In celebration of the 91st birthday of Nelson Mandela on July 18, W. W. Norton is publishing Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book, a book collection of a series of biographical comics on the life and accomplishments of the former South African president. The book (which will include a new introduction by Mandela) was created under the direction of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and was produced by several young South African artists working in collaboration with Mandela. The Norton edition collects a series of 8 periodical comics that provide an accessible and comprehensive look at the life of Mandela and makes use of new materials and details not found in prose treatments on Mandela. Indeed, while the authorized biography of Mandela takes his life to 1999, the comic book will cover the years up to 2007. Norton Executive editor Robert Weil, who acquired the book, said “it’s not just a comic book; it’s a graphic book that will take the lead over the traditional biographies of Nelson Mandela.”

The biography-in-comics covers Mandela’s early life and teen years; his rise through the ranks of the African National Congress; his courageous role in the destruction of South Africa’s system of racist apartheid and his election as the first black African president of South Africa. In a phone interview from South Africa with Verne Harris, director of the Memory Program of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, South Africa, which has overseen the production of the book, PWCW discussed the creation of the comic book, Mandela’s role in producing it and the new and unpublished material that will be included in it.

PW Comics Week: Why did you do a comics biography of Nelson Mandela?

Verne Harris: In the early stages of collecting material on Mandela we researched what was available on about him and what was reaching young readers. Very little fresh info about Mandela in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom [first published in 1995] or in the other authorized biographical works on him. There was more information available on him in the archives. We have found that most young people don’t really know much about Mandela, so we wanted to reach out to younger readers with comic books. The comics series was published by Umlando Wezithombe, which released 1 million copies each of a series of 8 periodical comic books [each comprised of 28-page chapters] that were distributed free to newspapers and schools. The book that Norton is publishing is essentially a compilation of the series along with some other content. The comics also offer information about Nelson Mandela that is not found in other sources on him.

PWCW: How was the new material put to use in the comics and did Mandela work closely with the team that produced it?

VH: These materials were used as primary sources for the visual representations of people and events in Mandela’s life. We found a photograph of him at about 18 years old and we could see that our representations of him as a young man were close to the photo documentation. We worked closely with him when we did preliminary drawings of him and his family. For instance, there are no photographs of his father—who was a chief—so we were able to get images from Mandela and from other family members. Ahmed Kathrada, one of his oldest friends and a comrade from his days in prison on Robben Island, and other friends and associates offered extensive information and Mandela gave us information on how he addressed his father and mother and how they dressed. Madiba [his nickname and the name Mandela’s ethnic clan] had a picture of his mother taking off his father’s shoes. Madiba told us that his father generally wore traditional dress but would wear a western suit and shoes when he went to visit in town. So the trips were very painful to his feet and Madiba’s mother would help and take off his father’s shoes.

PWCW: Are there other examples of new information on Mandela that makes its way into the comics?

VH: There’s a 2-page spread on circumcision, a critical ritual for males in his culture, that is also surrounded by a taboo—which Mandela breaks by talking about it in comics. We got details and new dimensions on the ritual from him. It’s a very dramatic ritual and after the ritual has been done the hut in which it takes place is burned. The boys are supposed to walk away from the hut without looking back. He broke the custom and looked back.

PWCW: I understand that there is also new information about Mandela’s 1962 trip through Africa that is used in the comics and has not been used by other biographers. [In 1962 Mandela went underground and traveled around Africa and elsewhere, after which he was arrested, convicted of incitement and sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island].

VH: Yes, he recorded details of his 1962 trip across in Africa in a diary that was later used by police as evidence against him. The diary was later stolen by the prosecutors. We recovered the diary and were able to use details from it in the comics. The comic also offers new details on the writing of his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, and gives the story of how that book came to be written in prison and about the comrades Madiba knew there who collaborated with him. The comic has a detailed account of how the book was written.

PWCW: Has the comics series been collected into a book collection in South Africa and if so, how has the book collection been received?

VH: His autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1995 and Mandela’s authorized biography [by Anthony Sampson] was published in 1998. We cover the last ten years of his life in the comics. While we wanted fresh angles for the comic, the thrust of the project was to translate his life into an accessible source. You can’t overload the reader or let them get bogged down. The comics series has been collected into a book and has been released in South Africa. We released about 10,000 copies of the book; but you have to understand that with the poverty, books don’t reach great numbers of South Africans. Now we’re looking to convert the comic book series into an animated TV series. The pilot has been completed and we’re in discussions now with the broadcasting and we’re very close to signing a deal.

PWCW: One of the most striking features of Mandela’s public personality has always been his great sense of humor. I understand a section of the comic discusses his regrets about the lack of expressive emotion in his family when he was growing up?

VH: Humor has always been important to Mandela. He teases people relentlessly and enjoys being teased himself. When we asked him if he grew up with humor expressed in his family circle, he told us, no. Remember he was brought up in the family of a chief. [Mandela’s father was principal councillor to the Acting Chief and as a child Mandela became the ward of the Paramount Chief when his father died in 1927]. He told us that they were not allowed to show emotion. He said once that he never saw his mother laugh. He also told us that he now sees it as his duty to put people at ease and to distract them from the pain of their daily lives. But there’s more to Mandela—there’s a mischievous side to his personality. And even in his prison years, he spoke of how they always talked about funny things; joking and trying to turn something bleak into something humorous draws on all your humanity.