Nelson Mandela, who passed away last week at the age of 95, certainly lived a life with enough twists and turns of fortune and fate to be included among the great comics characters. His story is one that has been and will continue to be told in a variety of media, so it is only logical that comics be among them. Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book was published in South Africa in 2008, after years of work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Umlando Wezithombe, a producer of educational comic books. Originally an eight-part series, the entire run is now widely available as a handsome, large-form trade paperback.
That this book exists at all is a fascinating intersection of history, biography, and the comics tradition. Mandela admits, in his introduction, that he is “not an expert on the subject of comics”, but he goes on to extol the virtues of our favourite medium by highlighting their graphical qualities, and the possibility that this comic will reach new readers and, in particular, young readers. As a mechanism for capturing popular history, especially when it has links to important recent political events, comics have a power of their own. This tradition of spreading the word about inspiring leaders through visual storytelling is not new. (See my article about JFK, or take a glance inside any Egyptian tomb for more examples of this.) But it is very encouraging to see someone like Mandela capitalizing on the storytelling possibilities of comic books.
As for the book itself, it traces the long road of Mandela’s life from his birth (the book begins with his mother’s birth cries) through to his leaving the Presidency to focus on his charitable projects in retirement. Covering over eighty very eventful years in one of the world’s most troubled countries, there is no shortage of built-in drama.
Mandela’s childhood is presented as a story of traditional African customs constantly being interrupted by forces from the outside world, whether they be helpful churches or meddling magistrates, imposing a foreign system of property and governance on centuries-old traditions. The first issue is full of bucolic landscapes and images of rural South Africa that seem to come from a very deep history. The young Mandela walks a fine line in this portrayal, attempting to take from each culture the best it has to offer. His youth and education are probably the least interesting from a visual standpoint (numerous pages of men in suits talking to each other — and every now and then gesticulating to make a point — doesn’t make for exciting comic-book storytelling). However, these passages were of interest to me in highlighting the racial complexity of South Africa, particularly the position of South Africans of Indian descent, who the white authorities placed somewhere in the “middle” between whites and blacks in terms of power and respect. A theme of lifelong friendships and alliances ultimately fills these early pages, and Mandela comes across as a very open-minded young man, taking each person as a potential ally. The entire book, in fact, makes a special point to highlight individuals of all races who participated in the freedom struggle, and Mandela’s affection for white South African heroes such as Wolfie Kodesh and Bram Fischer is evident throughout.
The episode with the most intrigue and adventure (chapter three in the trade paperback) is titled “The Black Pimpernel”. It introduces Mandela with a rendering reminiscent of Indiana Jones, mixed with Che Guevara. This chapter, like all the chapters, opens with a splash page and a framing device of a tour guide showing the real locations in which some of these events took place. The real locations are presented as a photo, with the comic characters composited over. This seems a bit of a clumsy narrative device, but this is official history after all, and these frames remind us that these events really did take place in the relatively recent past. The “black pimpernel” fights the ongoing struggle against apartheid and racial inequality, while also trying to stitch together a fragile coalition of races (white, black, Indian) and political ideologies, particularly the shotgun marriage of radical communists with sympathetic church figures. It should serve as a reminder that revolutions can be a lot of hard work and strategic arm-twisting.
When Mandela is driven into hiding, near the end of the “black pimpernel” period, he becomes a glorified “couch surfer”, and relations with his family become particularly strained. Although Winnie Mandela is portrayed very positively and heroically throughout the series, Nelson Mandela allows himself to be shown in a less than flattering light as a husband and father, adding a welcome touch of humanity to what could have been an empty exercise in myth-making.
Ironically, the story of Mandela’s trials and eventual imprisonment are rendered with considerable visual flair, partially helped by his own theatrical gestures, such as wearing a leopard skin to court.
The long imprisonment on Robben Island, as well as other prisons later on, is in a very different key, visually and in terms of narrative. In one particularly effective frame, the cells in Mandela’s block in the prison are shown from above, their ceilings open to the sky, showing the tiny scale of their lives and, juxtaposing a beautiful night sky overhead, their comparatively rich intellectual worlds. (Many of his fellow prisoners earned degrees during their time breaking rocks on Robben Island.) Another very effective image from this period shows Mandela dreaming of his wife and children but their faces gradually fading into an indistinct shape, showing how he felt his family — and, by extension, the outside world — gradually fading away from him.
Years of negotiations follow, and while Mandela is moved from the island to more civilized prisons for most of the 1980s, a prison remains a prison. His writing from this period is often presented wholesale as breakaway panels. For many of us in this generation, the 1980s is when we heard the name “Mandela”, and we knew him through these letters and a few old photographs from the 1960s. His was a mysterious voice from behind closed doors, speaking truth to power and reminding us — even us white suburban kids in Canada — of an almost breathtakingly cruel system of government still in operation in the modern world.
To the book’s credit, it does not end with Mandela being released from prison in 1990 but continues his story as he wades into the complicated world of South African politics in a very transitional time. Many of the familiar images from our shared memory of this history (Mandela walking out of prison, fist raised, speaking to crowds, etc.) are re-created, but we also see behind the scenes. For example, Winnie Mandela chastises her now-freed husband for ignoring his family, telling him that his daughters said “you were more accessible in prison.” Later, his daughter Maki says it out loud: “You are a father to all our people, but you have never had time to be a father to me,” a charge to which Mandela has no response, except to sadly think, “She has not forgiven me…”
Besides family struggle, the new South Africa presents him with no shortage of violence and challenges, even after he is elected President in 1994. His presidency, like all such terms in office, has triumphs and stumbles, and the comic demonstrates both. There is a short re-telling of his support for the South African Rugby team in their efforts to win the World Cup (a story told fully in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus). This story, among others, shows us that post-prison, Mandela had to come to terms with being the President of all South Africans, not just the black citizens. The AIDS crisis, which Mandela largely downplayed during his time in office, is mentioned near the end, as the scale of the tragedy was brought home to the now ex-President with the death of one of his own sons, Makgatho, from the disease. The comic book ends with Mandela walking off into the same fields from which he sprung, in beautiful rural Africa.
The biggest problem with this mostly handsome and well-executed comic book is that it gives us little sense of how Mandela himself felt about his mixed legacy, his support for violence in his movement (support that was later rescinded strenuously), the lingering economic and social issues of South Africa, and particularly the AIDS epidemic, inescapable on that continent today. The work he started is far from finished, so the image of an old man walking into the sunset at the end of this book is a personal victory and a personal ending, rather than a complete social and political triumph. We would all like to have had Nelson Mandela give us that key bit of parting advice, that one last idea that could bring some of the many issues facing us in this new century closer to resolution. But ultimately Nelson Mandela himself lived in the present and, like all the rest of us, did the best he could with the circumstances presented to him by life. Well, perhaps he did a little better than the rest of us. In the end, that might be what makes a life great.