Bill Salazar Masuku is more than just a comic book writer and artist. In addition to being the founder of Enigma Comix, he is one of the few people building a comic book industry in Zimbabwe. The titles he’s created have brilliantly merged the superhero archetype with Zimbabwe and South African culture. Wanting to learn about his comic books and comics culture in Zimbabwe, I was able to interview Masuku for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: What were some of your favorite stories when you were a kid? Do you still enjoy any of these narratives?
Bill Salazar Masuku: As a kid I had very little access to comic books, so what was captivating to me at the time were cartoons, anime and a couple of films.
While cartoons are a staple of entertainment when you are younger they rarely held any story lines or overarching plot that tied events together. Very much so, the cartoons on day time television when I was growing up in the 90s/early 2000s were episodic. Stories that was contained fully in the space of 20 minutes. Sometimes even less than that. All the problems and misadventures were solved neatly before the end of their time slot.
A show that changed this and more than likely changed my outlook on animated story telling was an anime called Rurouni Kenshin (also called Samurai X). I saw violence, I saw tears that actually moved me, I saw characters who had a bond and history about them that was complicated and then I was struck with a ‘to be continued’?! Never in all my childhood did I want to know more about something than at that moment. The first cliffhanger that still has me falling.
It was the beginning of my relationship with anime, and yes I am still enjoying these narratives today.
Yanes: What was your first exposure to comic books and superheroes?
Masuku: I had the fortunate experience of having one of my first super heroes being Static Shock on a Saturday morning cartoon block. A young black super hero dealing with not only his new found abilities but being a prominent face in the continuity of his universe, earning him respect from even Batman arguably one of the most iconic figures in modern fiction.
Sadly, it was only later in my life, around high school, where I would hold my first comic book. To be fair, Asterix and Obelix, together with other fun adventure type stories were comic books in the school’s library but they had the all too familiar feeling that the story would wrap up come the back cover of the book – making any danger they were in seem meaningless and weightless.
The second major cliffhanger in my youth came at the end of a worn copy of Uncanny X-Men that my friend lent me.
Yanes: On this note, when did you know you wanted to create comic books as a career?
Masuku: Funnily enough, I had started drawing comic books and sequential art before I happened upon that copy of Uncanny X-Men. I used what I had been tacitly learning from other comic productions to form an idea for what I wanted my books to be. And it was towards the end of the 5th grade that I completed a very shoddy comic book on recycled paper from my mom’s work place.
There is something I honestly can’t describe about pressing the pen into the page for a final ink stroke and looking back through your book having brought people to life from only your mind.
In that moment, I just knew.
Yanes: You are the founder of Enigma Comix. What was the motivation for creating this company?
Masuku: Between already being in a country where access to mainstream comic books was classified as a drought, and extensive research showing that there was effectively no African comic book company that was publishing local content. By research I mean several hours and days on Google following threads. That means if in another country they were printing and it did not make the news or there was no mention of it on the internet, then it was like trying to find a particular straw in a haystack.
So the motivation was to produce high quality local content that was readily accessible to everyone in Zimbabwe and eventually, regionally, then globally. I feel like comic books are a necessary part of visual literature that are inexpensive to enjoy. Not everyone has access to Netflix or other streaming services, and local television falls very far behind in terms of producing content (mostly recycling very old content from the 90 or earlier).
Yanes: Given that you are based in Zimbabwe, could you take a moment to discuss the comic book industry in this region? Are there any challenges you struggle with to produce and sell comics in this country?
Masuku: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Everything is a challenge.
The struggle to create comics is as much economic as it is political, social, and cultural. Economically, the country has taken several hits and we are currently in a state where we aren’t able to withdraw money from our own accounts in the bank because there is a literal cash shortage. This problem is corrected in a lot of service sectors with access debit and credit cards; it means you can still in fact use your money. The cashless economy has kept things going; things like mobile money have been a boon.
However, specifically in comic books needing to go to a smaller print house (because the larger presses cost out at higher than the sale value of comic), means that there is not swipe/card machine to get books done. There are a few ways around this, but ultimately all the hoops that need to be leapt through are exhausting. The obvious alternative to this is digital copies of the books, but it usually circles back to money issues. Economic sanctions placed on the country, means service like PayPal are barred to us.
Socially and culturally, comic books are still very much seen as childish, for children, etc. There is actually a local term for any kind of animation called “MaPopeye,” which is a reference to Popeye cartoons of yesteryear. And to a lot people that’s all they’ll ever be. Unless, of course, something comes around to change their minds. And it’s this mindset that makes it more than an annoying hurdle to market books that I produced, particularly because the books I create are designed for teens and older. Meaning, my main books are particularly hard to market to younger children based on subject matter, mild violence and higher reading grades needed to even enjoy the book. I’ve been making slow and steady progress in changing that view with Enigma Comix.
Despite these hurdles, there are now several comic book companies in Zimbabwe, each producing unique and interesting books for the conventions that we have. Working as an oligopoly we form the back bone for the comic book and gaming events that happen every year which, each time drawing new crowds, new fans and is showing us that not only are there comic book fans all around the country. But also the market potential of the industry is getting scalably bigger since the first event in 2015. With no small mention to the comic book movie blockbusters each year.
Yanes: One of your comic book characters is Black Zeus. This is a character who finds a technologically advanced suit under Great Zimbabwe. Are there any other aspects of Zimbabwe history that you’d like to incorporate into a comic book character?
Masuku: Yes, but not as vividly as I did in Black Zeus. I believe that with the other companies and the indie producers there are more than enough people who are and will be writing about the country’s history dating even further back than independence and colonization.
While I touch on this in Razor-Man, I still see myself as an afrofuturist writer. What can we do going forward, given the past what may lie ahead? It’s these questions and hypothetical situations that lead me to make Black Zeus in the first place. Great Zimbabwe are ruins that everyone in the country knows, a historical place of great change and a heritage site. No one would think to look deeper than that.
But as the Black Zeus series moves forward, I will have the characters visit other historical sites, interact with old artifacts and find where mysticism meets history and forge something out of this world from it.
Yanes: A story that you have invested a lot of time in is Razor-Man. What was the inspiration for this story?
Masuku: Razor-Man was inspired by the pent up frustrations that citizens felt in the wake of the economic crisis in 2008. We were the country that was hit the hardest. So much so we made it into text books for what not to do. Our currency was a joke, and survival tactics were part and parcel of daily life. And when the world recovered, we were still sinking in this hole. The country was falling to ruin, when power was in the hands of the few, the hands of the many were empty and calloused.
So Razor-Man is effectively a what if story: what if someone was fed up to the point they put on a mask and did something about it?
Obviously, there’s lots of fantasy and scifi elements in it when you get half way through the first volume. Growing up on anime means that my stories have lots of threads, themes, plots and cliffhangers.
Yanes: As Razor-Man has developed, is there a specific element of this story that has unexpectedly grown in importance to you?
Masuku: Actually, surprisingly and very not-supposed-to-go-this-way sort of narrative for a superhero archtype character is: Razor-Man has and will have an overwhelming sense of defeat. No matter how obstacles he climbs, the system is always bigger than him. And when it’s not, it will change.
Hopefully that is something that will give longevity to the story itself. But I really want to give birth to a different kind of never giving up, and if he does, it’s okay. He is human, and I want his experiences to be very human in that we process grief and loss and defeat in all our own ways. Sometimes it’s destructive, sometimes its toxic to those closest to us. Other times it’s isolationist, because that feeling that no one – truly no one understands what you’re going through is real.
Yanes: When people finish reading a Razor-Man story, what do you hope that they take away from it?
Masuku: I hope people leave my Razor-Man books with a frustration. With the cliffhangers burning an unnatural level of curiosity into their minds, flooding their thoughts with questions, and ultimately bringing them into this world as much I am. Maybe even deeper.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working that people can look forward to?
Masuku: I’m working on Captain South Africa at the moment, more political but definitely more super powers! She is a brilliantly minded successor of the titular mantle and is looking for new ways to fight crime in South Africa, a country neighboring Zimbabwe with one of the highest crime rates in the world. Realizing that; she can’t just punch the problem away. Crime is a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself. I want to navigate the normative superhero story and bring something new.