AFRICA VS EUROPE:
ORAL TRADITION AND THE COMIC BOOKS
“In Africa, where writing doesn’t exist,
there is an intimate bond between a man and the word he utters.”
General History of Africa
In European literary
endeavours, the epic is certainly the most ambitious of poetic types because of the demand it makes on traditional poets’ knowledge and creative skill in order to sustain the scope, grandeur and variety of aspects that tend to encompass the totality of the epic work.
However, in Africa, history is marked by its transference through oral tradition from one generation to another because verbal testimony is the basic form of preservation especially in the pre-literate communities. This
implies that classical events like epic tales, masquerade festivals, folksongs, panegyric poetry or praise chant are orally transmitted from one generation to another since the African “bards” are the active agent of their own history. For this reason, oral performances dominate a huge percentage of cultural preservation in the pre-literate society.
To fully understand African literature, arts, beliefs, songs, dance,
traditional rituals, festival, folkloric tradition and epic, one must understand the Africans’ definition and conception of "word" and its real meaning to any traditional community. Speech, being the oldest form of expression, is valued,
though as the crudest method of cultural preservation, yet in such
a society where writing doesn’t exist there is a true and intimate bond between a man and the word he utters.
Africa’s bards or poets glorify the heroes of the past, gods and goddesses in panegyric chants and recitations
which leave a lasting impression on the succeeding generation.
It is only in Africa that drums could speak and talk in proverbs while the cultural custodians with
their large mental capacity interpret the language of the gods and of wisdom, that is distanced from everyday speech and expression, and refer the interpretation to a particular point when history was pregnant in meaning, leading to the birth of their civilization.
This special category of bard are not trained in the western definition or paradigm of academics yet they are professionals who over the years have been indoctrinated, right from their childhood, in the art of oral performance; and the artistic evaluation of their culture through oracular divination and chant which becomes their source of livelihood.
With the advent of technology and pop culture, this tradition is witnessing a repackage, so much that, oral performance and literature has become unspoken memories of
a minority group who, through civilization or cultural emancipation, have witnessed alienation and detachment from their roots.
Unlike their African counterparts, the European literary tradition with emphasis on the Greek literary
endeavours has embraced and enjoyed a tremendous resurface and influence in contemporary arts, including the movies, and especially in the comic books era.
To comprehend the artistic value and influence that comic-book super heroes have on urban youths and contemporary pop culture is to trace it to the traditional Greek civilization and society that value myth and legend as part of history, as part of religious rite and, most importantly, as daily life consumption.
Relevance of oral tradition in popular culture is immeasurable. The consumption and re-surface of oral thematic concepts pervaded the comic books and the media culture so much that oral history scholars will not under-estimate the influence of Greek or Hellenic movement in the European art and culture.
For comic books tradition, Greek legends like Hercules, Hades, Zeus or
Perseus are not to be merely discarded because early Greek scholars, poets and writers influence contemporary professions like medicine, language, philosophy, poetry and even
theatre. And, in fact, legendary stories like the tale of Troy has been re-make into a Hollywood blockbuster movie which gulped millions of dollars with stunning and breathtaking special effects to re-capture the grandeur and glory of that period in history.
Comic books, like other arts, give a complex expression to a somewhat subtle but elusive life that defies logical reasoning. Comic super-heroes like Spider man, Incredible Hulk, Superman or X-Men are often deified characters in their daily battle of good versus evil, so much that the general audience, including the readers, youths and political society at large, often assume such position in their daily activities while the desire to be and to “feel” like them heightens: by feeling, it means to understand what it is like to be
honoured with supernatural power(s) and influences like these characters. However, the societies are still left with the often-unanswered questions like:
Are they real and where do they come from?
Comic book super heroes (like their folkloric counterparts in Africa) engage in supernatural feats that make them survive their age with metamorphic altitude of half-god and half-man syndrome.
In the view to redefine the consumption of oral history in contemporary art and culture, it is important to:
A. Assess, compare and contrast the ancient Greek heroes/African epic heroes with comic-book or new media super heroes.
B. Understand the influence of media/theatre as channel of re-living the past in the present.
C. Compare circumstances of the birth/growth process of cultural heroes and their responsibility to communities as supernatural characters in both traditions.
These assessments will help a long way to establish that oral history is important
as well as documenting them in a relevant format especially
revealing that the search for communal identity is as important as history itself.
Super heroes didn’t just emanate from nowhere but from man’s deepest desire and thought of the past to redefine the present or possibly to fill a certain gap in the present age or probably to search for a contemporary supernatural model that ushers the trend for others to follow.
Both the literary community and the entertainment industry are believed to be influenced by certain themes in order to reproduce art in its own way and in its own definition. However, most often
and perhaps always, the past is the major source of such inspiration
and to deny this statement may result in a desire to look for identity in a wrong format.
The most challenging assignment in this search for individuality comes from the understanding of the fact that the contemporary urban youths are concerned with cultural identity, and their individual uniqueness is mingled up with emotion and mere sentiment for technologically refined heroes rather than traditional or cultural heroes. This subconscious conflict has created a consumptive society that is easily bored with
the monotony of daily events and desires an escape medium through a model or leader that is out of this world to usher in
a new trend or façade that will keep them elusive.
This ideal is often the subtle underlying thought pattern that pervades the comic books, which substitute mystery, magic, religion, and witchcraft, for genetic mutation, test tube babies, technological fantasy, mutants and DNA alternation. That is why Super Man could fly high in the sky when,
traditionally, witches are well known to have the capacity for flying in the night with
a broomstick or otherwise. All of these describe certain attributes that
ensure comic book super heroes are, supposedly, not too human because they
have undergo certain processes that are unusual and perhaps can neither be regarded as deities or epic heroes because they have no place in the pantheon of the gods like the Greeks’ “Zeus” or the Yorubas’ “Sango”.
However, it is important to understand that super heroes’ invulnerability also helps to prove that which is moral, just and good; in essence what is lacking in the consumptive society is ever present their fantasy; their constant battle for justice to prevail, knowledge and understanding of scientific involvement and self control. Besides, an average villain in a comic story is a typical representation of an average society that has problem more within himself than outside himself, its quest for power, greed, aggressive and full of prejudices. These- feud, schism, revenge and jealousy are actually similar forces that motivate even the Greek/ African classical super heroes.
The reason for this re-evaluation is that feud, rebellion, revolt or schism are actually the oldest and most ancient paradigms that define that which is good from what is wrong.
It may be right to say that what makes one a super hero is as a result of another character’s fault or misinterpretation of what is the norm, from the society’s
point of view, and not necessarily doing what is wicked. In essence there is no power without weakness and no weakness without
power but, just like the Spider Man’s slogan - “with great power comes great responsibility”
there is the indication that every super hero, (either in African oral tradition, the Greek custom, comic books or the contemporary society) owes their community certain responsibilities, especially to make the consumptive society fully mature under this influence, because super heroism is more of social circumstance than a function of individuality.
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