2 September 2012

Nigeria: Missing Spearman


Adark-suited guy sporting a straw panama hat throws an uppercut at an opponent.

"Take that, you punk!" he yells.

"Aaarrrgghh!" cries the punk, as he falls over in anguish.

That's a typical scene from the adventures of Lance Spearman, a James Bond-like super cop who resonated so well with young Nigerian readers. Published under the title African Film by Drum Publications, the magazine was once a staple in virtually every English-speaking town of Africa. This was way back in the 60s and the 70s.

Selling alongside this magazine, the adventures of Fearless Fang (an African version of Tarzan, published under the title, Boom) and the Stranger (a black Lone Ranger) jostled for the same readers' attention. They all shared one thing in common: they were comics making use actual photographs of black people rather than hand-drawn illustrations. Dialogue bubbles were positioned over the heads of characters or beside them.

But to the post-colonial African, there was something more appealing about an urban-dwelling black man who was always in the hot pursuit of baddies. "He is the black James Bond and the most popular fictional character in Africa today," wrote Los Angeles Times writer Stanley Miseler in an article published on Saturday, November 9, 1968 in The Milwaukee Journal. "This phenomenon of popular culture reveals a good deal about the tastes of the half educated young man in the African towns, his yearnings, his confused identification with snippets of western culture, his need for fancy in a harsh urban world."

Lance Spearman thus became a black comic hero, whose popularity rating was unrivalled even by DC Comic's Superman. Because he was real, he could have been a long-lost friend having a ball in one of the leafy well-heeled neighbourhoods called the GRAs (Government Reserved Areas) in Nigerian cities.

"I cried after reading one of the episodes which ended with Spearman in captivity," reminisces Robert Ikeogu (not his real names). "Back then, I always looked forward to the subsequent issues in anticipation."

"How can I forget Spearman, Captain Victor and Lemmy!" a reader, who simply identified himself as Ayo, gushes.

"It was really a portfolio of black and white photos, complete with oval shaped text boxes that included all the sound effects that a kick and a quick uppercut to the jaw could produce," writes an unidentified Ugandan blogger in a blog spot called Kabozi. "Month in and month out we were spellbound by this African hero hunting down villains and bringing them to justice."

If Spearman's sartorial elegance had any influence on then local fashion trends, it was short-lived. His old-fashioned outfit stood no chance against the onslaught of the African American-inspired bulbous Afro hair, skin-tight shirts, bell-bottom trousers and high-heeled shoes of the 70s.

Like his Caucasian template James Bond, Spearman had a bevy of female admirers. An archetypal hedonist, he always seemed to have a cigar clamped between his teeth and savoured scotch on the rocks. A coupé, named Stingray, was his trademark means of transport.

"The magazines are known in the publishing trade as look-reads," explained Miseler. The so-called "look-reads", according to him, used to be popular in Europe and were introduced in South Africa in 1964. "At first, almost all were about white heroes like Captain Devil of the South African secret police.

"Then the Drum Publications of South Africa began photographing black men in adventures that were designed to appeal to black men. It buys the stories and edits them in Johannesburg.

"The scripts are sent to Swaziland, where a photographer takes pictures of a team of black actors. From there, the photographed strips are sent to London, where the magazines are printed. Then they are distributed in West Africa, East Africa and South Africa."

The white publishers in Johannesburg, Miseler continued, were producing separate editions for the then Apartheid South Africa and the rest of the continent. "The copies in black Africa have no reference to the South African owners.

"The magazine with the adventures of Lance Spearman, which is known as Spear magazine and African Film magazine in black Africa, is the most popular publication."

Its circulation figures were estimated at 100, 000 in West Africa, 45,000 in East Africa and 20,000 in South Africa. Miseler believed that the magazine had a greater circulation in Kenya than any of the then local daily newspapers.

On why the circulation figures in the then independent black Africa dwarfed those of South Africa, he quoted Drum's Johannesburg-based white editor, Malcolm Dunkeld as saying that "the African market is more sophisticated in South Africa. Besides, they prefer stories about white men to black men."

Dunkeld, Miseler added, was skirting around political landmines by keeping his characters neutral. Most of Dunkeld's writers of black look-reads were black. They were paid $65 for every script they produced.

"We can't use Sherlock Holmes stuff," Miseler quoted him as saying. Also expected in the scripts were lots of fistfights and non-political or non-racial storylines. Above all, they must always end the same way: the baddies must always be the losers.

Miseler, in his article, also profiled the average reader of African Film. According to him: "They are the young men, who have left the rural areas after a few years of schooling and come to the towns. Education, with its visions and promise of a rich white collar life, has made them feel unfit for farm life. They have left their tribal life behind and are searching for the sophisticated, rich western world that they vaguely believe awaits them in towns..."

Miseler's profiling may have been true of the South African audience but certainly not so of the then Nigerian readers. For among those who revel in the blissful memories of the look-reads were highly educated professionals.

The man, who played the character of Spearman, was identified in the Milwaukee Journal article as Jore Mkwanazi. "He was a houseboy, scrubbing the floors of an apartment in Durban for $35 a month and playing the piano in a nightclub for $1.50 a night, when a white photographer, Stanley N. Bunn, discovered him and decided he had the tough, cynical, sophisticated face that was needed for Spear. Mkwanazi earns $215 a month playing Spear."

At the back of each edition of African Film, a page was dedicated to the Spear Fan Club featuring a photograph of Spearman with addresses of members drawn from Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. For those still intent on relishing the fond memories of this look-read magazine, a Facebook page has been opened this year since May 31.

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