Kariba: what a wonderful world


Kariba: what a wonderful world

An African graphic novel created in Cape Town delights NATHAN TRANTRAAL.


THE cover art for Daniel and James Clarke’s graphic novel Kariba reads as a statement of intent, a promise to the reader. It is a layered design where even the white negative space gets subtle attention in the form of a faded wave pattern that conjures the texture of a seashell. Stacked atop that is the title in a warm, hand-drawn golden font. The elegant and beautifully composed centrepiece is an illustration that mimics the effect of a double-exposed image of the main character, the Zambezi River, and an island. Part of the cover is also double-embossed. There is an abundance of detail that casual readers may easily overlook but that will leave a strong impression on avid comic book fans. Every aspect of Kariba was clearly constructed with love, care, and presumably a great deal of effort. 

Created by two Cape Town brothers and published by Catalyst Press, it is a solid volume at more than 200 full-colour pages. The main story centres on Siku, a little girl who lives in a small village with her father, Tongai. He found her as an infant while on a treasure hunt, and raised her as his own. Siku has supernatural powers but Tongai insists on concealing and suppressing them in fear of the prophecy that hangs over his daughter’s head.  

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Siku has a powerful connection to the Zambezi and its guardian spirit, Nyaminyami. This connection draws several factions into her orbit, each with its own agenda but all connected to the construction of the Kariba Dam. The story takes place at the intersection of history and folklore. Some of the settings are real, like the dam, and even the folklore is based on real myths. But everything is tied together in a way that exists slightly outside of reality, similar to reimaginings of Japanese folk tales. This suits the story well, allowing the writer to employ historical elements without getting bogged down in accuracy. It’s a lively adventure with pirates, magic and aeroplanes. 

The fantasy elements never overwhelm the human aspects, and the creative team works hard to create a real sense of place. The story unfolds simply, with a central mystery that most readers will solve long before the end. But this comes across as an intentional choice, as the pleasure lies in the journey rather than the destination. And it is quite a journey, illustrated with meticulous attention to detail, as first glimpsed on Daniel Clarke's cover. 

Clarke’s drawing style is a fascinating blend of American animation and anime in the style of the world-renowned Studio Ghibli from Japan,  foregoing the crosshatching and shadows common in comics. While such techniques can hide imperfections, Clarke’s clear line style lays everything bare. Yet his confident, honed skill as an animator for Triggerfish and others shines through. (On a sidenote, I would encourage anyone with a Disney+ subscription and an interest in animation to check out Clarke’s short film Aau’s Song. It’s part of the Star Wars: Visions anthology series, and I found it to be easily the best episode of all.) 

The visual storytelling has impressive fluidity and dynamism. It is immensely satisfying to see African characters rendered in a style more commonly associated with Japanese and European tales. The character designs are also well executed. I particularly liked the designs of the spirit medium, Maalila. His appearance is menacing and feels slightly darker than the rest of the cast, which contrasts nicely with the fact that he is one of the wiser characters in the book. The design for the monster, Nyaminyami, also deserves special mention. 

One criticism I have is that the drawing would have benefited from a clearer, more defined inking style. As it is, it looks like the pencils were coloured directly. This is a trend that’s gained popularity in America in recent years, and I think it underestimates the value a good ink artist contributes. As a result, the artwork slightly resembles conceptual storyboard sketches. However, this is a highly subjective opinion aligned with my personal tastes; another reader may find this unfinished look to be the main appeal. 

There is great artistic synergy between the Clarke brothers. James, who handles writing duties, is never afraid to let the artist tell the story visually. Often in comics, part of the writer’s job is knowing when text is unnecessary. James Clarke understands this well. Many panels are driven primarily by the visuals, with the text gently guiding the reader like a gentle wind leading them along their route. The dialogue, when it appears, unfortunately sounds a little generic. The sort of speech that exists only in fiction. For example, two characters sit in a boat talking: 

Rock: Tongai, if we make it back alive, will you do me a favour? 

Tongai: What’s that Rock? 

Rock: Remind me never to get into a boat with you. 

Tongai: “No risk, no reward!” Remember? I can almost smell the treasure!  

It could be argued that the story is written for children, but that would be patronising to younger readers and the creators of Kariba. Like the art, the story borrows from Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and blends it with African mythology to create something unique. The Ghibli influence is also evident in the writer’s refusal to put characters into neat hero or villain boxes. Their roles quickly shift depending on their needs, and even Siku’s father is not immune to selfish or short-sighted behaviour.

At its heart, Kariba is an environmentalist fable that tries not to take sides. There is an underlying tension between progress and the preservation of nature and tradition. This push and pull will always exist, and there will always be people who prioritise progress above all else, just as there are people who resist change. The character of Siku embodies this conflict, caught between the spirit and human worlds. 

Where Kariba excels is in its depiction of the world. Many quiet moments don’t advance the plot but linger on the environment and animals. This has the dual benefit of giving readers a pause to breathe and absorb the story, and of reminding them of how beautiful the world is. And that it’s worth taking care of. 

Who, what, where and how much?

Kariba by Daniel and James Clarke was published by Catalyst Press and costs R477 at Loot.

♦ VWB ♦

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