Already one month ago—an eon in our hyper-speed 24/7/365 news-era—the tributes to Nelson Mandela, dead at 95, flooded news channels, info super-highways and Wi-Fi ports. So what can a comic book offer? Tribute: Nelson Mandela is, after all, the latest in a line of comics from Bluewater including tributes to Frank Capra, Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet this 24-pager mostly avoids being a facile ode to political celebrity, offering instead an imaginative frame for Mandela’s life and a fairly complex context for his South African struggle.
Mandela’s story is one of belief and obstinacy butting heads with injustice until, at last, the brutality of institutionalized bigotry’s ended. It’s a post-colonial tale of a man who went beyond that cliché of “one side’s freedom fighter is the other side’s terrorist” to become, after 27 years in jail, the first democratically-elected leader of his nation—a nation that finally abolished the racial segregation imposed on it by the white minority after more than four decades under its rule.
Still, Mandela’s recent political celebrity—as one of last century’s still-living great resistance leaders, along with Aung San Suu Kyi—has led to some simplistic tributes. Haroon Siddiqui, in a recent Toronto Star column, notes that, though unreported by the mainstream media, Mandela was a supporter of Israel but also a staunch supporter of the PLO (Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu refused to attend the Soweto memorial), support that only magnifies the sense of Israel as an apartheid state, oppressing its own majority population.
Clay and Susan Griffith’s story doesn’t skip over Mandela’s violent opposition to the government in the early ’60s, where he was part of sabotage and bombing campaigns. But they place it within the nation-wide shadow of the state’s constant oppression and violence. Police shootings of protestors in 1976, for instance, just push more to join the resistance.
The book’s opening—where, at Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as PM, the ghosts of a Thembu chief, a Xhosa warlord and Mandela’s law partner and friend Oliver Tambo all gather to look back on his life so far, even arguing with white PM F W Botha—has Mandela informed by the spirits of his past, steeped in a strong historical sense of injustice, and guided and supported by wise elders and brave peers. And he’s not merely defined or controlled by apartheid—that system isn’t explicitly mentioned until almost a third of the way in.
While there’s some stiffness to most frames, with the visuals providing more snapshot-moments than a fluid narrative, Pablo Martinena’s images can still be powerful: photo-like drawings of Johannesburg in 1941; police walking among bodies after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre; Mandela’s requests to leave Robben Island to attend his mother’s and oldest son’s funerals, denied each time.
Only in its last few pages—Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson popping up at Mandela’s third wedding, Diana and Bono appearing like Tussaud waxworks—does Tribute: Nelson Mandela stumble into idolatry, lurching between a Westernized political-celebrity parade and flashes of Mandela’s late-in-life activism.