This is what Kadi Yao Tay has to say about himself on one of his many online presences:
I’m the last star-hopping shinobi who’s passionate about African comics and is co-founder of Squid Mag, loves music, experiments with making his own and curates what he likes here, is a core member of akolabone, is excited by animation, occasionally writes for ACCRA[dot]ALT, supremeRights records and himself, and is stuck in a weird I’m-learning-to-code loop, still figuring out the labyrinth that is human interactions.
Kadi Yao Tay is a charming, slim, chuckling presence whose sentences duck and dive, sometimes losing or correcting themselves halfway. His talk is full of contemporary slang that had me assuming he had at least been partly educated in America. At the time of the interview, he had never been outside of Ghana. He seems to be a child of the internet: he speaks with the world.
He has written fiction and in another African generation no doubt would have been some kind of journalist-writer. Instead, Kadi is one of Africa’s leading exponents on African comics—which by now come in an array that would bewilder the sturdiest comiXology subscriber. Kadi is the force behind Squid Mag, a spectacular website devoted to African comics, games, and animation. He’s typical of the tech and business savvy creatives you meet so often across the continent.
Kadi Yao Tay is not his name.
Kadi: “Unfortunately, it’s Jason. Officially. But I don’t actually like it. (Chuckles) So I coined a name for myself. It means ‘light’ in Ewe (his maternal language). It’s inspired by the anime Death Note. There was a character in that. Smart-ass, a detective. I like him. So I modelled myself on him. Tah-dah!
“Death Note is noir but fantasy as well. Shingames can’t go to hell or heaven. They are stuck in between. They are death-reapers basically, and they have a notebook. When it’s your time to die you come up in it and they come up with creative ways for you to die. And you die.”
An enthusiast, Kadi spends some time summarizing most of the plot of Death Note. I listen patiently, then try to change direction by asking him if he likes comics. Well, duh.
Kadi: “I like comics but then when you start going off on DC, Marvel, I might get a bit lost because I just like some of the illustrations but I’m not deep into it, but when you talk about manga that’s where I shine, that’s what I really like because the stories don’t follow a formula. You get weird things happening and it makes sense because it’s manga. Anything goes. If it’s a good story and the characters are on point, then you’re good to go. I love it.
“I really like a book, so most of the time I’m not looking at the art, I'm just reading the words and I look at the art if I don’t understand what’s going on. Right now I’m reading New Born. It’s by Image Comics. I don’t remember the name of the illustrator or writer but it’s really brilliant. It’s like Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings. It’s really diverse. I don’t know if there’s a more diverse story than that. No! Actually, it’s called Saga.”
In 2017 Saga was just about my favourite comic of all time. I’d just given Dilman Dila a large collection of the first four album volumes of Saga. So we talk about Saga for some minutes. NewBorn is actually an African comic from PedaComics, a Nigerian comics company.
Kadi: “They had a successful Kickstarter campaign and they are going to launch a couple of issues soon. By the end of the year they should have two issues out.
“The other thing with manga and art is—because I read online all the time. That’s how I get hold of most of them. I’ve only seen about three manga in shops—DBZ, (Dragon Ball Z), Cowboy Bebop, and Naruto.”
GR: “Do you like The Comic Republic stuff [CR is another major Nigerian comics company]?”
Kadi: “I do. I really do. I like how glossy it is. What I love the most is their art. I think they do incredibly well with their art. It shines. I love Avonome. The reason I like it is all the fantasy involved. The other stories are very superhero-like. This is just magic.
“I like that they don’t limit to it a very narrow representation of what African magic storytelling should look like. They have Black Gandhi; they have this purple, shapeshifting babysitter. Hispanic or something. I just like how diverse the comic is.
“I also like a character in Visionary—his story hasn’t been written yet—his name is Ijakadi (combat, struggle, or wrestling in Yoruba). Like he’s going to be a total badass and I’m really looking forward to him as well. He didn’t show in the first issue, but he’s in the promo art. And he has my name in there too, so it's, ‘OK, this is my guy’ (Chuckles).”
GR: “You want to write comics.”
Kadi: “I actually have one with Vortex. It’s called Hero Lomo. It’s the same idea as Hero Kekere [from Comic Republic, written by Cassandra Mark. You can see a video interview with Cassandra and other Comic Republic writers and artists on the YouTube channel 200 Africans]. You get the characters, make them kids and have them do funny things, imagining them as ordinary everyday Nigerians. I’m writing Issue 2, but I kinda hit a roadblock.
“When I wrote the first one it was a bit under pressure and I didn’t communicate much with the artist so what came out, I wasn’t too proud of it. So the second one, I want it to be really good and I’ve written three drafts. And I keep ditching things because I’m like ‘this isn’t working.’ And also because I’m shuffling all the other things. I have my day job and trying to run, I don’t know if you know this—Squid Mag. I’m trying to run that as well."
Shortly after this interview, Vortex seemed to go out of business. The website went down and stayed down. Recently in 2019, Vortex seems to have come back.
Kadi: “I can’t draw for love or money. But I plan out the panels. Eventually the artists are like, ‘I see your thought process, but the way you’ve planned the panels, it won’t work with my art.’ So they ask to take liberties. So I'm like, ‘Go with it. Do what you think makes sense.’
“But now I’m thinking instead of writing it panel by panel, I will write it like a script. I will just write the stories, then say to the artist, 'do your thing.'
“I read an interview with Brian [K Vaughan, author of Saga] about his process, and it was like that. ‘Hey Fiona, what do you think.’ So he says, ‘Imagine a big spider but very sexy with loads of tits,’ and I’m thinking, this process is fun for the writer. For the artist has to imagine what he’s writing.”
GR: “Have you spent any time in the States?”
Kadi: “No, I've been born and bred in Ghana. My parents are Ewe speakers, both from the same place. According to my mum, they started me off on English. I don’t find that hard to believe because in Ghana it’s strictly forbidden to speak local languages at school. And so most of the time I speak English. It sucks, yeah.
“So to be a model student I’m going to speak English all the time. I was one of those people. Even now my Ewe isn’t great.
“I was an OK student. I wouldn’t say good. I kept to myself. I did everything I was asked. Yeah, I followed the rules. Most of the time (Giggles).
“One minute, it was, ‘Mum, I want to be a scientist; oh mum, I want to be a doctor. Oh, I want to be a pastor. Oh, I want to play basketball.’ Along the way it was, ‘I want to be a writer,’ but then I wasn’t sure. For the longest time I just knew I wanted to be in media, but what, I didn’t know. I thought about journalism. Actually, that’s what everyone thought I was going to be.
“Right now I am a marketing intern with this startup. It’s calling itself the Zillow of Africa. Online real estate marketplaces. Yeah. I’m interning there. It will be over next month and I’ll see if I’m kept or not.
“Then on the side I work with Accra dot alt radio. It’s a cultural organization that produces the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Jamestown every year and the Sabolai Radio Music Festival that happens some time toward December.
“We don’t have a permanent location. We alternate. I used to handle some of the social media. That was usually Instagram. During the festival especially. Either the assistant or the main social media guy. For the festival, me and my friend Masud write profiles for the participation artists. We’ve done that three years in a row. Then on the side I used to write a lot of articles for Accra Dot Alt.”
I offer Kadi a drink from the bar.
Kadi: “I’m agnostic, but I don’t drink. I’m off caffeine, off alcohol because of a health book I had as a kid, illustrated. It was really nice. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. Have an apple a day. Brush your teeth.’ I kind of stuck with it. After a while, my dad got into the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, and the book of wisdom says the same thing. So suddenly my Dad realized, ‘OK, I’m going to stop doing all these things.’ I stuck with it. I feel cool when I go out with my friends and it’s ‘OK, just give me a Coke. Give me a Fanta.’”
So I get him a Coke. And I ask him to clarify who the Asantes are. Nobody says they speak Asante.
Kadi: “No. It’s like ‘Hi, I’m British, I speak English. Hi, I’m American, I speak English.’ So the Asante kingdom. The Fantes are on the coast and the Asantes are inland. And the Asantes had the bigger kingdom, in the middle of Ghana very very central. Kumasi was their capital.”
GR: “And it got burnt.”
Kadi: “Ah, yeah, it’s had its moments.”
GR: “Where do the Ewe speakers fit in?”
Kadi: “We are in the South Eastern side. We are originally not Ghanaians. With the partition of Africa we were part of Trans-Volga Togoland. So you’ll find our people in Togo and Benin. After we got independence there was a plebiscite. ‘Do you guys want to be part of Ghana or not?’ The majority of people voted to be part of Ghana.”
GR: “So you get Ewe people from Togo—but they speak French.”
Kadi: “Even in Benin. They have Asantes in Ivory Coast. When you ask people what are the major language groups they will say Akan, or Fante, but they don’t actually say Asante.”
Kadi tries to set me straight on the web of local languages. I’m not sure he succeeds, as it’s pretty complicated.
Kadi: “If you say Akan, you shouldn’t say Fante because Fante and Asante form one language group. They can understand what each other say. Fante and Asante are just dialects of Akan.
“I don’t speak good Twi. Twi is the language of the Asante. There is no one people called the Twi. And Fante is the language of the Fantes. Yeah that’s it. So the major languages are Akan, Ga in Accra, then you have Ewe and D’AgBane up north towards Somalia. They’re the Dagoumba. They are the major ethnic group. They have ties with the Mossi in Burkina Faso. They are all one people apparently.”
I ask him about being a prose fiction writer.
Kadi: “I definitely want to dabble in fantasy and some science fiction. But I hold up on science fiction. When I read science fiction they’re talking about space ships and all these hyperdrives, hyperjumps, all these technical terms. I don’t know any physics. It scares me so I hold off on trying to venture into space stories. So I’d rather talk about some aliens invading us and not so much about tech. Talk about the relationships, because that would be easier for me.”
GR: "Most writers are just inheriting tropes; they have no idea what a hyperdrive is. Really good thought-out, thorough world building SF is hard to find.”
Kadi: “I like fantasy. I know I started writing fantasy somewhere in GSS. About thirteen or fourteen, after I had seen Lord of the Rings for about the billionth time. Then I decided I want to write something like this. So it was pretty much me writing Lord of the Rings and giving it my own flavour. I never finished.
“Then in high school, it was more poems and poetry and being all corny. I’m awkward. I don’t have much attachment with girls. I didn’t write much for girls, but I had friends come to me to write stuff for their girls so I guess I wrote for girls at some point. I was a very unhappy, depressed boy. I was angry all the time. I was skinny. I was smallish. I was a nobody. So I would just write. I don’t read any of that stuff now, it depresses me, it’s really horrible. If I dislike someone I write about them but I don’t share it with them (Chuckles). Now I’ve changed. I’ve made an effort to be different.
“I was lucky because I was in the class called General Arts. So we were studying French, religion, history, government or Akan language. Half the time I was in the visual arts class or in the library so I missed lots of lessons, just staying away from class as much I could.
“While I was in visual arts I made this friend Kobe, who could draw. He was a brilliant illustrator. And we kind of bonded. I think he introduced me to anime. I wasn’t crazy about cartoons and then it was like toof.
“And then we just sat down and tried to create stuff. None of the stories that we published have gone anywhere but it was fun. To just imagine things ... what if he had a superpower? So much fun. We set up a collective to publish comics and then sell merchandise on the back of it. We got stuck making T-shirts."
I ask about the finances of comics as African businesses. How do they make money when so much of their product is online for free?
Kadi: “The only thing I can see people doing is advertising and I don’t know if that’s sustainable. Unless the agreement with advertisers is that they show the ad to thousands of readers. If that’s how it works that’s yay for them, but if it’s on a commission basis then maybe yes.”
Kadi: “I like what’s happening in Nigeria. The scene is just very exciting. New players nearly every month. I used to collect all the comics but I lost all of them. My hard disk crashed. I don’t have them anymore. This just happened, just last week; a colleague at work was copying stuff to the hard disk so we could send it to the printer. The hard disk dropped and that was it.
“The ones that are important to me, that I lost, the ones I am crying over came from an online publisher called Comic Bandit Press. Before Vortex and Comic Republic, those guys were the go-to for comics.
“I don’t know how I will ever get those comics again. That was my pride and joy. I’d say to people, ‘You don’t think we make comics here in Africa? Let me show you.’ And I’d pull out my hard drive and show them. It was awesome.”
For a talk I gave years ago on African SFF in 2014, I have some screen grabs of new wave Nigerian comics from the mid 2010s.
Kadi: “Did you ever hear of Frank Odoi? [Ray Mwihaki in this series was another great fan of his work.] His comic Akokhan was the only comic we ever saw in Ghanaian newspapers. It was weekly on Saturday; it appeared in The Mirror. He moved to Kenya and that’s where he died, unfortunately. And so we in Ghana, we didn’t see other comics he did. Well, maybe I saw them but didn’t realize it was by him. Maybe I was too young.
“I wish I had a lot of money. I’d just go to Kenya and buy the rights to Akokhan.
“And just reprint. I think it would be fun."
Kadi talks about another online supplier, a Kenyan app with a web presence called 254comics. It offers African comics from many different companies.
Kadi: “The only thing with them is you have to pay via PayPal and I don’t have a PayPal account. I see the titles and I try and find pages to download, but they put it all on 254.
“Ooo ooo ooo. There’s another comic I never mentioned it’s called Canary 7even. Their website was Canary 7even dot com. A good, good comic, about 2009 it was up. And it was about football, but not really football. They are all martial arts students. They train really hard. Two teams face off. I thought it was really good, one of the best.”
Here is Squid Mag’s feature about it.
Kadi: “Parodies that came out, really popular, one called Area. Ran about ten episodes. There's one in which Goodluck Jonathan gets called by Mark Zuckerbergy. It was really really funny.”
GR: “How does it feel being Ghanaian, so close to Nigeria?”
Kadi: “I am not overwhelmed, but I am impressed by Nigeria. I really respect Nigerians, their can-do attitude. If the whole continent was like that, it would be leagues ahead in terms of everything—technology, literature, arts, and sport. I think we’d be really really great. I’d love to go to Nigeria.”
GR: “Is there a tendency for some people to just migrate to Nigeria?”
Kadi: “I think so. I don’t know. I would understand the reasons to go to Lagos. There’s a bigger crowd. There’s more money. And I think there’s more appreciation for the arts in Lagos than in Accra. You know this stereotype still exists where parents think artists are a waste of time and money. So they won’t invest in them.”
GR: “It can be like that in Nigeria too.”
Kadi: “I think there is more money in Nigeria. And because there is also the competition, they are constantly improving. They are constantly upping the stakes. Whereas in Ghana there are some amazing artists yes, but I feel like everyone is in their own corner. They’re not really competing with each other, healthy competition of course. They are not improving as fast as they should.
“Maybe if there were more artists in this space, they’d really be pushing themselves. They are always on it. You know that they are easily replaceable so they are always on it; I like that spirit to make things happen.
“Sometimes I think I should have been born Nigerian. I love being Ghanaian but personally I could see that if you don’t push me, ech, I am complacent sometimes and I hate that, and I respect Nigerians for not being complacent, always moving. If they overshadow us, it’s because they’re working.
“When Kojo Laing died, it was sad that Ghanaian media wasn’t reporting on him. Honestly if it wasn’t for Twitter and my boss at Accra Adores, if he hadn’t tweeted about it, I would have no idea who Kojo Laing was. I read about him on Wikipedia. And I asked myself, ‘How is that I never heard of this guy?’ Someone goes, ‘You should blame your failed educational system.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’ But some of my friends knew who he was. I like to read digitally. I’m not crazy about books. If you go to a bookshop, it’s all Christian books or textbooks.
“I make a deliberate effort not to write for the West. One of the ways I try to do that is—this might come off as racist but please forgive me. I saw a movie when I was a kid. The guy was just mentioning all the things that were bad are ascribed to black people. He starts with a gun. Why isn’t a gun a different colour other than black? In the English language when you say something is bad, it’s gloomy, it’s dark, it’s black. I don’t know how to describe someone’s temperament other than it’s gloomy or dark. I don’t know how else to say it.
“It had me wondering, what if I’d written in Ewe, which I’m not good at. I can read but writing is hard. What if I wrote in Ewe, would that change the way I wrote about these things? Would it make it more ... would it breed more racial equality or will it be the same thing just swapping whites for blacks?”
We talk about how differently African comic artists draw black people, particularly in line drawings. We move on from there to comics in general. I ask him what he will write.
Kadi: “Comics especially. That’s where I what to get into the most. In Ghana there aren’t that many people doing it, and I want to be one of those people doing it and be a force to be reckoned with in Ghana. And once I do that in Ghana I can spread to the rest of the continent.
“But at the same time I'm kinda taking on a producer role. Cause I’m seeing all these stories. And I’m like, ‘Hey these stories are way cool.' I mean I might as well invest in this as opposed to me trying to create something on my own. I might as well help that person push their work.
“Squid Mag started in 2015 after a friend, Kofi Asare Sydney, came back from his internships in either Burkina Faso or India, I don’t recall exactly which one. We met in the mall in 2014. He mentioned briefly that he wanted to produce a magazine that featured artists from Ghana and featured comics.
“Me and my friend from high school, Kobetaylor, who draws, had this thing going called Akolabone. We got kinda stuck making T-shirts. [There are still some Akolabone posts online.] We were getting some traction using our characters. We put our characters in Ghanaian settings. We’ve had three collections. We’ve mostly premiered them at the Chala Wote Arts Festival.
“Sometime in 2016 I was approached by Somto of Vortex and he wanted me to review Vortex comics on the Vortex website. So I started to do that but I wanted to do other comics as well. I started to do that on the blog.
“The idea was to print physical copies, but we started online because it was easier for us to do and get some following. Just the two of us pushing, pushing. In 2016 we grew, and we recruited people mostly from Chale Wote.
“I went to Tamale up north for National Service. (Ghana, like Nigeria, has a scheme in which young people after college go to a different part of the country to provide social service.) I was writing reviews while Kofi was down here.
“We had a comic called Generation Identity. It’s a Ghanaian comic by Jesu Robert Crentsil. What he was doing was shopping this particular comic around in schools with another friend, Dela Attikese. I got back from service and started writing more. So basically it was three of us.
“In 2017 we got more eyeballs cause we were reviewing comics from the big two, that’s The Comic Republic and Vortex. Then about two months ago (still 2017) Somto (director of Vortex) came to Ghana to do a version of something they do in Nigeria called Comics and Coffee, only we called it Comics and Smoothies. We were media partners. Really, me in particular helped put it together. I scouted the location.
“It was a success. A get-together of creatives, programmers, game developers, comic artists, animators. We just got together to talk about things we can do to move this industry forward in Ghana.
“Ever since then we’ve had more eyes on us. We have friends in Zimbabwe and Nigeria who do things similar to what we doing. Comics Exposed in Zimbabwe. And there’s Ziki Nelson and his Kugali database of comics, animation, and games.
“Our mission is to promote, archive, critique, and be the go-to for African creativity mainly in comics, games, and animation. So that’s us. We are a team of about ten. Just two girls, sadly.”
I met up again with Kadi a year later in Victoria train station, London. It was a great lunch with him and the Kugali team. Kadi was still bursting with enthusiasm for other people’s work.
In the course of the discussion, Kadi highlighted some great comics, many of which went on to be nominated for Nommo Awards ... including the superb Rovik, which is a Star Wars fanfic but set in an African-flavoured part of that universe, written by Yvonne Wanyoike with art by Salim Busuru. I asked Kadi what he’s enjoying most.
Kadi: “In Ghana not a lot of people are doing comics, which sucks. I think we have like three people, so that’s LagosTSghana.com.
“Leti Arts have been doing comics for quite a while. They got funding from an incubator. They recently launched an app called Afrocomix. A bit like what Kugali was doing before with the database. They have different comics on there.
“There’s a guy called Francis Brown. He made a film (Agorkoli, which won a prize as long ago as 2010) and he’s hoping to make that animated film into a comic. That should be happening soon. We have a literary festival in about two weeks and he’s talking about his comic."
Kadi: “I know a few people who are doing stuff. We have guys doing these stick figure comics. They’re called Fiifi Kolliko.
“Big Brother Nigeria, that’s where all the action is. Like, yo. They just had Lagos Comic Con there. That was big. They had so many people coming through. I couldn’t go, unfortunately. But it looked good. So, so so so good."
“Lagos is the comic capital of Africa, I think. But elsewhere, they have these smaller studios. They have Juni Ba from Senegal.
“In Zimbabwe there’s a collective called Afro-Tokyo. Paper Angels is their comic. Their visuals are stunning. Story, I haven’t really dived in yet.
“In Uganda, I know one particular guy. His name is Louis Lubega. He runs a studio called Mongola or Mognolia. He has about two comics. One is Bucket and one is Olwatuuka. I think it’s the African comic with the most issues. And the most consistent. It’s like almost every month it’s put something out and not just a few pages. He posts his comics on Web tune."
Since this Interview
Comic Bandit appears to be back, at least as a news page about comics.
And Vortex 247 returned in 2019 as well.