The Urban Legend debate
by: Tshepang Tlhapane - 1 December 2014
Last week, Live Mag had the pleasure of meeting Josef Yohannes, the creator of the first black superhero comic book, The Urban Legend. Live contributors Tshepang Tlhapane and Refieka Williams take different views on the comic’s use of the names of struggle icons.
Tshepang – Approve
The name of this comic superhero is Malcolm T Madiba. I found myself in a heated debate about the naming of this character with my colleague Rafieka Williams. Rafieka believes it is irresponsible for Yohannes to misuse references for the characters in his comic book. She wants to turn the comic into a history book based on Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X.
I personally don’t know how using Malcolm and Mandela’s names for a character constitutes misuse. Yohannes made it clear the character’s name was a tribute to the two icons.
I was glad to hear another colleague come to the defence of Yohannes, stating how as black kids growing up in townships we never had superheroes to look up to. We grew up watching and reading about characters like Batman and Superman, both of the fairer skinned. Now years later one man decides to come up with something for the black kids and already we are pointing out all the negatives?
Since when do kids want to read about conscious superheroes?Aren’t comic books and superheroes all about imagination and fun? Now because it is a black character it has to be serious and politically conscious? I beg to differ. I believe superheroes are for entertainment and to challenge the imagination. It is not Yohannes’s responsibility to educate black kids about their history.
Somebody also suggested that using the names of these iconic figures amounts to stealing from black people. Stealing what from black people? Who gave you ownership of the names of these icons? Let’s not forget that although Mandela fought black people’s freedom and rights he also fought to unite South Africans of all races.
Every copy of The Urban Legend clearly states its purpose: “primarily for kids who aren’t so fortunate in life that they can see that there is hope. Maybe The Urban Legend can lead them on a path that can bring them peace, love, and prosperity and help them live out their dreams.”
I’m not saying everybody should agree with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and give The Urban Legend the nod but she is a struggle icon herself. She is considered the mother of the nation by some and she approved of the comic and even asked to be featured. At least that is what Yohannes told us.
My problem is that Rafieka and other people who hold the same views choose to focus on what Yohannes did not do and choose to ignore the positives. A black superhero is something black kids can relate to; he (or she) should not have be conscious on issues of politics.
Yohannes told us stories of parents who email him and thank him for what this comic book has done for their kids. One parent said The Urban Legend is the reason her child now enjoys reading. Surely that is something positive?
This is only a comic book and not a history textbook.
Rafieka – Disapprove
The Urban Legend might not be based on the lives of Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, but the central character is named Malcolm T Madiba. These names were chosen for a specific reason. The referral of these iconic individuals should be made clear to the audience reading the comic book.
By naming this superhero after these historical figures there is a responsibility to educate the reader about who these people are, especially since creator Josef Yohannes hopes the comic book “will entertain you as well as educate you”. Just because it is a comic (usually used for fun and entertainment) does not mean it should ignore how important these figures have been in the history of black people.
In fact, the very use of these names shows their historical importance. So why not indicate who these people were? Why not credit these leaders who gave their lives to the black struggle?
It’s not enough to simply say that this will be the first black superhero and then ignore all the actions of the real life superheroes that came before. This comic book is a form of media that represents black people; it forms part of black discourse. Therefore it is adding to an already existing movement for black empowerment. Names of characters in the comic, such as “Malcolm”, “Madiba”, “Biko” and even “Verwoed”, already carry heavy connotations and they were chosen because of what these figures represent historically.
If the writer of The Urban Legend is successful in achieving global distribution, there is a possibility that the world will associate these names with characters from a comic book. This trivialises these icons and reduces them to fictional characters. This is the risk of commercialising iconic figures because the comic book allows for a misconstrued idea of who Madiba and Biko were. That’s why it’s important to give recognition to who these people were and what they did.
If the Yohannes doesn’t do that, he’s is basically stealing from black people and black empowerment for his own gains.
In a world where information is so easily accessed and dispersed, artists are borrowing symbols from all kinds of movements and social struggles for their own gain. It becomes problematic when there is no acknowledgement of the symbols that they use. In this case, it’s the names of iconic figures.
This is disrespectful to the histories of these people and the way they’ve transformed society. As an artist who wants to make a contribution to society, the comic’s creator must work within the context of society and the concerns of black people.
If these inspirational icons were influential enough for this writer to mention them in the comic, it shouldn’t be a problem to also show why they’re valuable in the wider societal context.
Also check out the Urban Legend website and make up your own mind about the publication, also feel free to let us know your thoughts.