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Best of Bitterkomix coverBitterkomix 9 cover

Q: Who are they?
A: Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog) and Conrad Botes, at that time students of the fine arts department of the university of Stellenbosch, South Africa, started the comics anthology Bitterkomix in 1992. In the beginning they only published their own comics in it.

Q: Which language do they publish in?
A: Afrikaans and English. Mostly Afrikaans though. But The Best of Bitterkomix #1 is entirely in English.

Q: What does Bitterkomix look like?
A: At first sight, it looks similar to the usual self-published comics zine in Europe or the US, be it printed instead of xeroxed. It has a cover with limited color effects, an inside with black and white comics of all kinds. The format is the normal European DIN A4 (comparable to US letter). In the beginning Bitterkomix was published rather irregularly. Now it comes out once a year and the number of colors on the cover has gone up dramatically. The concept hasn't really changed. Most of the space is used for fiction in images, although both main authors occasionally add a (illustrated or just plain) text. The number of authors is variable. Basically, everybody who submits a good story that fits in Bitterkomix' goals, gets published. Nine issues have been published so far.

Q: So what's the extraordinary thing about it?
A: When you really start reading it, the unusual character becomes clearer. The gist of the comic book is all-encompassing irony and destruction of taboos, combined with a love of cutting edge graphics.

1. Irony
The material that provokes the ironic tone can be genre fiction. Lots of stories in Bitterkomix contain funny references to well known stories or genres from popular literature. Superheroes and photo novelas get imitated. The captions on the covers of the issues (until #7) also breathe irony: "Valuable reading material for the emotionally disabled", "Pulp for dimwits", "Afrikaners are amusing" (Afrikaners are white South Africans speaking Afrikaans - the translations are approximate). Some issues bear a seal on the cover: "Approved by the Bitterkomix Authority".
But the irony reaches further than the relation to popular fiction. Irony is also the basic feeling of the authors towards South African society of the past and present. As progressive White South Africans they share an ambivalent attitude towards their country. This attitude becomes clear in the numerous satirical references to South African politics and news, that are difficult for foreigners to grasp, but that are not crucial to appreciate the stories, fortunately. Sometimes, the irony is left aside, as in Joe Dog's True Love, that illustrates better than any written text I've seen what the identity crisis of a white South African can be like. Marcel Ruijters (Dutch cartoonist and critic) wrote in a review of Bitterkomix for Zone 5300 (Dutch comics magazine) that the authors of Bitterkomix have understood really well that they should concentrate on their own problems, not on those of the black population. Social relevance is not a dirty term for Bitterkomix, but they're determined to only comment on the things they know about from their own experience.

2. Taboos
In a society where censorship was an important factor in the cultural landscape, underground still has a real meaning. It's therefore not really surprising that you can find a relatively large amount of sex and (be it less) violence scenes in Bitterkomix. American underground has proven to be a real influence on the content level. Sex and violence also caused censorship problems (see below). Both ingredients are used as a provocative element, but also as an ironic ingredient.

3. Graphics
Graphic innovations are the direct consequence of the education in fine arts that most authors of Bitterkomix have had. Anton and Conrad used to teach in the fine arts department of the university of Stellenbosch (in fact, Conrad still does occasionally). Their way of telling stories can therefore be influenced by other art forms. Maybe also due to that background, narrative experiments are present throughout the anthology: illustrated poems, prayers, prose or song lyrics.

Q: Where's the main talent?
A: The two founding fathers are also the two most impressive talents. Joe Dog's work is characterized by concrete social relevance and/or irony. His drawing style is very flexible. In Bitterkomix #8 he has even drawn a page in Mike Diana's style. Conrad Botes is a master in comic noir. Contentwise, a dark, perverted atmosphere, serving as a background for convincing tales, marks his stories, that often try to re-tell South African myths or history. His efficient and abundant use of black ink is very personal. Ina van Zyl, who shared an exhibit at the 1998 Haarlem Festival with Dutch comics star Lian Ong and Dominique Goblet (of Frigo fame), draws intimate tranches de vie in charcoal. She's living in Amsterdam now and won a major painting award (plus money prize). Then there's Lorcan White (aka Mark Kannemeyer, Anton's brother and a painter), who combines loose images from his sketchbooks into comics. Karlien de Villiers has a very eloquent style with lots of black paint, that reminds one of Jose Muñoz sometimes. One can feel that she's got a lot to tell, but she hasn't really published a lot yet. In fact, most irregular contributors like her were students of Anton and Conrad's who felt stimulated to try comics. With #9 other professionals come into play: Anton and Conrad got the permission to publish a Crumb story and one of their art school teachers, Paddy Bouma, contributed two stories.

Q: Has the Bitterkomix club published other things apart from the anthology?
A: Well, yes. Apart from an illustrated poetry book by local hero Koos Kombuis, there's Lag Lag (Laugh, Laugh, 1996), a collection of illustrations, sketches and cartoons by Joe Dog, Conrad Botes and Lorcan White. Gif (Poison, 1994) was a comic by Bitterkomix people entirely about explicit sex. The exhibit of Joe Dog's work from Gif caused a row with the university of Stellenbosch, who ceased to support the publication of the anthology. Later the booklet was banned by an official censoring institution. This censorship came rather late, because South Africa was already on the way to normal democracy, but of course there were still some relics of the old regime functioning. Gif was not to be sold anymore. The creative crew of Bitterkomix found a nice solution to that: they gave the book away, but charged a lot for shipping and handling. And of course, there's also the compilation The Best of Bitterkomix #1, 80 pages squarebound and entirely translated to English. But you knew that already.

Q: Are they still censored now?
A: Not in South Africa. But no professional UK distributor dares to distribute The Best of in the UK, for fear of Her Majesty's customs. And the American Comic Book Legal Defense Fund advised to change one panel in the issues for sale in the US: an incest panel of a father and his daughter, ironically drawn in Mike Diana's style. Depicting incest that explicitly would apparently be illegal in the States. So Americans, you're not seeing the real thing...

Q: Were there any exhibits?
A: Yes, how did you know? Anton and Conrad do lots of multiple color silk-screens, which gives them an advantage over other comics authors, who usually only have black and white originals to show. Some of these silk-screens are colored versions of comics pages, some are really new artwork. I know about an exhibit in Stellenbosch, where local newspapers complained about the explicit nature of Joe Dog's work and an exhibit in Durban where a roman catholic damaged an explicit silk-screen series by Joe Dog with spraypaint. They got an exhibit in Leuven, Belgium, in February 1999 during the low profile Gestript festival. During the Graphic Stories Festival in Johannesburg (May 1999), a major exhibit of theirs opened in Pretoria (over 100 works, mainly by Anton and Conrad in a real art gallery), and in August 1999, they were in a major exhibit in Zürich about cultural change in the past decades in South Africa. I've often wondered whether they get such nice exhibition possibilities because of the arty nature of their works. Maybe it's also because of the fact that there's almost no comics to compare Bitterkomix too, so it gets classified with fine art more easily than European or American comics. It will probably a combination of both. As for media attention, Bitterkomix is mainstream! There have been a BBC documentary, a Belgian National Television interview, and a South African documentary is in the works. Their comics and exhibits get reviewed in national newspapers and so on.

Q: Can you get a little more practical?
A: You can procure Bitterkomix from the authors themselves through Bitterkomix Pulp, P.O. Box 564, Stellenbosch 7599, South Africa. Only the issues #4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 of the anthology are still available at a price of more or less 3$/euro. The Best of Bitterkomix costs about 6$/euro. Foreign orders should add 3$/euro for postage.

Gert Meesters

This part is actually an updated, translated and elaborated version of a piece I wrote in Dutch for Stripschrift #315, published in February 1999. The current form of this text dates from May 2000.

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