Afrika: Don't Let's Go to the Poachers Tonight / by David Anderson

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Who remembers that movie The Rescuers Down Under? It was like this old, old Disney film (from like the early 90s) about two anthropomorphic mice who save an eagle from a poacher. Also there's like an entire civilization living in a chandelier which was nuts. Also it was a sequel. Anyway, the bad guy was a poacher, and so any time I see some kind of title where the bad guy is a poacher I instantly think of mice fleeing bulldozers in Australia. Afrika is only the second title I have seen in any media to feature poachers as a central plot element so it's not exactly a large sample size I'm using to back up this hypothesis.

Afrika, written by Belgian author Hermann and published in a new collection by Dark Horse Comics, follows the wacky exploits of a European ex-pat who spends his days in Tanzania as a ranger protecting wildlife from poachers when a journalist named Charlotte decides to drop by and ruin his day. All right, "wacky" is the wrong word for potentially violent and deadly work. This guy, Dario Ferrer, likes to keep to himself and his team, so he doesn't take kindly to this reporter's intrusion. However, political machinations by the government threaten to sweep him into a conflict regardless of his attempts at seclusion.

It's interesting in this respect since The Rescuers made anti-poaching a kid-friendly topic, which might have made the message less effective by associating it with Disney and feel-good kiddy stuff, while this anti-poaching content is decidedly more mature and gives an air of badassery to the idea (there's probably a better word for it but I can't think of a more precise phrasing). There's kind of a "Born Free" vibe to it too, what with the whole "White European in Africa commanding a team of Africans doing stuff with animals" thing; you'd think we'd start showing more African protagonists in media about Africa, especially considering Belgium's horrifying history with the continent. Well, might as well judge it based on what it is rather than what it might have been.

This is the first time this work has been translated into English. Consequently the dialogue is occasionally off kilter. It's still generally solid but there will be some places where the sentences kind of rush together. On the whole it works, though, and despite the occasional mis-spaced letter, the writing is good. The dialogue feels real and yet I feel like the character of each person is defined by a particular emotion--Dario is the cynic, Charlotte is naively optimistic, and from those two opening premises they evolve together as the situation changes. The two minor characters featured most, Iseko and a friend of hers whose name is never mentioned, have some kind of tryst, which becomes a minor subplot.

I feel like Hermann started at point A and let his imagination decide whether to go to point B or B4. There is no eventual destination of any kind, but rather the story explores how these characters react to an evolving setting. It's more like, "Let's see where these two end up." I like that structure. It's only 54 pages so even if the storyline is meandering, it is a very condensed meander. It's a bit of a problem since it leaves little time for us to really explore the characters. But it does force the story to be very action oriented, so it always stays interesting.

How to describe the art? Lighting is pretty important here. His shadowing is good too. He makes the most out of his use of watercolors. He went for a highly realistic look, and so characters have a lot of detail on their bodies. Personally I don't prefer the color palette, but it works very well at bringing out the character of the African setting--a dry, hot place where you can sleep outside in a t-shirt at night. Because of how condensed the story is, some of his panel transitions are pretty fast. He does a very good job at distinctly defining facial characteristics of all of these people, and they all look real. By real, I mean they have flaws that look normal. Dario's face is all hard and sun-beaten, Charlotte has a more preserved and pristine look to her face since she doesn't make a living hunting poachers. Nobody here looks like a supermodel, which is nice. The only reservation I have is that it feels like faces, while varied, aren't expressive enough. Still, he's a good artist.

I should probably mention that there's nudity in here, in case that stuff freaks you out.

Okay, I'm a nitpicker, but it's still a decent graphic novel. I think the pacing and lack of depth made it a bit difficult to read for me, but as I don't speak Belgian, I have no way of comparing it to the original text to see if it was always that way or if some key element was lost in translation. But it's still good and I would recommend it. I only wish we could see more black protagonists in this setting instead of the kind of stuff that's permeated this setting since Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. And I don't think that's too nitpicky.

TL;DR: This is a decent graphic novel with fast-paced action and a very strong anti-poaching message. If you like the unusual, pick it up.

Afrika is written and illustrated by Hermann Huppen and published by Dark Horse Comics. You can find this new translation in your local comic book shop or in the Spandexless web store.

A review PDF of Afrika was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.