With the ever increasing number of Black comics being offered to readers, an African publishing company aims to share its culture and create a new generation of readers. Meet Vortex. I had the opportunity to interview Somto Ajuluchukwu, Creative Director and CEO of Vortex Comics, to discuss Black heroes, African culture, and the future of publishing.
Black Nerd Problems: Vortex Comics is fairly new to the comics’ space and is joining the wave of media coming out of Nigeria. What was the idea behind creating Vortex, and what kind of stories do you want to tell?
Somto: Vortex was born from a deep love of culture and arts; it also originated from a thirst to express African lifestyles and tradition, developing community and expression like an arts company but with the growth and scale potential of a technology company. With our focus on digital arts and animation we have crossed a fine plane between these two worlds.
In much simpler terms, I remember waking up at 2:30 am, not as a kid, but as grown man to continue the story of Batman and Robin: “The Wonder Boy,” written by Frank Miller. I was most drawn to the expression of lifestyle and social circles and realized how important media is as a tool for re-branding Africa and exporting our culture, and I realized what this wild imagination I had was meant for.
The hurdle was which stories do we tell, and how do we express these stories not just as comic books or cartoons, but as defining milestones in the lives of this young generation and the ones yet to come. The story started there. Our first wave of titles which we launched in 2015 were Mumu Juju, Strike Guard, and June XII.
Mumu Juju is an African Fantasy epic mixed with a mash of action and humor, created by Etubi Onucheyo. The story shows the diverse cultures of the African continent (we even did an African Facebook ad campaign tour after the release of the 2nd issue to share a pan-African approach growing an audience across Nigeria), and the story is themed around friendship.
For Strike Guard, we never really wanted a super hero comic at first because we believed it was cliché, until I met Ayodele Elegba, the creator. Strike Guard is less of the super hero grandeur and more of a super heroe’s struggles, and its deep traditional roots of how he became super human play a key role in cultural education.
June XII, created by Ibrahim Ganiyu, one the most pioneering New age creators alongside Ayodele Elegba in 1999, is a story that directly reflects the Nigerian political and social predicament. The story creates a pseudo awareness of social ills and political mishaps such as corruption and indiscipline. We wanted to use this comic for social commentary and not just eye candy entertainment. Our stories would continue to break the stereo type and create social change.
BNP: Who makes up the Vortex team?
Somto: Vortex is a huge team; we have crossed paths and worked with almost every known and upcoming illustrator and colorist in the Nigerian creative pool, and are even stretching outside the country as we want comic lovers abroad to see the love on Vortex titles. The industry here in Nigeria has shown us nothing but pure love and support.
We run a creator model, kind of like Image Comics (I served as an intern there for a short while) and was deeply inspired seeing that as a parallel model for a comic production company to thrive here. However we don’t go for the huge mass of content like Image does — we work with a few creators and freelance network to support production. Our core creators are currently Etubi Onucheyo (Mumu Juju), Ibrahim Ganiyu (June XII, Dark Edge), Ayodele Elegba (Strike Guard), Chima Kalu (Wrath House), Victor Nzerigbe (Black City), and a few others. The core management team includes Abdul George (Admin), Newman Chike (Art Director), Charles Nwachebelu (Marketing, Line Manager) Michael Kayode (Head Of Operations, Animation) & me (Creative Director, CEO). We are all workaholics, unshaven, and have poor sleeping patterns with only one goal in mind: Vortex must become culture.
BNP: How would you describe your titles to someone unfamiliar?
Somto: DC Universe meets the witch doctor Clan of Karashika; Star Wars crosses the deep dark space of the Old Oyo Empire; The Avengers battling the Evil Men in Agbada on a mighty “Rock”. Vortex is culture, arts, and diversity meets digital entertainment; a see-through portal into the heart of Africa; Africa telling her stories by the voice of Africans; a leap of faith into the 3rd-world continent from a first-person view, the beauty & beast of culture and tradition portrayed through illustrated brilliance and untold fantasy stories from the mother land.
BNP: What are some of the challenges you face when publishing and promoting books?
Somto: I’ll be direct with this: on the current market we don’t have an honest following in Nigeria — the community is small and filled with creators and producers or aspiring producers, even though we comic producers as an emerging industry have been making quality comics for years! So there’s more of mindless competition, where only a few comic brands have an idea of what they are actually to do. The active consumer percentage is about 15% – 25%, 30% maximum, and that’s me being dead optimistic.
We at Vortex saw that and realized for us to make this a success we had to create a new generation of readers.I can’t disclose for now till we’re sure this model works — its time and investment with little revenue coming in, and you have to look for sponsor after sponsor, and that’s not a scalable model, but with time we are learning to jump that hurdle. Mind you, we have fallen trying, but each try gets inches higher.
BNP: What are the themes vortex comics address? Is the fan base target a more mainstream or niche?
Somto: Well like I mentioned earlier, our comics are centered on lifestyle, social commentary, and culture. We believe the localized and relatable approach will reach a wide audience of readers once a core community is developed and spreads. It would be wild fire. Our titles are each diverse so some might appeal to some particular sects of people with a certain way of thinking. Our goal is to make the brand visible to the right audience and for the readers to discover the fantasy they want to immerse themselves in. Also, with strategic marketing, we can target particular communities who understand the dynamics of some of our products as well. But the beauty of creating an audience — or building one, rather — is that it gives you the grace to recognize which stories have widespread appeal and which have a small cult following.
BNP: How many titles do you have running currently?
Somto: We started with the first wave of 3 comics which we published consistently for 5 months (June XII, Strike Guard, and Mumu Juju). This year’s first quarter we have introduced another 2 titles and 1 mini-series (Wrath House, Lil Thunder, and Sannkofamaan, respectively). So that’s 6 titles to the month of May probably, and then we’ll check the tides.
BNP: How can people read vortex comics and show support?
Somto: Simply visit the Vortex site — all our comics are on there with a full gallery so you can enjoy free posters and artwork for each title. You can also favorite your preferred titles and get free coupons for discounts. Finally we have the notice board where you get cool updates on all things “V”.
Vortex deals in paid and free comics, so show support by buying issues of our titles. Don’t take my word for it — preview before you buy so you know exactly what you’re getting. The Vortex Universe is wide and diverse so you can look and then leap. You can also support us on social media — it keeps the spirit going when we see your love online! Instagram | Twitter | Facebook
BNP: Finally, how do you define success for Vortex? What’s your vision for the industry in Nigerian comics and Vortex’s position within it?
Somto: Success for Vortex comes in various forms. When I see the face of that kid light up when he reads an Strike Guard comic, or a young girl topple over laughing when Amariya shows Mortar who’s boss as she reads Mumu Juju #2; also success is satisfaction from our creators knowing they’re happy with how their titles are performing and how we operate is a success. Turning to a million-dollar company in investment within the next few years or less is also a success so we can spread the culture and move into childhood-defining merchandise, cutting through innovation that brings in a generational shift.
I see the ceiling covering the industry broken in no time at all. Last year I would have thought like 3–5 years maybe, but with the current activity exhuming from the industry and new brewing interest I see this ceiling off in 2 years maximum, with benefits of labor being ripped now for creative movements with the right commercial ideas. I honestly feel we have been inspiration and a breath of fresh air that woke sleeping lions in the industry. A lot of people might snap at this but we know that’s the truth — we brought a certain professionalism and marketing approach that was lacking, making us lie as an underdog industry for over 10 years. I see Vortex as pace setters and innovators, and we will continue to do so; we don’t do this for the credit of our peers, we do this to break the ceiling and we have found both exponential growth and commercial value in our 6 months of active publishing.
We came in raising the bar and we will be doing that again soon. I’m getting bored of all these articles talking like we haven’t been making dope superheroes and comics for the last 10 years. In all this, the industry is one of love. We should keep it that way.