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Graphic Novel Review: White Shaka Boy by Alan Brody

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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 all 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 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 aspiring rapper, but he is laughed off stage and scorned by other rappers as "nothing but a phoney a 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 an 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, possesses.

Brad decides to go into hiding until he figures out 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 is 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 his problems, and those of his family, 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 (for instance, 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 enlightening when it comes to 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 (or emotionally) plausible. He seems to rely 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 understandable for a self-published book, but still rather painful to the eyes.

A few panels from the book

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 said he 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. However, his heart seems to be in the right place, and his passion for the story shines through. White Shaka Boy would have benefited immensely from a stern editorial hand, mostly in setting the pacing, making the relationships between the characters more believable and weeding out the graphic and textual errors – 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", has only 64 pages, and stops in mid-story, is even more frustrating.

However, I have one final qualm with the project, and it is 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 – all of the work is accredited exclusively to Brody. This may be standard practice in commercial ventures, but is unthinkable 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 (Zulu 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.

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About Adam Klin Oron

  • http://vichus.com Vichus Smith

    I read about you on the BC group, so I decided to see what you were writing about. Good article. I like that people are trying out more than just American comics/graphic novels or manga. From what you’ve read and shown, I don’t think this book would appeal to me, but I think I would at least give it a show because I do not read works outside of the fantastic, fictional stuff.

  • http://www.whiteshaka.com Alan Brody

    MORE THAN THE PRICE AND THE PICTURES…..

    Adam asked me to add these notes to the review since there are relevant factual updates. Yes, this book is trial version of the full 124 page book that will be released in November and only came out in an advance version to be available for viewing at Comic-con.

    The full version will sell for about the same price and the original buyers will be able to buy it for half price.

    As for the art and music credits, they are up on the http://www.whiteshaka.com website along with samples of my original storyboarding. The only reason this didn’t show up on the trial copy of the book is so my collaborators could finish what had to be done without critical interference.

    Now that I got that out the way, a few rebuttals.

    Many reviewers forget to listen to the music, Adam did and rightly, loved it. The music of Imbube by Draztik is there to illuminate the drama of the book and reminds us, as Paul Simon found out with Graceland, South African music is wonderful. I am a fan and even wrote he last song, “Someday” in that idiom.

    As for the criticisms, they boils down to one thing: “Why would a comic book outsider have the temerity to create this book?” The answer is that I was inspired by a truly unique story and by a rising geo-political situation: Africa is really our friend and we need to come to grips with it in a way that doesn’t also gloss over its realities.

    Sorry if the art isn’t up there with Caravaggio’s chiaroscuros…..and if the book looks like it wants to be a movie, so what……

    Interestingly, the people who buy this book – the fans – are teens, often racially mixed. They just want Brad, a/k/a the White Shaka, who of course, isn’t actually white, to do more……and he will. He has yet to discover the lost tribe of the bible or the magic spear – all based on real stories and plausible magic.

    Thanks to this book and the interest it has attracted from schools and libraries, we have teamed up with a major University in New York to produce a conference entitled “Graphica in Education” to bring this visual communication phenomenon to a higher level of understanding.

    That’s also why I wrote this book: I heard something, I saw something and my inspiration was to simply make it happen! No other medium allows a creator to bring people as close to their vision as this, and that’s why I chose to be graphic novelist – with music and live events.

  • http://comicsbyproducts.wordpress.com Adam Klin Oron

    I’d like to thank Alan Brody for taking the time to read the review and even change his site in accordance with some of the points I made.

    However, it’s important for me to say that none of the materials Brody mentions were online when the review was written, nor was it mentioned anywhere that the book is an advance copy.
    If I may be so bold, I would suggest a little more information about Imbube (like the links I have in my review) and Revo Yanson (this is his personal site, by the way) be added to the book’s site – they are very important contributors to the book and deserve more credit.

    Finally, I never said a comic book outsider should avoid entering the medium. On the contrary, I’d be happy to see more diverse subjects in the comics field. However, any enterprise worth doing – and make no mistake, I believe ‘White Shaka Boy’ was worth doing – is worth doing well. The art doesn’t have to be Caravaggio, but it has to aid the story rather than hamper it, and there’s simply no excuse for typos and mis-aligned text in a printed book that is sold to the public (advance copy or final version).

    ‘White Shaka Boy’, in spite of everything, tells an interesting story and, as Brody writes, offers a glimpse into a foreign land many of us would rather ignore. It is for this reasons that the lack of attention to detail is more rather than less important: a good story and an important subject deserve the very best vehicle.