As we rounded the corner for the last wall of the African comic show at Harlem’s Studio Museum, one of our group sat down, exhausted. Not physically, mind you — after 35-odd comics, though, he was mentally done. It’s that kind of exhibit. It demands a lot. But it gives back more. It’s a fair trade.
Going in, I expected the intensity of the show to derive from the difficult political and socio-economic messages of the comics, but it’s not quite that. Rather, Africa Comics is a roller-coaster ride from laughter to tragedy, slapstick to slap-back, utopia to genocide. And it’s held together by some truly diverse and stunning illustrations.
There’s something about a good comic that transports you. I was reminded of Joe Sacco’s fantastic Safe Area GoraÅ¾de, a journalistic comic that reports on the war in Eastern Bosnia. The framing of most every cell makes you feel closer to the people there, and more amazed at their ability to somehow live life under constant, terrifying siege.
Africa Comics transports you, too, but to so many places all over the continent, each with its own story, each told from a different perspective. So, while GoraÅ¾de gives you love and sorrow over the course of a book, Africa Comics works every emotion you’ve got in an afternoon. Its geographic and emotional coverage is astonishing.
Take “Tintin au Congo,” for example. Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog) presents the Belgian classic infused with racial stereotypes, and uses Tintin’s disarming style to portray a racial attack that’s not what it seems. Yet it somehow manages to walk the line between comedy and tragedy. And so goes the show. For every comic that brings you near tears, there’s another that does just the opposite. Or does both at the same time. That’s what makes Africa Comics one of those exhibits you can’t miss. Even if, like my friend, you have to sit down before you reach the final strip.