Writers distill Mandela's life into slim comic book

Staff WriterMarch 28, 2010 

— For their latest project, Clay and Susan Griffith had to condense the life story of one of the most prominent international figures of the last century into 22 pages.

All while leaving room for cartoons.

The result of this Raleigh couple's work: a comic book biography of Nelson Mandela.

The recently released, full-color comic sells for $3.99 and is a bit of a swerve for this creative team. The Griffiths, each of whom has a "regular" job, have an eclectic library of their own writings. They've written extensively for "The Tick," a popular superhero-spoof comic, and they've penned short stories and a recent graphic novel series on vampires.

The Mandela comic is borne of one of Clay Griffith's areas of professional expertise, as an African history lecturer at Meredith College. (He also works in customer service at the N.C. Library for the Blind.) He pitched the Mandela comic after a publisher expanded a series on famous political women to include men, as well.

The couple, who held a signing event Saturday at Chapel Hill Comics, knew immediately that the biography couldn't be comprehensive.

"You have a man here who is 90 years old who has had an eventful life, and we had 22 pages to do it," Clay Griffith said. "So it's a surface treatment in some respects. It has to be because his life is just so long."

Thus, the couple used a narrative thread to hold the story together. The device, emphasized throughout the comic, is the importance in African cultures of living life as an homage to one's ancestors.

As co-authors, the Griffiths split up the work. Clay Griffith wrote the first draft of the script, and Susan, who works as a freelance editor and designer, then edited and added to it.

The comic is then illustrated by an artist in Argentina whom the Griffiths have never met.

Though historical figures - including prominent black leaders - have long been featured in comic books, the market swelled during the 2008 presidential election. Subsequent comic strips about President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, have proven popular, helping spark a new level of interest in comics about other political figures, said Andrew Neal, who owns Chapel Hill Comics.

A learning tool

Clay Griffith hopes the Mandela comic can be an educational tool.

One woman who attended the signing bought several copies to donate to her library, he said. The Mandela comic and others like it are often used in that way, Neal said.

"It's a quick read, so it's something you can give a younger reader," he said. "It's a good introduction to Mandela or a keepsake for a Mandela fan."

As an academic, Clay Griffith also struggled to present an even-handed, personal profile of one of the world's most revered political leaders.

"There's a tendency with any figure who has reached his stature just to basically repeat myths and basically erect a statue to him," Griffith said. "Obviously he's an important figure, but he's a person too. His life isn't just a path to sainthood."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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