Zeno’s Paradox: the making of

As I explain on the introductory page to the short comic on Zeno’s Paradox, this one was a hard one to make. Not because of the technicality of the drawings, or the twists of the plot (it is, after all, a rather simple story), but because, precisely, of the fact that it is pretty straightforward (at least, at first sight).

It basically started when I was thinking of drawing a short comic to get familiar with my new drawing pad, and as so often I got carried away by the possibilities offered by this new gizmo. For a week or two, I spent my evenings drawing tortoises and antelopes (in a way, according to my housemates, that reminded them of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining), and brushed off my knowledge of Namibian flora and fauna.

Mr. Tortoise, by the way, is modelled after a serrated tortoise (Psammobates oculifer); Mr. Duiker after a grey or common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia).

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Makalani nuts, expertly carved and personalized to sell as souvenirs.

But a realist approach did not really work, in the sense that it did not serve the narrative. I was stuck, until I remembered my collection of carved makalani nuts –the souvenirs that vendors try to sell to tourists and that usually depict animals and geometrical motives. This tourist art also inspired me to, besides the black and white original, come up with a colour version using the basic colour triad of black, red, and white.

These nuts, by the way, are the fruit of the real fan palm (Hyphaene petersiana). 

The next step then was that I threw out most of what I already had and instead turned towards a way more stylized, almost abstract drawing style, using heavy, straight and angled lines and throwing overboard most of the background detail, exception made for the palm trees. The thickset lines, the simple colour scheme, large frames and overall “flatness” of the graphics also serve to underline the fact that it concerns a story or parable, with a simple –though unclear– message.

Therefore, this little story served as a powerful reminder that it is often way more difficult to reduce and cut unnecessary detail than to hide behind complexity and convolution.

Never let reality come in the way of a good story.

Or not quite: what this means (and I am not talking here about our friends of the popular press) for anthropology is that narrative style, or even genre, should be functional to the message or analysis you want to bring. At the same time, what you say is highly dependent on how you say it (and vice versa).

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The making of: moving from rather realist to highly stylised ink drawings…

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Masking

The fear of creating a chimera bred by the cross-over of fact and fiction (see elsewhere, On drawing) was also one of the reasons to opt for making the actors in “Six Circles” wear masks, even though people in Kaoko have no tradition in that sense. Neither do tourists or filmmakers. Inspiration I drew from a longstanding tradition in comics (say, Spider-Man, or Will Eisner’s Spirit) and graphic novels (such as Sokal’s Canardo), but also from the work by Sammy Baloji (who photographed his subjects wearing African masks) or by the Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo (who bodypaints his models with white line drawings), famous nowadays for his collaboration with Beyoncé Knowles on the video for her Lemonade album.

But these masks also serve a purpose beyond a mere aesthetic choice. First, some of my older interlocutors expressed their reservations as to them being portrayed (see Six Circles, page 2), so I needed to find of way of picturing them that would take their objections into account. At the same time, I also wanted the drawings to be somewhat realistic and not too cartoonish, also because African characters –as quite a few comics on my shelf illustrate, including a few titles set in Kaoko– are all too often presented in a rather caricatured way.

But there is more. Scott McCloud (1993) points out that what he refers to as “masking” –the iconic abstraction of figures and especially faces so common in graphic novels and (early) mangas– is a crucial feature of graphic story-telling. Abstracting facial features, especially when set against more realistic backgrounds, allows the audience get involved in the story and to identify with the characters, to “mask themselves in a character” (McCloud 1993, 43). In his words, “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” (McCloud 1993, 41). So as part my graphic experiment I decided to interpret this concept rather literally.  By using masks rather than faces, I wanted to invite the reader to get involved in –get drawn into– the dialogue and visual narrative. Again an afterthought: is this process of masking that different from the ways anthropologists usually introduce the persona (Narayan 2007, 134) or characters (Pyne 2009, 156) that populate their accounts?