Standing up for diversity and representation in mainstream comics is an exercise in patience, persistence, and outright determination. You gotta have stamina for this, because it’s been a long fight and it looks like we’re to be in it for a while. Sometimes it feels like we’re still waiting for the Big Two to catch up, to recalibrate their fictional universes so that they can better reflect the racial and cultural make-up of the real world and its readers.
To be fair, things are getting better. And while some of the long-established characters have seen success in swapping their racial identities (such as Sam Wilson becoming Captain America for a period of time and Kamala Khan becoming the permanent Ms. Marvel), some creators prefer to step into the arena themselves and try to even the playing field with all-new characters, on their own terms. Ethiopian comics writer Beserat Debebe is one such creator. Debebe is the founder of ETAN Comics, a creative platform that, according to its website, seeks to “Entertain, Empower, and Educate” through the production of African superhero comics.
ETAN Comics started out with JEMBER, a comics series about the world’s first ever Ethiopian superhero. Already two issues in, its story seems to be expanding rather quickly to make space for its own shared universe, where African heroes lead the way.
Debebe’s success with JEMBER has allowed him to move forward with his second comic book series HAWI, a new story centered on Ethiopia’s first ever female superhero. HAWI is currently running on an already successful Kickstarter campaign and looks to be a strong entry for ETAN Comics. The universe is holding quite steady.
I had a chance to talk with Beserat Debebe on what HAWI means to him, what we can expect from ETAN Comics, and what the future of African superheroes looks like. It follows below.
Ricardo Serrano: Can you elaborate on what ETAN Comics is and what inspired it?
Beserat Debebe: I started ETAN COMICS because I couldn’t wait any longer for an Ethiopian Superhero to exist. I have read comics, fantasy stories and watched superhero movies since I was 13. Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed how much comics and the movie industry have grown. But 15 years later, there still isn’t one Ethiopian Superhero. I really wanted it to exist so I decided I’m going to create it. It was a scary decision full of impostor syndrome but I am SO glad I did it. It was and still is one of the best decisions I have made in my life. ETAN COMICS is a platform dedicated to creating fresh African fantasy stories via mediums such as comic books and graphic novels. We hope to expand into other segments such as animation and more as we grow.
Serrano: Classic superhero characters have a long tradition of borrowing elements from Western myths, often times to represent and uphold Western values. How do you approach African superheroes and the ideas they stand for?
Debebe: We do draw inspiration from East African mythologies and history, however, we don’t intentionally articulate “African Values.” Our goal and vision is to show that African stories are human stories. We want to highlight themes of courage, self discovery, responsibility, humility, and so on in the worlds we live in. They are not foreign concepts. They are universal truths found in every culture.
Serrano: Your new comic, HAWI, is set in present day Ethiopia and is inspired by Yodit Gudit, a 10th century Ethiopian queen. How did you decide this character was the next big step for ETAN Comics and what drew you to Yodit Gudit’s story?
Debebe: I’ve always been interested in the story of Queen Yodit Gudit because of the mystery that surrounded her. In Ethiopian history, she is remembered as a villain because she was responsible for the destruction of the Axumite Empire (an Empire that reigned over Ethiopia for over 700 years). She burned a lot of architectural monuments, churches and also attempted to wipe out the remaining members of the royal family. There is a lot of speculations as to her motives for this rebellion. When you have a mysterious Queen who rises up to overthrow the most powerful Kingdom of the century and a lost motive, there is an amazing story waiting to be told. That is the story I want to tell.
Serrano: Are you thinking about a wider shared universe for your characters? Maybe even an Avengers-style book in the long run?
Debebe: Yes. We are building a shared universe one character at a time. We have multiple characters and crossovers we hope to introduce in the future.
Serrano: Why do you think it’s important for Ethiopia to have its own superheroes? Or even Africa for that matter?
Debebe: It’s important because there are a lot of Ethiopians and Africans who may not feel like they are important or capable of making a difference in society. Seeing someone like them as a superhero, someone who has lived through their experience and conquered its challenges to become a symbol of inspiration and good, empowers and encourages them to unleash their full potential.
These depictions will also help non-Africans see Africans in a new way. There is an overwhelming bias to paint Africans as people who need help rather than people who offer help. This one sided story is not all there is about Africans. In every African country, there are people performing amazing acts of bravery, innovation, resilience, etc… and we just want to do our part to highlight these traits through our stories.
Serrano: HAWI’s Kickstarter campaign is already wildly successful, surpassing its goal early on. What can we expect next from ETAN Comics?
Debebe: Yes, we have had an amazing response and continue to get more support. Funds we get that go over our goal allows us to produce more books and to attend comic con conventions to present our books to a wider audience. In the long term, we would love to take our stories to animation and live action shows/movies.
Ricardo: Looking forward to it! You’ve got an amazing universe in the making.
Ricardo Serrano is a Social Studies teacher with a Master’s Degree in Comic Books from the University of Dundee in Scotland. He’s also the co-creator of Se Habla Comics, a Puerto Rican podcast geared towards Spanish-speaking comic book readers.