It was imagination and young obsession that became a business. Brothers Nizar and Mahdi Abrahams spent their childhood scouring stores for secondhand Batman and Superman comic books. It helped them transcend the grey backstreets of their home in Athlone, Cape Town.
Twenty eight years later, this childhood obsession has built a thriving business. It is a comic book shop poised to surf the growing wave of interest in the industry. In 2015, comic book sales hit their highest levels ever, $1.03 billion in North America alone, according to The Comics Chronicles. In Africa, interest may be small, but thanks to movies it’s picking up.
Comic books are a surefire bet for the multi-million-dollar movie industry; they come with a readymade fan base and familiar storyboards. Of 2016’s 10 top-grossing movies, six were originally comic books. Top of the list was Captain America: Civil War, which made $1.153 billion, according to Box Office Mojo.
“It’s a quick pitch to somebody, because the visuals are there… Comics are one of the cheapest ways of getting your ideas out there. It’s not like a movie that requires a producer and cameramen. It can be a one-man project. It’s how many artists got their names out there,” says Nizar.
For the Abrahams, it started out as a way to make pocket money for burgers and chips. The brothers sold their secondhand books at a stall in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. They found comic books that sold the fastest and opened their own store, Readers Den, in nearby Long Street. Like Clark Kent it was only just getting out the telephone booth.
“Our first shop didn’t even have a till… The comics must have been speaking to us. We weren’t even thinking about it being a viable business. We knew if it didn’t work we could always go freshen up on our studies and get a ‘real job’. It’s like 25 years later and we are still having a [blast],” says Nizar.
Multi-million-dollar movie deals are as distant as the top of Table Mountain for African writers, but that doesn’t stop any of them from trying. Before getting there, you have to go through the frustration of writing for small audiences on scarce platforms.
“There are South Africans that are working at international standards and struggle to find work. It’s on the fringes. You could produce the best artwork, the best comic books, but if you don’t have a publisher or a distributor it’s pointless, that is critical to make the whole thing work,” says Mahdi.
The brothers say the shop was around the size of a closet when they opened its doors, on Long Street, in Cape Town’s business district. On their first day, more comic books sold on one table than any other goods in the store, says Mahdi with a hint of pride.
The 1990s market saw a boom; collectors were beginning to make millions from selling vintage comic books after holding on to ‘mint’ – that is pristine – editions. It brought a new generation of artists to the fore.
“It was a superficial understanding of the market. People thought you buy up the latest comics and keep them in mint condition, whereas the real investment in comics is the genuine vintage comics,” says Mahdi.
A glut of comic books forced many stores to lower their prices, lose money, and close. The brothers survived and out of the ashes, in the last decade, they rose. TV series, like The Big Bang Theory, and the growing gaming industry also helped to usher in the age of the geek.
“When we started, we used to get those judgy looks. Now it’s become normal,” says Nizar.
Collectors who treasured their comics now see returns in the millions. In 2014, Action Comics #1, which first featured Superman and lays claim to the birth of the superhero, sold for $3.04 million on eBay. It cost 10c in 1938.
This is a world away from the Abrahams brothers. For them, it is not the vintage comics that are the big sellers, but graphic novels. With a catalogue of over 4,000, they bank on selling 100 a month.
Is it no surprise the next big thing to hit Africa will be nerd conventions. Les Allen, founder of GeekXP and the owner of ICON, a comic book convention held in Johannesburg since 1992, has seen this firsthand. When he started out, his convention ran at a recreation center in Sandringham, with, at best, a couple of hundred hardcore fans showing up.
“Conventions are now serious business, and the truly successful ones have a range of activities and attractions, including local and international guests. ICON 2016 took that jump, inviting best-selling fantasy author Raymond E. Feist to be our guest of honor, and hosted over 40 different panels and workshops to entertain and educate,” says Allen.
“These are things we wouldn’t have been able to do if we’d stayed at a rec center. Our 2017 plans are already underway, with one international guest already confirmed, and we’re negotiating with two more.”
Allen believes growth in this industry is down to the mainstream success of movies based on Marvel Comics and television shows based on DC Comics.
“There are also shows like Game of Thrones which have massive followings, a large portion of which haven’t read the books which started back in 1996. These people can be considered ‘fantasy geeks’, but wouldn’t know, or possibly relate, to the tag.”
Conventions are an easy way for companies to connect with fans, just ask Allen who has been a geek since he was nine years old.
“It’s interesting to note that San Diego Comic-Con now touts itself as a ‘pop culture’ event, rather than a comic convention, which reflects their expanded event offerings, even though the original comic book industry is still a large part of it.”
“At a convention, a new fan is exposed to a rich history that they may not have been aware of (remember, Superman first appeared in 1938), which can move them to pick up the comic books and graphic novels.”
“At ICON 2016, our first at Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, in Johannesburg, we had a number of first-timers – people who’d never been to a geek convention at all. Our 2016 attendance figure more than doubled our 2015 number, which was a combination of old-time attendees returning, but also new fans looking to experience things for the first time,” says Allen.
“You can point to rAge as being one of the trailblazers when it comes to geek culture conventions going large in South Africa – it’s now a staple for hardcore gamers and the casual fan alike, and has helped make the idea of a geek convention acceptable.”
Back in Cape Town, the Abrahams brothers are also getting into conventions with their own FanCon and Free Comic Book Day.
“When we started [Free Comic Book Day], which was in 2002, we were lucky to get one or two artists. There was zero interest for the people that attended, they literally would sit there. Eventually we started getting an uptake and we get about 30 to 40 artists a year,” says Nizar.
By contrast, FanCon, held at the V&A Waterfront, drew in 4,000 last year. Fans arrived from as early as 6AM to book their spot in a queue that stretched for hundreds of meters, hours before the convention even started. The turnout was unexpected.
“At some point we even went out to calm people down,” says Nizar.
These events are now bringing in international guests to Africa and are a big chance for local talent to leave an impression.
“Overseas the standard is very high with A-list celebrity appearances and fans camping for days outside the venues. It’s huge money. I think the comic book guys understand we are small,” says Nizar.
The local numbers may not be as big as international conventions, but the demand is growing. Annual events like rAge and ICON which maybe catered for 500 a few years ago are now bringing in tens of thousands.
“Twenty five years as a comic shop. It’s glory days for us, it’s time to go out with guns blazing. We’ve had so much fun reading these comics, it’s about time we brought our heroes to South Africa. This is the best part; these are our heroes, the guys we would never meet. Now we get to meet them face-to-face and pick their brains,” says Nizar.
“You need to remember in the 1940s, when comic books first started, authors didn’t even have their names published with their work,” says Mahdi.
A childhood spent pouring over the pages of heroes to an industry growing into a world of celebrities and lucrative deals.