Interview by Chantel Erfort, editor of Cape Community Newspapers(courtesy of Cape Community Newspapers)
Q: Give me an abridged version of your life story.
A: I grew up in Heideveld, not as infamous as our next door neighbour Manenberg, but there were moments. As a youngster my interests were mainly drawing and movies, and I read as much as I could, mainly newspapers, magazines, a few novels, newspaper comics, satirical comics like MAD magazine, but mainly stuff related to movies. I remember when I was eleven or twelve, while the other kids where spending their money on sweets and chocolates, I saved up for a movie magazine subscription. I was obsessed about finding out about the latest films. Those magazines were like my internet. I also found myself reading a lot of movie reviews, even though I wasn’t allowed to see many of them.
Q: Are you a professionally trained graphic artist?
A: Yes I am. I studied graphic design at the Cape Technikon as it was known then, now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and graduated with a national diploma. But I found it extremely difficult to get a job in the industry after I graduated and was forced to do whatever work I could to get by. I decided that instead of getting depressed about it I could use this opportunity to be proactive about my future and express who I am and what I’m capable of by creating this graphic novel, and perhaps also inspire people about what you can achieve if you have a dream and the passion and determination to bring it to life.
Q: Do you read many graphic novels?
A: Strangely enough, I wasn’t really a big fan of reading comics growing up. Yes, I admired the artwork and endlessly copied them, but something about the superhero genre didn’t really appeal to me, and that was also the only kind that was available at the time. My only real exposure to graphic novels came when I studied graphic design. The library at Cape Tech had a small collection of graphic novels and that’s where I got my first taste of the longer format, and even though many of them were simply the serialised, monthly comics put together in book form, I was excited by the possibilities it offered in creating my own comic that was as thick as a book, my own movie in a book so to speak. But even today I’m not able to read many graphic novels because not only are they not widely available, they’re quite a bit expensive, and since South Africa is behind the curve concerning graphic novel awareness, you won’t be finding them in libraries anytime soon.
Q: Who are your favourite writers, and who are your main influences?
A: Looking back, I think being exposed to a lot of genre films in the eighties influenced me more than anything else, and consequently that was the kind of stuff I was looking for but couldn’t find in comics. Films were such a big influence for me, especially in the action and thriller genres, that I yearned to make my own films, and since I was able to draw I started expressing that desire by making comics out of the films that excited me and also making comics I wanted to read. In terms of the graphic novels I’ve since been exposed to, I don’t have any favourite writers in the genre as don’t think I’ve read enough of them to make a proper assessment, but I do tend to gravitate towards genre orientated creators, people like Frank Miller, the author of the Sin City series. The first time I saw the stunning art in Sin City it blew me away, something never before seen in comics, the dark, gritty, inverted nature of the graphics echoing the twisted nature of the stories. In terms of illustration, however, I am an admirer of Will Eisner, reportedly the father of the graphic novel, whose art is bold yet his line work still expresses graceful fluidity. I was also heavily influenced by the graphic novel Watchmen where the artist Dave Gibbons maintained a strict grid-pattern layout because he didn’t want such a great story to get lost in flashy artwork, which is a brave move for an illustrator and something I wished to emulate in Project H.
Q: What inspired you to write Project H?
A: I initially wanted to write a short story about what makes a criminal, why does someone become a gangster, and can that person change just as he is about to kill another person. It was going to be in the form of a dialogue between that other person and the gangster, and was going to be a sort of character study. But there was a thriller lurking in the shadows that hijacked the story, and then it evolved from one idea to the next until it eventually ended up being a murder mystery. And that’s about all I remember. If that sounds too vague, I’m sorry but a lot of time has passed since I came up with the idea. Stories have a weird way of just sneaking up on you unannounced, then growing on you until they become huge, fully formed adults that you eventually let loose into the world so that they can work for you and give you money, which they have yet to do.
Q: What does the H represent?
A: One of the main themes running through Project H is duality, good versus evil, right versus wrong, science versus religion, and I think H is the perfect letter to represent that duality. The letter H is perfectly symmetrical, left and right sides in opposition, and many of the words that begin with H are diametrically opposed to one another, like heaven and hell, hurt and heal, hate and hope, so for me it was important for the H to be mysterious, dubious, is it this or could it be that, and perhaps to leave it up to the readers to decide what the H means for them.
Q: Tell me about the strong Christian theme in the book.
A: I think for me the driving force in creating Project H was to first and foremost create an enjoyable work of fiction that at the end of the day can be appreciated for that reason alone. But in the storytelling process I was presented with many opportunities to add more layers to the story that didn’t take away from that main motivation yet took the story beyond just any ordinary thriller, and took it to a level I think we haven’t seen before in this genre. Even though I am a Christian and the story has religious elements, I think for believer and non-believer this story has moments for both sides to hopefully grapple with and won’t be as simplistic as this one is right and that one is wrong. So instead of being dogmatic I’m hoping it will be challenging. Pardon the pun, but heaven knows I’ve been bored to tears with a lot of dull faith-based fiction that passes as entertainment and I believe a story should entertain without insulting anybody’s intelligence. The problem with most faith-based work is that they sacrifice originality in order to preach, and that kind of banal storytelling is to me what Kryptonite is to Superman.
Q: Explain how much of an impact growing up on the Cape Flats had on the story.
A: I just recently moved to Mitchells Plain, and I lived most of my life in Heideveld in a council flat, and that definitely had an impact on the story. I even depicted the location where I lived in the book, albeit with some alterations. The story of Project H grew out of the circumstances that I was surrounded by everyday living there, the poverty, the violence, the drug abuse, the misery, but I was fortunate enough to be raised in a loving and supportive household that cancelled out a lot of the negativity, not that it was a bed of roses either. I was often frustrated living in such an unpleasant and disruptive environment because I often needed peace and quite to write and illustrate my book, but I guess that frustration was put to good use in helping to bring out the angst in my protagonist Sam Hart. Considering that I was surrounded by such negativity I easily could have ended up yet another victim of the ghetto, but thanks to parents who cared enough for me, I didn’t, and I think that’s the key if the Cape Flats is ever going to heal itself.
Q: Is this purely a work of fiction, or are there elements of your own life contained in Project H?
A: It’s both, like I said it reflects a little bit about where I grew up and the faith I was brought up in. But 99% of the story is pure fiction and grew out of my desire to tell an entertaining story that has more in common with a mainstream thriller than another hard-hitting, sombre, Cape Flats drama. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of stories, but there’s quite a few of them out there already, and I wanted to try something no one else has done before with the focus primarily on entertainment. But you’ll be surprised to find how much drama and depth is weaved in between all the thrills, so there’s something for everyone really.
Q: Has the book been well received?
A: Generally the book has been well received but because it seems like I’m the first person in the country to have published a book-length graphic novel I find myself having to educate people about what a graphic novel is, that it’s not graphic, as in violent or explicit, and it’s not a kiddies comic book. It’s actually a mature story, told with pictures and words, that anyone from teenagers to senior citizens will enjoy reading, just like when they sit in front of the TV to enjoy the latest episode of Prison Break or CSI. Another all too common problem I’ve experienced is the hesitation with which local readers view our home-grown creations, thinking it won’t be as good as the imported stuff. Well, those people may be pleased to discover that a top US pop-culture website called Ain’t It Cool News has given it a glowing review, which they can read via my website and then make up their own minds.
Q: What is your opinion on the importance of reading?
A: Reading is important because it allows you access to information. Even though we live in a very visually orientated world, the written word is still the quickest and most direct way to express an idea or spread knowledge when compared to visual media, where the costs involved in presenting something visually, as in a documentary for example, can quickly become unaffordable. This is where reading becomes important because it enables you to access and make use of that written information. Especially in today’s world where the internet is so prevalent, the ability to read becomes even more important because the internet is capable of facilitating the speedy delivery of information from all corners of the globe. The world of information, and the benefits of that information in terms of personal growth and development, is available literally at your fingertips, and reading is our access to that world. I’m sure there are many other experts who can talk about how engaging in the act of reading itself, the act of deciphering and comprehending words, is a benefit in its own right, but from my perspective as a storyteller, the immediacy of text to express an idea is important, and as a graphic novelist, the immediacy of an illustration is equally important.
Q: There is a school of thought that children should be encouraged to read ANYTHING, including comics, which has largely been ignored in literacy programmes. How do you think graphic novels can impact on literacy levels, particularly among younger people?
A: I think it has the potential to have a very positive impact on literacy because, like it or not, the youth of today have been tremendously influenced by visual media and find text less interesting by comparison. I think that the presence of an illustration in and amongst the words will help them engage more willingly with the text, because it is appealing to their visual sensibilities. With graphic novels and a skilled artist you have the potential to integrate boring text seamlessly with the attractive image in such a way that they are co-dependant, so that the images won’t make sense without the words and vice versa. This way when the picture is hinting at something interesting and they want to learn more, they’ll be more eager to read the text to find out. I’ve seen a few graphic novels recently based on classics such as Jane Eyre and Great Expectations and also a few Shakespearean graphic novels containing the original text that had me wishing I had them back when I was still at school.
Q: I notice elements of Cape Flats slang has been included in the story. How do you balance using language authentic and true to the story, without alienating readers who may not be familiar with this kind of slang?
A: That’s a good question, and a challenge that I had to confront early on in the process, because I wanted the book to be authentic to the our local Cape culture yet also be accessible to the widest possible audience, and that required that I pay very careful attention to the way I crafted the story, and I came upon the idea to structure the dialogue in such a way that if you didn’t understand certain words, you’d still be able to get what the characters are talking about, and I had to be conscious of that process the entire time. I think that it’s important for us in this global age not to be too insular with our culture and take this opportunity to have it set sail and spread across the world so that other people can also share in our way of life and discover that even though we may be different and unique, deep down we are all the same and want the same things from life and are all connected to each other.
Q: You mentioned that this book is self-published. Is this very costly? Did you have any support? Do you have any advice for writers who would like to self-publish?
A: Yes, self publishing is quite costly, but with print-on-demand technology it’s not nearly as expensive as having books printed the traditional way, which can set you back in the tens of thousands just for a minimum print run. With print-on-demand you can set your book up to be printed for under ten thousand rand, and then you can have them print as many or as little books as you need, even if you only need one book. The only drawback, however, is that your unit cost per book is higher. I supported myself entirely on this project, financing it with my own money and doing as much of the work I could do myself in order to save money, but the hard work eventually paid off and I have a book to show for it. With regards to advice for writers who want to self-publish, my cynical answer would be don’t do it, but that’s the kind of advice that I’ve been given and I went ahead anyway. The bottom-line is, how passionate are you about your story and how badly do you want it out there? For me, nobody could give me a good enough reason for not putting my book out, even when they said I’ll never make back my money, because getting this story out there was a force too strong for me to ignore, and I would’ve been in my own personal hell had the story just lay in a drawer somewhere gathering dust. So win or lose, I had to express myself, and if anyone else feels the same way, then nobody should be allowed to kill your vision. Only you.