Luke Molver on his career, South African comics, and “Shaka Rising”

"...I refer to the old adage, “A picture speaks a thousand words…” and if you put pictures and words together, you’ve got the best of all worlds..."

Luke Molver is a South African comic book creator that is breaking new ground with his graphic novels, Nero and Shaka Rising. Wanting to learn more about his career, his projects, and his thoughts on South Africa’s growing comic book industry, I was able to interview Molver for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Molver by visiting his homepage and following him on Instagram at @LukeMolver.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories that you loved experiencing? Do you still enjoy any of these stories as an adult?

Luke Molver: I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a childhood filled with storytelling…some of my earliest and fondest memories are of my mother and grandmother reading me bedtime stories; everything from Grimm fairytales to Greek mythology to the gods of Norse legend. These epic narratives always stuck with me, and in later life as I began to write and illustrate my own tales, I still tried to pay homage to the grandly allegorical nature of these myths…the hero’s journey, and the fundamentally human aspects in these characters and their stories.

My father also had a grand library of sci-fi literature he’d collected over the years; Asimov, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson…throughout my youth, I consumed the books of these authors and more, and they still influence my work today.

I spent a lot of my youth reading, and probably not playing outside enough…

Unsurprisingly, I was also hugely impacted by 80s and 90s sci-fi cinema…I had the original Star Wars movies on VHS and wore out those tapes with endless viewings! More specifically, movies like Blade Runner, Mad Max, Alien, Terminator, anime such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell were (and still are) enormous visual and thematic influences on my work.

I think I’ve always had an extremely fertile imagination, but I have no doubt it was this early exposure to mythical and faraway worlds, vivid narratives and larger-than-life characters that planted the seeds of magic and wonder in my mind… which in turn grew to fill me with a love for stories, and a passion to create my own.

Yanes: What was your first experience with comic books?

Molver: In my early years, I fondly remember my father bringing home stacks of 2000AD comic books from second-hand stores and bargain bins…I gleefully absorbed these science fiction tales of distant galaxies and spectacular aliens, always hungry for more.

While I enjoyed the odd superhero comic here and there, I think my first inspiration for graphic narratives came more from independent and underground publications… anthology comics that were very diverse in their styles, such as Heavy Metal, and even more so the British sci-fi comic 2000AD (which introduced to me a character who is still one of my favourites today – Judge Dredd.) I found the American superhero comics were fun, but back then they seemed to stick to a certain approved formula, whereas 2000AD just blew my mind with the diversity of art and ideas. (Having said that, Batman is still one of my favourite characters, I always found him to be a far more darkly nuanced and interesting character than most of his superhero contemporaries.)

Also, on a purely visual level, the visceral violence in the some of those 2000AD stories just wasn’t seen in the more family-friendly superhero stuff coming from mainstream American comics at the time. And as a red-blooded, story-hungry ten year old, I most definitely wanted a bit of blood ‘n guts in my comics!

Yanes: On this note, when did you know that you wanted to be a comic book creator?

Molver: I think it was hardwired into my genetics somehow! From a very early age I always enjoyed drawing, even in kindergarten I was always scribbling sketches of strange creatures on scraps of paper and frightening the other kids (I managed to avoid getting bullied by simply being too damn weird).
I think both my grandmother’s bedtime stories and my dad’s sci-fi library filled me with a love for storytelling, and when I discovered comic books I quickly decided that this combination of text and image were the most unique, beautiful and effective medium of storytelling. I still believe that.

I refer to the old adage, “A picture speaks a thousand words…” and if you put pictures and words together, you’ve got the best of all worlds – comics.

So I knew comics were what I wanted to do with my life a long time ago, and I’ve been pretty singularly-minded about it ever since… I have a degree in Graphic Design and have worked as a freelance illustrator for many years, but the closest I ever got to a real 9-5 job was slackin’ about as a video store clerk for awhile in my twenties… (and even then, I wrote a short horror comic about it…)

Yanes: As an American, I know nothing about the South African comic book industry. Could you take a moment to tell me about it?

Molver: The ‘South African comic book industry’ as such didn’t really exist until relatively recently. We’ve had some fantastic political cartoonists that were active during the Apartheid years (and still are), doing some very powerful single panel cartoons, but longer-form graphic narratives were more scarce. A creator duo known as ‘Bitterkomix’ was arguably the most well-known in the 90s and early 2000s, its writers making unusual and controversial comic books dealing with race, gender, politics and their own often intensely personal stories, all within the context of South Africa’s turbulent history. The Bitterkomix creators went on to do gallery shows and academic lectures, and were some of the first comic book artists to bridge the gap in public perception between ‘pulp rubbish cartoons’ and ‘fine art’.

There was a bit of an underground scene in the 80s and 90s, but on the whole comics were still not considered ‘legitimate’ literature. Indeed, only in recent years can one walk into a bookstore and enjoy a full graphic novel section of local comic books. Due to increasing interest and attendance, a few years ago ‘Free Comic Book Day’ here in South Africa evolved ago into FanCon; an annual convention of pop culture, cosplay, panel discussions, international guests and of course, local comics.

Events such as FanCon are growing year by year and putting more eyes on local South African comics. However, a lot of these comics are still self-published and distributed by their creators out of their own pockets and time, who themselves maintain day jobs to make a living. There is some amazing talent here in South Africa, creating comics out of pure love for the medium.

Daniël Hugo, Kay Carmichael, Vincent Sammy, Deon de Lange, Jayson Jupiter and Loyiso Mkhize are just a few of the talented South African writers and artists creating work that is of international calibre and beyond.

Yanes: With your experience creating and selling comic books, what are some of the distribution difficulties comic book creators face in South Africa? Are there any specific obstacles you always have to deal with?

Molver: As I mentioned, a lot of South African comic books are independently produced, printed and distributed by their creators. Unfortunately, many bookstores are still resistant to stocking titles that do not have a known publisher behind them. Combined with lingering perceptions of comic books being ‘for kids’, this often makes it difficult to get them into mainstream retailers. However, there are a growing number of smaller stores that stock independent titles, and annual events around the country such as FanCon, ICON and Open Book Comic Festival are becoming more popular and giving more exposure to local talent. This year sees the first ever ‘Comic Con Africa’, to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, so I’m pretty excited to see what kind of interest that brings to the local comic book industry.

I think presently the broader infrastructure and industry support for comic books in South Africa is still somewhat lacking, but with passionate creators, growing fanbases and increasingly regular events, that is beginning to change.

Yanes: Your first project that I learned about was Nero. What is this series about?

Molver: My Nero series was the first big comic project I completed. There are currently two volumes of 68-pages each; written, illustrated and self-published by me, based on an original idea my Dad came up with one day while we chatted sci-fi.

The story of Nero is a cyberpunk tale set in a future dystopian South Africa. The title character, Lazarus Nero is a freelance data-hustler operating in the depths of the Deep Web. While using advanced nanotechnology to turn the moon into an immensely powerful computer processor, he unwittingly builds something capable of distorting reality itself…and once it is discovered what he has done, everybody from the corporations to the street gangs want a piece of Laz Nero and his creation.

The Nero series is my love letter to the sci-fi of my youth, jam-packed with every geek influence that has shaped over the years. The main story arc is the backbone of the Nero universe, but there are so many yarns I’m still intending to spin with those characters!

Yanes: You recently published Shaka Rising. What was the inspiration for this story?

Molver: Shaka Rising was the first large comic project I was actually hired to do from a publisher, Storypress Africa. It tells the story of the real-life Zulu king, Shaka, who unified many South African tribes in the early 19th century using shrewd diplomacy and cunning military strategy. The story is framed against the expanding European slave trade and the influx of foreign settlers to South Africa, but tells the story more intimately from the perspective of the local peoples and their king, Shaka.

The history of Shaka and peoples of southern Africa is as epic, blood-splattered and gripping as any episode of Game of Thrones, Vikings or Rome, filled with themes of family, loyalty, betrayal and ambition. However, the various historical accounts of Shaka have in the past often been wildly diverse and contradictory. In the later 18th and early 19th centuries, tribal histories in South Africa were orally passed from generation to generation, and often tinged with personal bias or myth-making hyperbole. The few written records that do exist from the time were put to paper by white settlers, hunters and smugglers, who each had their own distinct agendas regarding Shaka and the Zulu.

With Shaka Rising, I have done my best to keep the story as faithful to the verified facts as possible, while still retaining the sense of folklore and myth that makes Shaka such an enduringly interesting figure of history.

What I still get a kick out of, is the fact that I live in Durban, South Africa…almost the exact area where the events of Shaka Rising took place almost two hundred years ago. There’s something almost surreal about writing a battle scene and then being able to look out my apartment window and see pretty much the exact spot where it took place. Obviously, urban cityscape covers those ol’ battlefields now, but still…pretty damn cool.

Yanes: How do you feel creating Shaka Rising has improved you as a creator?

Molver: The comic’s main story is based on actual events, but little is known of Shaka the person, so I had a lot of freedom to explore what his character might have been. Moreover, while Shaka is the protagonist of the comic book, he is certainly shaped by those around him, and I have attempted to give equal consideration and complexity to the rest of the cast of characters.

I feel after every comic I write, I get better as a creator. I believe characters are the biggest drive to a story, so I put a lot of thought into their motivations and the dynamics they have with others. I find that the story almost falls into place on its own once the characters have been fully fleshed out. Whether I’m writing a cyberpunk science fiction or a grand historical epic, human motivations and instincts transcend such genre boundaries. I try to imbue my characters with as much humanity – the good parts and the bad – as I can.

Yanes: When people finish reading Shaka Rising, what do you hope they take away from it?

Molver: Firstly, I hope people enjoy it as an exciting tale of epic adventure, a coming-of-age story both grand in scope and intimate in character…

Secondly, I hope people are able to learn more about the fascinating peoples and histories of southern Africa. Shaka Rising includes a section of educational material, explaining certain terms, concepts and traditions that form important parts of Zulu culture. These relate directly to scenes from the comic, and serve to illuminate the larger backdrop of South African history.

Thirdly, I would like Shaka Rising to encourage people to think critically about history and the ways in which it is recorded and conveyed to us. This comic is only one of numerous versions of Shaka’s story and the history of his people. I believe I have been as faithful as possible to the available facts, but I in no way claim this retelling as a definitive history. After reading Shaka Rising, I hope people consider more subjectively the potential biases and prejudices present in recorded histories, not only in South Africa but all over the world.

Yanes: Finally, what are you currently working on that people can look forward to?

Molver: Right now, I’m writing and illustrating the as-yet-unnamed sequel to Shaka Rising, for completion nearer the end of the year. I’m also working on another self-published comic book called “Sunday’s Slave”, a ‘swamp-noir gumbo of southern gothic horror and Faustian devilry, soaked in blues and voodoo’… keep an eye on my website for further updates…

Remember, you can learn more about Molver by visiting his homepage and following him on Instagram at @LukeMolver.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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