ever seen so far. The creators, both major talents, obviously took research seriously.
Marvel went one better, and even chafed Nigerian fans in movies, like when the newscaster in the early part of Captain America: Civil War pronounced famous city Lagos to be ‘Lar-Goes’ as opposed to the correct ‘Lay-Gohs’. Cue eye-rolling and groaning. But everyone forgave everything and cheered when the fight broke out in the city they live in, thanks to a well-realised Atlanta set and great costuming. That was, to say the least, bloody fantastic.
Eventually, after flicking away Okorafor’s Chibok misadventure as a fleeting peeve, the news that such a great talent, an African-American born to Nigerian parents to boot, is writing a Nigerian character for Marvel, remains very, very pleasing. We’re all rooting for her to knock it out of the park, and some of us are pretty sure she will. And we’re basically a nation of well over a hundred million people, with a growing number of comic-book fans, ardent readers of European fare (Tintin, Asterix, and British weeklies of days past) and major fans of the comic books made by Marvel, DC, IDW, and Image comics. It’s safe to say that the average Nigerian comic book reader loves American ones.
Still on American comic books, there might be more good or bad examples, but I believe I’ve listed the ones that immediately come to mind. You know, while diversity is awesome, it also needs to be done right. While it’s an awesome feeling to see a person or place one can immediately relate to in such a wondrous medium as comic books, it’s also a major letdown to see such opportunities for inclusion scuttled. All I ask for as a fan, is that a little more sensitivity is applied (in the case of Okorafor’s choice of reference) and a tad more research employed (in the case of the BBC interviewer). That way, the story wouldn’t have to write itself in a literal sense.
Abdulkareem Baba Aminu is a newspaper editor and award-winning journalist based in Nigeria. He has reviewed comics, novels, movies and music for a variety of platforms and is currently the Editor of the Saturday edition of the Daily Trust, one of the most influential newspapers in his country. You can follow him on Twitter: @KareemReal