Zimbabwe: Comic Book Artist Endows Visual Literature

African comic book artist and writer Bill Masuku is actively conscious of his brand and whom he aligns his work with, in an effort to develop the African visual literature.

He is keen to evolve the Southern African comic book community and to further career opportunities in animation and video games.

Considering the capacity in comic books to influence and inspire the society, Masuku has researched and explored on mental health, the relationship between crime and poverty in South Africa, the circular economy with the impact of industrial activity on the future of the planet, as well as gender representation in fictional media.

Masuku, who was born in Harare, is the creator of comic books that include Razor-Man published in the Kugali African Comic Book Anthology, Welcome to Dead World published in the Sam Graphico Anthology in Zambia, and Captain South Africa which was self-published. In the urban fantasy genre, he is the author of the Sera Blue-published first novella Misfortunism.

His artwork has been exhibited in galleries across Southern Africa like the Maputo Fast Forward Banda Desenhada Exhibition in Mozambique (2019) and Afropolitan Comics Digital Exhibition (2020). Masuku has also been a guest speaker at events such as MCM London Comic Con, FanCon Cape Town, Comic Con Africa and Harare Literature Festival.

"Like most children born in the early nineties, I enjoyed the marvels of technology rapidly evolving at the end of an era, from orange cassette tapes to the first PlayStation," he said.

"Junior school was an uneventful mesh of memories where my personality was still forming until one day in grade four where I inadvertently stood out.

"The class teacher asked who was good at drawing and everyone turned their attention to me.

"I didn't think my doodles were all that good. As my classmates' praise of my work became more than common courtesy, in contrast, back home my drawings were either split or set on fire."

"Fast-forward to 2008, the global recession was a good distraction despite constantly getting home from school tied to a routine of queuing for water and load-shedding."

After graduating from high school, Masuku enrolled at Rhodes University in South Africa to study for a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in management and information systems.

"It was another blur biding my time, from there a series of setbacks cut my tertiary education short," he said.

"I returned to Zimbabwe, adamant to reinvent myself as a comic book artist."

Masuku said for the most part being a comic book artist is such a niche skill, which is highly sought after in the respective field.

Remuneration for freelance projects is desirable with so much flexibility. Opportunities to be globally recognised and to make a difference are available, it is a matter of giving enough room for creativity.

Certain contracts entitle artists to royalties that earn them money long after the work has been completed.

A combination of late nights, having something unique to say, and copious luck saw Masuku's work being recognised in art galleries.

His artwork depicting the future of Harare should communities choose to fully embrace solar and other renewable energies are hung at the National Art Gallery.

The righteousness behind the words in Masuku's non-violent super heroine Captain South Africa coupled with a contemporary art style, stood as a noteworthy collection of pages for several prestigious galleries.

Attending FanCon, ICON, and MCM London Comic Con as an invited guest was more than just a chance to speak about comic books for the forthright artist.

He described the platforms as massive networking events that put him in once-in-a-lifetime one-on-one conversations that have become lasting collaborations.

"When I spoke on a panel at FanCon, I looked into how we live and breathe in this era of the internet," Masuku said.

"I touched on the importance of online visibility in harnessing creative careers. I raised the issue of being easily found if googled, noting that if people only manage to catch your name they should be able to search it and find you.

"Emphasising that as creatives our brands may well be what we tweet about because careers have started and ended on Twitter.

"So while I may not be the most talented artist, I'm the one you'll find should you search Zimbabwean comic book artist on Google.

"Most recently a client showed me screenshots of my Instagram page highlighting which pieces of work they liked, because it serves as an easily accessible public portfolio of what I'm capable of as well as my style."

Masuku said some of the highest grossing films in the world are animated movies.

Japan's comic book and animation industry grew to a whopping US$17,7 billion in 2017 according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Masuku believes Africa has a mine of creativity that is being drained while its people hold on to the collective notion that the industry is worthless.

As a result the continent is cut off from potentially accumulating billions of United States dollars in revenue that could boost the economy.

Giving an insight of his work, Masuku pointed out research and brainstorming as crucial phases of development that are necessary before he can get to writing the words and building the script.

"Research can come in many forms, namely watching Netflix and losing myself on Wikipedia," he said.

"Most writers spend months if not years immersing themselves in the subject matter they'd like to write about, becoming near experts in the field before putting pen to paper.

"In order to tell visual stories I get back to the basics, starting with character designing, which is an act of intentionally crafting the personification of an idea, combining shape, colour and expression.

"This is when I'm able to guess what a person thinks just by looking at them. That is a character well designed. This skill refined to its true limit is the ability to create concepts from scratch."

He added: "Once it has been polished enough, it can be used to build 2D games. It is essential to be looser and more focused on how the designs interact with each other rather than how good they look.

"Storyboards for games, animation, film and television series can be developed. All these skills and more go into the completion of a comic book.

"Writing the script and dialogue like a set of instructions, doing quick sketches and storyboards to maximise use of each page, refining those sketches with deep black inks, splashing colour to build mood and finally adding words to give the characters a voice.

"The process is rigorous and can be conducted individually but in the commercial world of comics it is carried out collectively by six to 10 people."

Despite a common misconception that comic books, cartoons, animated movies and illustrations in general are solely for children, they are genres and stories for all age groups listing grounded thrillers of failing marriages, psychological navigation, retelling of historical figures, and folklore.

While superheroes and heroines are ubiquitous to the medium, there are real-life stories that Masuku has exceptionally told in pages. The comic book artist was hired to develop an animated project called Iwájú to be released next year under Kugali, a pan-African company, which penned its first collaborative deal with American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, Walt Disney.

Follow Grant Moyo on Twitter: @TotemGrant

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