Smash Pages Q&A: Luke Molver

The South African creator discusses his newest projects about King Shaka, his influences, the South African comics scene and more.

Luke Molver is a comics creator and illustrator from Durban, South Africa. He’s best known for his science fiction and supernatural comics like Nero and Sunday’s Slave. More recently, Molver has been writing and drawing two books for StoryPress Africa as part of the African Graphic Novel series.

After Shaka Rising, Molver’s new book King Shaka concludes the story of the leader of the Zulu nation, and tries to parse the historical facts from the myths that has arisen around him. We spoke recently about the book, his work and the comics scene in South Africa.

Luke, could you start just by talking about your background and how you came to comics?

Growing up, I was always surrounded by various forms of storytelling. As a child, my mother and grandmother kept me entranced with bedtime retellings of the Grimm fairytales, the Norse myths, the Greek epics of gods and heroes. My father’s extensive collection of pulp sci-fi novels were a source of endless escapism as soon as I could reach the bookshelf. Our home also had a modest but well-loved collection of VHS tapes that opened up the worlds of cinema to my thirsty imagination – Star Wars, Indiana Jones and a multitude of spaghetti westerns became my favourite repeat viewings.

I also cultivated a love of art, particularly illustration, from an early age. Mostly scribbling monsters and terrifying chimerical hybrids, which I assumed all children drew until my pre-school teacher called my mother in, to voice her concern about the content of my illustrations. Ma simply laughed, and assured the teacher not to worry about me having an imagination.

When I discovered comic books, I realized immediately their power. This beautiful, extraordinary medium could combine my two passions, art and stories, and create something wholly new, unique and accessible.

Like most youngsters, I grew up reading the prevalent superhero stuff from the USA; Marvel and DC and their respective pantheons of costume clad superheroes. I also thoroughly enjoyed Tintin and Asterix, dabbled in manga, and pored through the pages of Heavy Metal when I could find a copy, quickly learning to distinguish various genres and styles of art and narrative within the medium. However, it was when I discovered a British comic called 2000AD that I felt I’d truly found the stories I most enjoyed. 2000AD is an anthology comic filled with speculative and science fiction tales, including the exploits of its most well-known character, Judge Dredd. The comic comprises a huge variety of artists and writers and styles, and to the younger me, it was an antidote to the superhero comics of the USA, which I was finding increasingly anodyne and generic.

2000AD was adult-themed, unapologetically violent, imbued with satire, dark humour and the tropes of classic sci-fi. This was the comic that made me realize I wanted to make comics.

It’s also the company I dreamed of working for throughout my formative years. Hell, I still do. 2000AD, if you’re reading this, hire me!

Where did the idea for these books come from?

I was approached by the publisher, StoryPress Africa around 2017 to create Shaka Rising, the first book in their African Graphic Novel series. The publisher was familiar with some of my self-published comics, and I felt it was an opportunity to tell an exciting, and enlightening story.

King Shaka is probably one of the most well-known figures in South African history, and certainly one of the most exciting. With the success of movies like Black Panther – itself often taking literal influence from real African peoples – and renewed global interest in African speculative and historical fiction, the saga of King Shaka is an apt and epic tale to give to the world. It’s a good first entry in what will hopefully be the first of many in the African Graphic Novel series.

What interested you in using comics to retell history?

Well, an important aim of the King Shaka graphic novels is to show the educational potential of the comic book medium. Literacy levels for kids in South Africa are shockingly low, a study in 2016 showed 78% of 9-year old children are functionally illiterate. This is a frightening statistic, but reflected elsewhere in the world too.

Shaka Rising and King Shaka – and all comics – can educate. Not simply with their content, but using the very medium itself. Comics’ unique combination of text and image make them accessible to a wide spectrum of language, literacy and understanding. They have the potential to teach any subject, to anybody, in any language – or even, without language.

Comics can be escapist epics, but they can also be engines of education.

What was the process of doing research for the books and what was hard to find that you needed?

I mentioned King Shaka as being one of the most famous historical figures from Africa – however, he is unique in the sense that he is, in many ways, as much myth as man. We don’t even have a definitive idea of what King Shaka looked like.

Verifiable records of the time period are scarce. The Zulu people had no written language during the period of Shaka’s reign, and oral storytelling traditions were the only generational histories of many of the tribes of southern Africa. Of course, each storyteller had their own biases and agendas, including Shaka’s successors – who, not coincidentally, were also his assassins.

The few written records of the time come from white settlers in the area, and these are similarly unreliable. Their diaries typically depict them as explorers and pioneers, when the majority of the initial white settlers in King Shaka’s kingdom were hunters, smugglers and even fugitives.

It is only in relatively recent years that the histories of the time have been reexamined, leading to a more balanced perspective of King Shaka and his reign.

However, it is still worth noting, that while every effort was made to balance fact and folklore, these comic books are only one retelling of the legend – there are others.

I am asking this as an American, how well known is the story of Shaka and the destruction of the Zulu kingdom in South Africa and in the region? Is this well known? Taught in schools?

I think the figure of Shaka is familiar to most South Africans. While the Zulu kingdom was ultimately brought to its knees by the British in the late 19th century, the Zulu are still the largest ethnic group in South Africa today, and many consider Shaka the de facto founder of the Zulu nation.

But as I say, there are various versions of King Shaka’s story. The subject is covered in school history, but in my research for the comic books I discovered a lot of the stuff I learned in school about King Shaka was woefully inaccurate.

One popular perception of the Zulu monarch is of a brutal military dictator, a fulcrum of violence in southern Africa during the early 19th century. Yes, King Shaka’s reign was violent, but it was a violent period in history. Southern Africa was frontier country, and Shaka was the first Zulu king having deal with the challenges of a changing world – not least, the influx of white settlers, who proved anything but trustworthy. It was not King Shaka’s violence that made him unique, rather, it was his diplomacy.

Before this, you’re known for your comics Nero, Remember Emma and Sunday’s Slave. For people who don’t know, do you want to say a little about them?

Nero was the first full comic I self-published, back in 2013. It was a cyberpunk thriller set in a futuristic Durban – my hometown in South Africa. It’s also an homage to my favourite science fiction; the influences of movies like Blade Runner and Ghost In The Shell and the literature of sci-fi authors like William Gibson are very evident. It currently stands at two volumes, which completes its main story arc, but there are a lot more stories I’d like to write in the Nero universe. I kinda gave it a break when I looked around and realized the world we’re living in was getting pretty close to the cyberpunk dystopia I was writing about!

Sunday’s Slave is a horror comic I produce based on the story of Robert Johnson, the Blues musician who, legend has it, made a deal with the Devil at a midnight crossroads. I love the Blues as a genre of music, and have always been fascinated by that legend, so I wanted to write something to pay homage to both. The setting of Sunday’s Slave is a world vaguely reminiscent of frontier country in the American South, moving from bayou to dustbowl and beyond. A heady gumbo of Blues and hoodoo that I’ve dubbed “swamp noir.”

Nero is such a different kind of project from Shaka. Was there a way you had to think about or approach the material differently?

Honestly, my creative approach didn’t change much at all. Regardless of what genre I’m working in, sci-fi, horror or historical epic, I tend to approach the stories in the same way. Develop a good set of characters first, figure out their relationship with each other and their personal motivations, and then set them into a world. I find the story takes shape on its own after that.

The only real difference in the process for me is the amount of preparation required before I began the story. For example, writing something like King Shaka required a hefty bit of reading and research to make the book as factually and historically accurate as possible.

On the other hand, Nero required far less prior research – the pulp sci-fi and action movies I grew up on had been feeding me ideas all my life. The more I wrote in the Neroverse, the more it started looking like the real world. Cyberpunk’s here, man.

Well, except for the flying cars.

I’m curious about the comics scene in Durban and in South Africa. I know that you just got back from Comic Con Africa in Johannesburg. What was the show like?

Cartooning and comic books have always been part of South African history, for example as forms of protest and resistance during the years of Apartheid. However, we have never really had a comic book ‘industry’ as such. That is not to say South Africa lacks talent, only infrastructure. There are numerous passionate artists and writers creating comic books and graphic novels for sheer love of the medium, and many of them are on display at events such as Comic Con Africa.

Now in its second year, Comic Con Africa may still be fledgling compared to some of the other overseas conventions, but for South Africa it is the biggest pop culture festival we currently have. There are other locally-run comic book festivals such as the popular FanCon in Cape Town, but nothing of the scale of Comic Con Africa.

The cool thing about South African comic festivals is the fact that they are at that sweet spot before they reach a critical mass. Sometimes, a convention can be too big. Local events still have a certain intimacy, where you can actually go and meet and talk to the international guests, you can chat to artists and writers and comfortably soak in all the pop-culture goodness. Some conventions are more like a tsunami that wash you away.

Like I say, there’s a lot of talent at these local conventions, but the majority of South African comic creators are self-publishers, they produce the work on their own time and dime while usually holding down a day job – myself included. For whatever reason, it is still difficult to get one’s work into mainstream bookstores and reach a wider audience without the backing of an actual publisher, and many local retailers are still wary of comic books. Sad but true.

However, I like to think this is changing, with more conventions each year and publishers like StoryPress Africa embracing comics as a medium of endless potential. To entertain, to communicate and to educate.

So after these two books, has it changed what you want to do and what you’re interested in doing next?

I’m currently working on the third chapter of Sunday’s Slave, as well as planning a comic set in another period of South African history – the Second World War. A new genre for me, which I’m excited to explore.

I’m also considering revisiting the Neroverse for another shot of story or two. I think what I started as a sci-fi saga could become quite relevant to the world today.

To be honest, I’ve never lacked ideas. Writers’ block is a completely foreign notion to me. My problem is that there’s not enough hours in the day to get all the denizens of my brain onto the comic book page.

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