First Ethiopian comic book hits the shelves
Jember comic book has made a splash in the comics and visual storytelling industry of Addis. Many are happy there is finally an Ethiopian superhero they can point to. Available in both Amharic and English versions, Jember tells the origin story of a young underemployed man called Aman and his transformation into Jember, an Ethiopian superhero.
According to Beserat Debebe, creator and writer of the comic, Jember is a character inspired by the life and experiences of young residents in Addis Ababa. Aman’s creation was informed by his friends’ and relatives’ job seeking experiences in the city. “He reflects the story of those that are in the transition period between their college life and adulthood. Cities like Addis typically have a high youth unemployment rate. This often leads to a feeling of disappointment and hopelessness for a lot of ambitious young Ethiopians.”
Illustrated by Stanley Obende, Brian Ibeh and Akanni Akorede, Jember is a cross-continental effort. Beserat says the process has led the team to learn from each other and that “having different perspectives always leads to better decisions. We get to learn about each other's background culture so it continues to be an enriching experience.” Although scenes in the comic book are set in Addis Ababa and the names are Ethiopian, the characters are an amalgamation of African features.
Their company Etan Comics is a platform through which they hope to introduce African Superheroes to an international audience. It began with the belief that stories are the best learning tools. “They are what move us, make us feel alive and inspire us. With our stories, we aim to broaden your perspective about the world. We encourage you to learn more about different cultures, people, nature and all the amazing intricacies of this world.”
Etan hopes to empower a new generation of Africans by creating superheroes of African origin that share African values and beliefs. “My hope is that through Jember and other future comics, our audiences can find role models they can relate to at a personal level. Due to the lack of representation in Western popular media, which is highly consumed by Ethiopians, young Ethiopians can often be consciously or subconsciously limited in what they aspire to be. I hope our work challenges them to expand their imagination.
I also hope that our comics allow people to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of our culture.” says Beserat. A character in Jember called Mesfin quotes Marcus Garvey "A people without the knowledge of their past history, [origin and culture] is like a tree without roots."
Etan faces challenges reaching a mainstream audience. Comic books are not a common storytelling medium in Ethiopia and readership is quiet low. The widespread availability of other entrainment channels like television and social media threaten the already underdeveloped reading culture. Comic books offer an entertaining and highly visual alternative to thick volumes. With over 8000 followers on the Etan Facebook page, the reaction in the tightly knit comic book fan community in Addis has been strong. Many are happy with this new beginning and eagerly await the development of the superhero as the story proceeds in the following issues.
Fanuel Leul, 22, a graphic designer and illustrator who has been a big fan of comic books, says Jember is a great start and looks forward to other Ethiopia-inspired comics making their way to bookshelves. Comic books are increasingly becoming a popular medium for visual storytelling and many young digital artists are venturing into the field. Fanuel, who graduated from Alle School of Addis Fine Art and Design, is himself working on his own comic called Qedamawi, studying Ethiopian history and showcasing the country as the ‘land of the brave’. The social media pages of Qedamawi feature Ethiopian patriots such as Emperor Menelik, Ras Alula and those that fought the Adwa war reimagined as superheroes.