This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian
Two decades of sedition and subversion, and the comic anthology Bitterkomix has found itself firmly entrenched in the suburbs.
Anton Kannemeyer (Joe Dog) has bought a house in Pinelands, Cape Town, which will function as a studio for himself and his wife, artist Claudette Schreuders. Kannemeyer says the area is “great. Very quiet and unassuming–[the] best place to create filthy work.”
Conrad Botes (Konradski) arrives at the interview in running tights, having completed a jaunty 12km route from his own home.
It’s been five years since the pair released the last issue of Bitterkomix–which was supposed to be an annual comic edition.
“It’s really not easy to find the time [to draw comics],” Botes says. “It’s more time-consuming than people would imagine. And it’s different than before. I employ a studio assistant. There’s rent to be paid. Art keeps me locked down.”
Kannemeyer says each of them has “one exhibition after another. It’s hectic. In between you have ideas?…”
“But you also want to take a break,” Botes adds. ‘The last thing you want to do is a comic. You start working on something and next thing it’s 11.30am and you’ve got to fetch the kids from school just now. We’re kind of new-age dads. I do shopping. I’m in Woolworths buying ham for the [kids’ lunch]. That’s important stuff.”
“Our lives are a mess of bourgeois bullshit,” says Kannemeyer.
But the soporific mix of suburbia and parenthood and school runs have conspired to produce the most bittersweet Bitterkomix yet–a slender volume of pain and laughter: the obscenity of nostalgia; the guilt and hypocrisy of middle-class racism; the violence of living in Africa.
The volume also marks a shift away from earlier editions (there’s less sex, for one thing, and hardly any penises) to a less crude documentation of the cracks that divide and the glue that binds. It is a subtle knife.
Botes says they talk a lot about whether the narrative of the comics is personal.
“This is a grey area. It’s often autobiographical but positioned as fiction,” he says, later explaining that he “always wants to do stories that don’t say something specific. It’s up to you, how you respond. They are stories with keys, for people to decipher and interpret the way they want to.”
Botes’s Jacob’s Ladder–he exhibited 56 panels of the same story, as oil on reverse glass, at a major solo exhibition last year; the story is planned as a chapter in a full-length comic “book” to be published in France–is pure allegory and “more about personal choice [of the reader or viewer] because eventually the story has nothing to do with me. Anton does the opposite. He inserts himself in.”
“The moment you put yourself into a comic it becomes believable,” Kannemeyer says.
Botes calls it fiction dressed as autobiography. It’s a world where Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-landi hang out in one panel and on the next page (in a story by Lorcan White, Kannemeyer’s brother) barrels of shit explode after a winter in Berlin; both of these works speak about expat communities, about missing South Africa, about myths and friendship and comic-book heroes.
Kannemeyer pulls out a slightly battered old comic book, partially held together with sticky tape. It is a strip he and Botes did at university, in 1989, about conscription. The first proper issue of Bitterkomix came out in 1992. Kannemeyer and Botes started Bitterkomix because they were “both really into comics, and we wanted something with a South African context, but which was made to a high standard.”
Kannemeyer says their lecturers at the University of Stellenbosch would warn them to “be careful” with their content. After 1994, other people came and said to them: “So, you’re over now? The struggle is done.”
But the struggle has continued–not just in terms of their provocative content (both Botes and Kannemeyer gloomily note the gradual return to state censorship in South Africa) and talking about the things other white people don’t really like talking about, or even finding time and inspiration to draw comics when you should be making art that pays real money.
It’s hard, they explain, to make comics for a market that’s never really supported the genre. They blame the British for this, but also have a few issues with their publisher.
Kannemeyer and Botes are both “fucking unhappy” with the business model of Bitterkomix 16.
Only 800 copies have been printed–half of what it used to be when they printed and distributed the comic on their own (it is now published by Jacana), although both acknowledge they no longer have time to be as hands-on–and they feel the cover price (R150) will make it unaffordable for many fans.
In an unprecedented move, they offered to forgo all royalties to bring the cover price down, but it remained stuck somewhere in the limbo between an Excel spreadsheet and a collector’s item.
To make it more “affordable”, their publisher even suggested they could purchase their own copies at a trade discount and sell them on at less than full retail price.
Botes and Kannemeyer seem more comfortable with the idea of people stealing the comic book–or making copies of it.
“You could blow it up, make an A3 edition,” says Botes, excitedly.
“And then get us to sign it. It will be worth a lot of money then,” says Kannemeyer. “Just as long as we each get a copy.”