Imagine being able to fly, have supernatural strength or turn invisible at will. Children dream of having superpowers. When you don’t overthink the logistics, comic book and movie heroes present a good case for their specific powers, making you wish you could have them all.
As you get older, though, because you don’t have the power to stop time, the powers you wish for become less fantastical and more practical: financial security, a home or perhaps the ability to comprehend the politics of a burning, quarrelling world in which leaders behave like villains and children have to become heroes. Fortunately, the four-day Comic Con Africa event at Gallagher Estate in Midrand, Johannesburg, allowed visitors young and old to let out their inner superheroes.
Alternate identities, those that come with a mask and cape, were born as a popular culture concept in the United States in the late 1930s. Wedged between the Great Depression, the impending march of fascism and World War II, comic books and fantasy novels were not only an escape from grim reality but also arguably a way of solving societal problems, albeit in a removed and fantastical setting. They gave people hope and it’s what they still offer today, personally and socially.
In recent years, Disney and its flagship Marvel Studios have turned what was once a niche scene for geeks into a mainstream blockbuster juggernaut by bringing comic book heroes to life on the big screen – and Africa is far from immune to the superhero bug or the video game and cosplaying subcultures.
Comics that break boundaries
Comic Con started in California in the United States in 1970, when a group of comic, movie and science fiction fans got together to put on the first comic book convention. It made its second appearance in South Africa in September, attracting tens of thousands of visitors with an exceptional programme of speakers, competitions, displays and stallholders.
While the protagonists of comic books and their traditional audience have remained stubbornly white, male and straight (as popular American comedy series The Big Bang Theory demonstrates), the diversity of the crowd across racial, cultural and gender boundaries at Comic Con Africa was telling.
The event mirrored the growth of a more inclusionary pop culture scene in Africa. From Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales as Spider-Man to South Africa’s Kwezi, black superheroes painted on the venue’s wall by local graffiti artists were the first thing people saw when entering. This added to the uniquely African flavour of the event, which was peppered with interpretations of cosplay by people of different cultures and from across the continent.
Beyond the graffiti, the expo featured six halls of entertainment, enabling visitors to browse a huge selection of comics, books and collectibles or listen to international guests such as Canadian actor William Shatner, who played Captain James Kirk for many years in the Star Trek franchise.
But that wasn’t all. Visitors could watch the cosplay, experience the latest virtual reality possibilities, learn about new tech, learn to draw comics or have a sword fight in the yard. Gamers were spoiled for choice, able to play computer games, board games or take part in role-playing and magic sessions. And an entire hall was dedicated to the work of South African artists who make a living creating fantasy art.
Heritage for superheroes
On the final day of the event, which coincided with Heritage Day, many visitors chose to come in traditional attire and superhero costumes to display their individual identities on their own terms.
American novelist Tom Robbins said it is “never too late to have a happy childhood”, and the buzz and thrust of this year’s Comic Con Africa proved this unequivocally. It reminded visitors of all ages that humanity’s greatest superpower is our imagination, which can change lives.