Celebrating everyday African people: An interview with the Ordinary Superheroes team

Ordinary Superheroes is a social initiative that aims to rethink the perception of heroism through a new graphic novel series.The project merges real stories from Khayelitsha with African storytelling tools and superhero narratives; foregrounding positive narratives that have always lived in the township, but were not told. The team address a need to change the narrative of superheroes and role models for Africans through the development of characters who are inspired by ordinary people in local communities, who readers can identify with.  

The team recently released their first pilot issue, Khazimla’s Adventures, which details the experience of a young man who discovers another world that lies beneath the surface of the dusty streets of his township and enters a tumultuous journey to the mountain of self-discovery and transformation. 

We spoke to creators of the comic book, writers Lena Posch and Ziphozakhe Hlobo, and illustrator Nicole Leonards to gain insight into how the collaborative project came about and the potential of the comic book form as a tool to encourage community engagement and development.

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Tell me a bit about yourselves. What are your individual backgrounds?

Lena: Well, I am from Germany and coming from a design related background, I was experimenting a lot with different media but mostly focusing on publications of multiple perspectives, from a cosmopolitan point of view both content and form wise. Recently some questions have been foregrounded in my work, especially the question of a current mythology and the question of equal working processes in an unequal society. 

Zipho: My name is Ziphozakhe Hlobo. I have a media background, mainly on the writing and content producing side. I am a storyteller – so I mainly deal with that; I have been very lucky to be able to practice what I love in different mediums. I co-wrote an award-winning verbatim theatre piece, I’ve worked in some SABC TV Shows as a content producer and have worked in creating online media as well. 

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How did the idea to start this collaborative project come about?

Lena: The project started in 2014 in Cape Town, or rather in the Cape Flats, when I met a lot of amazing people, who take actions towards uplifting their community out of genuine interest. Innovators and visionaries who are creating solutions towards the problems the world is facing. They thought me a lot about life, changed my perception and inspired me to create this project, so that also other people can get inspired and motivated by them. They are living examples of the potential hero, who exist in all of us. The beginning was to create a book, telling their story, filled with visions, photographs and written portraits, that we also published and it is called “Modern Superheroes – visions from the townships” Since 2014 our team has grown since are working with a collaborative approach by bringing together ordinary superheroes, writers, illustrators and social activists from various backgrounds in order to create a universal story. I already worked with Ziphozakhe in 2014, since she is also one of these heroes, who inspires and motivates people around her. We also wanted to give opportunities to young aspiring artists to reach their potential, so working with Nicole and Ziphozakhe was an amazing coincidence of the universe. 

Zipho: I think Lena and I are a bit similar in that we are multi-dimensional and a little experimental. I can’t think one dimensionally. Every time I think of an idea, I always try to come up with ways of how I could collaborate with someone or something to make the idea better. This comic book was Lena’s brainchild, which she told me about; I was very excited to try something different as a writer. Beyond the art and technicality of it, the project spoke to something I had already been thinking about for a long time; decolonizing everything. This was a great opportunity to start the conversation with myself and it’s a blessing that I get to do that while there are people like Lena and Nicole in the same journey, also reflecting. 

You recently released your first pilot issue Khazimla’s Adventures. Could you talk me through the process of creating the comic?

 Zipho: So, the comic book has given us a lot of stress, sleepless nights, anxiety, fatigue and disagreements. But, all of these things strengthened the storyline and truth in it. It’s good when creative fight for their ideas, sometimes against each other, and it’s great when we can put everything aside in the end and do what’s best for the project. It’s been an incredible journey of superb team-work and constantly being inspired by Monde Sitole. I think we were all bought the real story of a boy who grew up in the township and has a fascination for the mountain. For Lena, that intrigued something about a character that can teleport himself; for me, it ignited the idea that contrary to popular beliefs, Africans have always been one with nature, it’s just that the loss of land fragmented us and we lost that connection. Nicole’s pictures somehow brought these two ideas together. 

Lena: The process is also a main focus of the project itself. We are looking into the criteria, how to create equal working processes in an unequal society and bringing together people from various backgrounds and perspectives. We have been through ups and downs, and it has been a great learning experience, since for all of us this was the first comic book. It all began with long conversations with Monde, listening to his story, ideas and visions. From there we started to create a fictional character, inspired by his story. We played around with superpowers, old stories and real life issues. Zipho and me we developed the story and characters together. We always wanted to involve Monde in the process of the story creation, but that was very difficult. After that we started the illustration and writing process simultaneously. It was very fascinating, that with Nicole we didn’t even use rough drafts, since her drafts were already perfect.khazimlasadventure1-77

What interested you all in the medium of comics?

Zipho: I had never even been interested in comic books before. I just like the new challenge and went for it. When I was in it, I loved the ‘kiddy’ and ‘imaginative’ feel of comics. Most of us easily lose that. 

Lena: For me the major interest lies in imagination and storytelling. I am quite inspired by Joseph Campbell, who researched about all mythologies around the globe to identify the common story, the universal story, that we all can relate to, because we all are human beings who go through similar emotional states. He identified the hero’s journey, that we all can go through which matches with our core concept to see the potential hero in everybody. We identified the lack of myth in our current society, where part of that gap somehow was filled with superhero narratives. We wanted to create an innovative format of storytelling by merging old traditions and myths with superhero narratives and real stories, to identify a format that can speak to various people. The comic just came across as the most suitable format, also considering the fact that it uses visual storytelling and less text, which also ignites the imagination. 

Nicole, you are the first issue’s illustrator. What drew you to illustration and how would you describe your style?

Nicole: I started illustrations when I was in high school. I never really thought much of putting it out there until I met Lena and we discussed the project. I’ve always been an avid art lover. My style is a mix of expressionistic art and conceptual art. I draw from my head. From what I remember seeing. From what I conceptualise things to be.

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What role does Ordinary Superheroes play in enhancing community engagement and development?

Zipho: It plays a huge role because in rethinking heroes, we are giving the power back to people from the community to realize that they are heroes. The bigger vision for this project is to tie it in with schools through workshops where children start to engage with the idea of heroism and create comic books that unpack how their moms, sisters, aunts, grandmothers are superheroes. The fact that they can devise superpowers for ordinary characters is the cherry on top. 

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How much research did you undertake while developing the character of Khazimla? How would you describe the character’s core concept?

Zipho: Hhmm – research is an informal thing. For any art piece, I don’t go on an orthodox process of research period to create. I think we are always researching whether we realise it or not. Half of it was going through Monde’s life story piecing together his school of thought, and half of it (when it came down to writing) was being true to a black boy growing up in a township, remembering all the ones I know. 

Lena: I agree with Zipho, we are researching all the time, it is all about the focus you choose. The last years I have been in a process of re-defining terms like research for myself. During our process we have done more of performative research, where we did interventions in public spaces or workshops around heroes and imagination with people from all different age groups, in order to identify their reflections on role models and superheroes. It was quite fascinating to observe the power of imagination and the different connotations of the term superhero. At first sight everybody was thinking about superstrength, superspeed or the power to fly but when we asked about African heroes or people who inspired them in their surroundings the answers shifted towards mothers, grandmothers and powers such as love.

Lastly, what’s the importance of telling positive super hero narratives such as yours to a South African audience? Does your anticipated audience influence plot, characterization etc?

Zipho: It’s sad that we have to theme work like this as ‘positive’ stories – but I understand the backstory. In reality, this should be the given. If we do inspire and change someone’s life, that’s great – but honestly, we are telling Africans something they have always been doing. You know? It’s funny how as Africans, we all know that in our culture, sharing food, parents, homes and ideas was always a thing, but when I come and write it, I can be praised for that as if I created it…I think as writers, we have to realize this and we have to reinforce the idea that we aren’t saying anything new. South Africans have always existed in positivity. 

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