Jember – the first Ethiopian Superhero Comic Book: Tradition Meets Popular Culture – by Eleni Birhane. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Editor’s Note: our profound gratitude to the artist and author Beserat Debebe for the interview, and for the permission to share the beautiful images from this important project. Etan Comics retains all rights.
As a part of the Ethiopian diaspora invested in staying in contact with Ethiopian communities around the world, most of my social media is filled with pages connected to my homeland. From Ethiopian scholars to models to food pages, I try to follow as many pages as possible so I can keep up to date with what Ethiopians are doing. A couple of weeks ago I discovered a page called Etan Comics (etan is an Ethiopian incense most commonly used in our coffee ceremonies) on Instagram and was pleasantly surprised to find out about Jember, the first Ethiopian superhero comic book ever written. It is published both in English and Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) and has been featured on a number of media platforms such as BBC, The Reporter, okayafrica, The Culture Trip and various Ethiopian news outlets.
Jember is about a character named Amanuel Tilahun who recently graduated from university and is looking for a job in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Spoiler: he turns into the superhero Jember. I decided to buy the the first book in the series (the second one was released a few days ago) both because I was interested in the story and because I wanted to support this new Ethiopian enterprise. I had never really read comic books, my only contact with that genre was through superhero movies, so I had no idea what to expect from Jember. When it came I found it was shorter than I thought it would be, but I was mesmerized by all the images, slangs and general style that reminded me so much of home. I enjoyed how it was able to bring together aspects of traditional and contemporary Ethiopia into a new medium. I was also surprised to find a handwritten note from the author Beserat Debebe. I wanted to learn more so I contacted Beserat through Etan Comic’s Instagram page. He responded right away and I was able to ask him my questions.
Q. : Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What made you decide to write Jember and found Etan Comics? Were you inspired by anything in particular?
A. : “I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I came to the United States as a teenager. I have two brothers, one older and one younger. From an early age, I’ve always loved animation, video games and fantasy stories. I used to play a lot with my brothers and our neighbor’s children. We used to watch superhero movies and pretend fight, draw, and just have fun. After I came to the United States, I was introduced to comic books. I loved them but didn’t really want to show that to my friends because I thought they wouldn’t make me look cool. I kept going back to bookstores to read the comic books though. I was attracted to their ability to communicate complex emotions and tell fantasy stories through images and art. Eventually, I “outgrew” them and just started following the TV shows and movies like everyone. Fast forward to 2017, post-graduation and with a few years as an Engineer working in the corporate world, I see news of the “Tibeb Girls” by Bruktawit Tigabu. She created a children’s’ animation clip about three young superhero girls (The Ethiopian Power Puff Girls) who use their superpowers to fight against injustice and the many harmful practices Ethiopian girls routinely face. Though the content was mainly educational, I loved it. That’s when everything lit up in my head. The rest is history.”
Q. :What elements of the book do you think are distinctly Ethiopian or traditional?
A. : “Well, firstly, the storyline takes place in Ethiopia. Not only does this provide readers insight into the day to day lives of people in Addis Ababa, but it also introduces them to a lot of cultural context. For example, the first issue has a taxi scene where a taxi attendant shouts the ride’s destination from his blue and white minibus taxi. This type of scenery is distinct to Ethiopia. There are also other more intricate details such as JEMBER’s costume design. He has a “tilet” design which is unique to Ethiopian traditional cloth pattern. His face paint is also derived from the face paint styles of the Karo tribe in Ethiopia. These elements combined with the historical content included in our stories make our books markedly Ethiopian.”
Q. : Do you have future plans for the publication?
Q. : “In the future, we plan to expand the ETAN COMICS Universe one character at a time. In fact, we have left our fans a surprise at the end of JEMBER Issue #2 (Hint: A new superhero has joined the Universe!) We also want to be a hub for African writers and artists to put out their own work in the comics genre. Furthermore, we hope to translate our content into different mediums such as animation, video games, TV and feature films.
Q. : In the back of the book you write that you want the rest of the world to know the real Africa (instead of the all the negative depictions in mass media) , how do you reconcile with the fact that Africa and Ethiopia face very real problems we need to deal with and that a true description of our nation and continent cannot be made without acknowledging those issues?
A. : “For me, depicting the real Africa does not equate to the dismissal or cover up of the real problems that exist in Africa. My goal is to provide a balanced view of the positives and the negatives. Currently, it is my opinion that the positives are not as highlighted as they should be AND that only specific negatives are highlighted more than others. America has a lot of real problems, but we don’t see the same negative bias in mainstream media. This bias has significant consequences. My goal is to do what I can to diminish this bias.”
Jember and Etan Comics have a bright future. The warm reception the book has gotten shows how the African/Ethiopian people (especially the youth) have been wanting to see their ethnic backgrounds incorporated into the many forms of popular narratives they are interested in. Their culture has evolved to be a hybrid, with interests in both traditional and popular culture. Having a way to express that matters. On top of that, having the source of these comic books be a fellow Ethiopian may inspire different artists to pursue similar endeavors as they try to integrate their backgrounds into their work.
Eleni Birhane serves as a senior editor for The North Star Reports
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