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East African Nerds, Unite!

Nairobi’s first comic con was a triumph for Kenyan artists, cosplayers, and superfans.

Last month, posters started appearing in Nairobi, Kenya’s Village Market featuring Spider-man, Iron Man, Thor, and other classic American comic book heroes. Given that the Market is a highly Westernized mega-mall in the well-heeled Gigiri neighborhood, some may have passed the posters by, assuming they were for some Marvel movie screening or a theme party aimed at the nearby American Embassy or United Nations compound. In truth the posters advertised something far more interesting: on December 20, 2014, the Village Market would host, on the rooftop of its parking garage, Naiccon, East Africa’s first comic convention—a celebration of the now-bourgeoning local nerd culture and the comic, gaming, and entertainment industries of Kenya.

In absolute terms, the first Naiccon didn’t hold a candle to other major comic cons, which have become mainstream cultural fixtures known for their all-out participants and geek-candy sneak previews of major upcoming movies, TV, and comics. But by regional standards, this was a phenomenal success—more so as it highlighted local illustrators, filmmakers, and comics rather than just dwelling on pervasive Americana.

There are other events for the increasingly techno- and nerd-culture-savvy communities of Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of them, though, like CO/MIX, ICON, KIN CON, UPCON, cluster in South Africa and focus on live-action role-playing, costume play, and gaming competitions. These are not necessarily the open, informative, experimental, and celebratory events that comic cons can be, and though Africa has at least one successful comic con—the Lagos Comic Con in Nigeria—it’s more than 2000 miles from Nairobi. Other recent attempts at launching additional comic cons, like one attempted in 2013 in South Africa, have flamed out spectacularly.

Announced in the first week of April 2013, organizers claimed South Africa’s convention would launch by month’s end—although it would be hosted in a low-capacity venue, had lined up few vendors, seemed to be lying about its partners, and had no official backing. The comic con had to be canceled when too many vendors backed out. And besides, local nerds grumbled, the organizers were treating it like a trade show for people to find out about new products, rather than a community affair and a stage for dazzling presentations of showmanship.

Compared to South Africa’s 2013 bid, Niaccon was an outright coup for African fandom. Over a month and a half, the organizers built up a strong social media presence, networking with a bevvy of local artists and working their way into the community. They drew in amateur comic book artists with illustration competitions and chances to meet local idols.

By the time December 20 rolled around, they’d lined up showcases by rapper-cum-comic book artist Point Blank Evumbi, creator of Home Guard (the story of two Kenyan detectives and one of many fascinating new, socially conscious East African comics), and presentations by XMedia Kenya, showcasing their recent film Simiyu Samurai (a short and formulaic film, but an exciting and revolutionary foray into martial arts movies by the Kenyan film industry).

Naiccon is not the end-all answer for African fandom. The scene still has a ton of problems, like the sad global standard of excluding women. But although in the U.S. the comic book scene has become big business, with cons drawing thousands, (along with the biggest stars of film and television), in much of the world, these are still a fairly marginalized set of interests, and Naiccon gave East African fans a place to feel at home. In a world where pastimes are increasingly shared online and through social media platforms, the event was a chance to connect personally with others who share a devotion to this niche culture. Likely to return next year, this convention is a great new tradition for East Africa. With any luck it will help to push forward the creation of further regional “nerd nodes,” making it easier and easier for isolated enthusiasts to become part of a community and for African comic book artists to get their big break.

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