Loyiso Mkize: The man behind Kwezi, SA’s black superhero

Born and raised in Butterworth, Eastern Cape, Loyiso Mkize has always had a keen eye for art and an even keener one for comic art. He reckons that he already knew he was an artist from around the age of six, even though at the time he probably didn’t even know what an artist was.

“I carried that with me right through school and right through my formative years in Butterworth – and also when I then went to high school in Queenstown [Eastern Cape],” Mkize says.

“Everything around me was geared towards my artistic inclinations. This was especially true where my parents are concerned because they supported my art through exposing me to artistic materials like art history books and also by taking me to the Grahamstown Art Festival.”

He says that he was more inclined towards comic books at a young age and that was his first love as far as an artistic style. As he got older, he began to develop his skill set for the another form of art that he enjoyed: classical painting.

“I went to Cape Town in 2006 to study graphic design. I figured that graphic design would open another avenue in terms of the type of art that I’m into, as opposed to the fine arts with which I was already acquainted,” he explains.

In his second year, Mkize began realising that he had a lot more time on his hands than he anticipated. This was when he approached Supa Strikers, a pan-African football-themed comic and after presenting his portfolio, he was hired on the spot.”Soon after I was hired, I was promoted to head illustrator,” Mkize says.

He describes this time as one of the best periods of his career, because he got the opportunity to hone his illustrating skills and in his twenties, was instrumental in the production of what was South Africa’s biggest local comic book at the time.

“I had reached this milestone in something that I had wanted to do for a very long time and started asking myself: ‘Now what?’,” Mkize says. It was at this point that he “stumbled” onto painting. In 2010, he started showcasing his work in small galleries around Cape Town. His first solo show was in 2011.

When Kwezi, the comic book, was born

Mkize’s career grew in leaps and bounds in the following years and he had to find a way to manage his twin careers, because he was still illustrating Supa Strikers.

Since he had been a child, Mkize had always wanted to do his own comic book, and for a long time, produced them for his eyes only. He had always thought that at some point, someone was bound to do a South African version of Superman and Spiderman.

“I was constantly on the look out to see if someone had finally done it, and to my knowledge, nothing close to what we were used to seeing from the USA was being done here. In speaking to the people around me at the time, I realised very quickly that the general notion was that apparently superhero characters don’t work in South Africa and that South Africa does not have a comic book-reading culture,” Mkize explains.

“There were all these stereotypes attached to the potential South African superhero. Again, with the honing of my skills as an illustrator, it was quite easy for me to say that at the end of 2014, I’m just going to do this thing and see how it works.”

Mkize wanted to create a black South African character who was 19-years-old and spent a lot of time drafting his appearance and traits. As the creative process started to materialise, he began to create a truly South African superhero.

“Luckily for me I had an 18-year-old cousin at the time who was in matric and he resembled what I wanted to see on a comic book page. He had all the traits, was very cool and stylish and was a typical South African teenager,” Mkize says.

“I asked him what superhuman powers he would choose and what he would do with them. He had such authentic and detailed answers to that question and that was exactly what I needed to keep the story of Kwezi as real and authentic as possible. What better way to do it than to use a person who shares the same environment as the superhero I wanted to create. Kwezi is also my cousin’s name.”

This is how Kwezi was born. And of course, following the proudly South African theme, the characters around Kwezi obviously then had to speak to the diverse cultures in the country, so there are Zulu, SeSotho and Khoi-San characters, among others.

“This type of interaction started opening up an entire world of possibilities because, for the most part, I had never seen the re-imagining of our own identities in this way of super-imposing the superhero genre and aesthetic on our own cultures,” he says.

“I think a very compelling story came out of that. I started off self-publishing the comic, and within two years, in 2016, we were distributing nationally through Exclusive Books,” he says.

“It is growing by the day and I think it’s because it had never been done before. It speaks to the longings of your everyday South Africa and if you’re an adult with children, you want your children to see positive images of themselves in a style and tone with which they are comfortable with and know as South Africans.”

Mkize goes on to say that Hollywood is developing a multi-billion-dollar film industry based on superheroes and that we’re getting these movies by the truckload. He then asks the question: “What do we have in response to that?”. His answer was Kwezi.

With regard to the evolution of Kwezi, Mkize says that he is currently on working on animations based on the comic book and that in four to five years, there could even be a feature film.

“It’s exciting to be at the helm of that. On a more sentimental note, I really believe that our children could do with images like that – in fact, our society in general could do with images like that. Images that are unapologetically themselves, and a positive image of how we’re portrayed – there’s so much power in that,” Mkize says.

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