The comic book and graphic novel as a medium can not only entertain with colorful heroes and exotic far away lands, but it can also enlighten readers about the glorious and tragic aspects of our world.
Edmund Trueman takes this approach in his new graphic novel, Postcards From Congo, which offers a comprehensive history of the second largest country in Africa. Trueman discusses his approach to the historical aspects of Postcards From Congo, as well as the challenges of telling the history of a nation in a graphic medium.
What influenced you to decide to create an original graphic novel about this history of a nation in Postcards From Congo?
Edmund Trueman: As a kid I was really inspired by Hergé’s Tintin. When I got around to reading Tintin in the Congo, I was pretty confused and disturbed about what my favorite cartoon hero was doing in this strange racist landscape. I was young and I still didn’t know much about the history of colonialism, but over the years I tried to learn more about the real story behind the book, and about the history of Congo. At some point I decided that I’d like to try and give comics readers see a more accurate, multi-dimensional idea of Congo. The result is Postcards from Congo.
How do you even begin to take on such a dense and detailed topic?
Trueman: Yeah it was pretty overwhelming in the beginning – there’s so many different things to considering the history of an entire nation! I didn’t start the research with the intention of writing this book, I was just interested to learn as much as I could about the topic. Eventually I decided it would be nice to make a book which could give readers an easy introduction to the topic – with lots of pretty drawings to keep their attention! I think of Postcards from Congo as an illustrated encyclopedia of Congolese history.
What aspect of The Democratic Republic of Congo was most fascinating to you and which aspect do you think will surprise readers the most?
Trueman: I love to find out about the less-celebrated events in history – the everyday experiences of regular folks, cult art movements, the street slang of the time – stuff like that. Through Didier Gondola’s great book Tropic Cowboys I learnt about The Bills – teenage street gangs who dressed up as Wild West cowboys and wreaked havoc on the population of Kinshasa in the 1950s. Through the writing of historian Nancy Rose Hunt I learned about the work of cult comic artist Papa Mfumu’Eto 1er, who made a living selling xerox’ed comics on the streets of Kinshasa in the 1990s, against a political backdrop of economic turmoil and a crumbling dictatorship. I hope that readers will enjoy those elements as much as I enjoyed illustrating them.
You write and illustrate Postcards, so what is your process? Do you start with the art or script first?
Trueman: First lots of reading, then lots of writing, then lots of deleting, and then lots of drawing. I tried to remain brief and concise, so reduction was a big part of the writing process. For the drawing I also had to collect as much information as I could about how things should have looked. That meant collecting photos, but also listening to song lyrics, looking at paintings, and reading interviews.
Were there any aspects of the story that were difficult to capture in a visual medium?
Trueman: There’s a bit about Patrice Lumumba’s legendary Independence Day speech, in which he condemned the crimes of colonialism right in front of the Belgian king, who was not particularly happy about it. The speech was symbolic of the sense of empowerment which ran across Africa in 1960, as nation after nation gained their independence from colonial rule. What’s more, the speech blacklisted Lumumba as a troublemaker in the eyes of the CIA, which led directly to his assassination just a few months later. Hence over time the speech has also become emblematic of the tragedy of postcolonialism – the continued influence of the Global North in Africa. So… to wrap all of that up into a couple of illustrations was pretty tricky!
What do you hope that readers take away from Postcards?
Trueman: I hope that they enjoy it and it inspires them to learn more about Congo, and about Africa in general. We talk a lot in the West at the moment about putting an end to racism, yet so many of us still have only a vague concept of what’s going on in the lives of our African contemporaries. If we want to treat people with real respect then it’s absolutely essential that we learn about where they’re coming from… so I hope that this book can inspire some people to do just that!
Postcard from Congo is now available a finer comic book shops and book stores everywhere.