In the 19th century, John Dunn, a white South African hunter, became quite a sensation when he was declared a ‘White chief of the Zulu’: the British gave him the largest piece of land of the thirteen chiefs of Zululand, and The New York Herald ran a piece on him in 1881.
Over a hundred years later, Alan Brody, another South African – currently living in Scarsdale, New York – was inspired by this story to write White Shaka Boy. It is an imaginary retelling of the story of one of John Dunn’s (renamed Robert Mahon in Brody’s tale) descendants, a young denizen of New York City by the name of Brad Mahon.
Bard is an inspiring rapper, but he is laughed off stage and scorned by other rappers as “nothing but a phoneya no-talent white boy” (sic), so he decides to go to college, where he applies for financial aid. Much to his surprise, his request is turned down because the college officials have discovered he is a heir to a Zulu kingdom in South Africa. Intrigued, Brad flies to Durban, the biggest city in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal (formerly Zululand). There, he quickly finds himself neck-deep in local politics: his family, the Mahons, claim the land is their own; some squatters have settled on the land and refuse to move out; Tsotsis, local crime gangs that plague the poor townships, abound; and a white-owned sugar cane company is also – somehow – involved. Everybody seems to be after the deed to the land – which Brad, it turns out, is in possession of.
Brad decides to go into hiding until he figures what’s going on, so he moves to the tourist town of Umhlanga, where he teams up with local talent Mbuwase and the two spread their hybrid hip-hop African/American music. Brad also gets romantically involved with a Zulu girl by the name of Busi, and with Elizabeth, a white lawyer with questionable allegiances.
But some mysterious people are in Brad’s pursuit, and he forced to hide in the bush with a local witch doctor (Inyanga). Soon, Brad is tired of all of this hiding, and he decides to solve the problems once and for all, with the help of a new weapon – music!
White Shaka Boy is Brody’s first work of fiction – hitherto he has been involved mostly in marketing: doing it or writing about it. It is, needless to say, also his first graphic novel. Regrettably, it shows.
Story-wise, the book is not half-bad. True, there are several flaws: the politics are a bit confusing and the time-scale is vague (just a day after Brad lands in Durban, we learn a few months have passed since he learned about his roots, although in the book only one panel has transpired), to name just two of the more obvious problems. And yet, it’s a compelling story and rather eye-opening when it comes to the contemporary and historical circumstances of living in South Africa: Brody manages to weave historical, political and cultural lessons into the narrative without making it seem forced, and Brad makes for an interesting character.
As a graphic novel, though, White Shaka Boy falls short of the mark. The paneling, as can be seen below, is badly handled, with one panel seeping into the next and text-balloons spreading all which ways. Too much of the dialogue reads like a script, and while Brody manages to make individual characters have distinct speech patterns, he fails in making their interactions seem verbally plausible. He seems to relay on the drawings to provide the context to the dialogue, but too much action is packed into too few panels, and the lack of proper background art for the protagonists to work in makes it all seem detached and artificial.
The main problem, however, is the art itself. All of it was done on a computer, and is rather minimalistic and bland. It is, to put it bluntly, amateurish work – which is quite alright for self-published books like this, but not for 64-page books that cost $19.95.
While Brody’s motives for writing the book are not exactly clear – in a Scarsdale Inquirer interview he claimed to be doing it in order to promote the music CD that comes with the book, but also aims to sell it to school libraries as a means of teaching children about contemporary Africa; in an interview to Wizard he emphasizes his wish to tell stories with pictures and to turn the story into a movie – his heart seems to be in the right place.
White Shaka Boy would have benefited immensely from a stern editorial hand (which would have also weeded out the occasional typo), mostly in setting the pacing the making the relationships between the characters more believable- but even in its current crude form, and if one regards it more as a story than a graphic story, it’s rather captivating. This makes the fact the book is only "volume 1", and stops in mid-story, even more frustrating.
However, I have one final qualm with the project, and its a substantial one: in the interviews above, Brody mentions that he sketched the book, and then sent it overseas to a professional artist. This identity of this artist is not revealed, and in the book itself he is not even mentioned – the complete work is accredited exclusively to Brody. This may be standard practice in commercial ventures, but is almost taboo in the comics business: you always give credit where credit is due; anything else would be, to say the least, unkind.
The situation with the music CD that comes with the book is similar. The CD label says “Music by Imbube”, but no details are given anywhere in the book or the website. Who are Imbube? Are all of the tracks in the CD by the group? I had to do some web digging for the answer to the first question, and have no way of discovering the answer to the second. The music itself is excellent – urban South African hip hop with inspired application of vocals, horns and strings – but the book does the music a disservice by giving Imbube (the Zulu word for "lion" and a duo composed of musicians Beruit and Khanya) the most minimal credit possible.
All in all, White Shaka Boy is a mixed blessing. In the Western world, not enough is known about contemporary Africa, and the book does a decent job in attempting to rectify this to a small degree. If the credit was duly distributed, if more effort would have been put into the art, if better editing would have been applied – it could have been a diamond. At the moment, and for $19.95 you can only spend via the official site (the book is not available via Amazon, for instance), it is a rather expensive, and quite flawed, gem.