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Sewedo Nupowaku on Lessons Learned in Nigerian Comic Publishing

Sewedo Nupowaku is a scary guy.

Not in a physically imposing sense of course. In fact, despite looking down at a lot of the human population from his solid six foot plus frame, the CEO of Revolution Media is quite the gentleman. He is a man who comes across as needing extreme provocation to resort to violence.

“Oga Jay!” His quick and easy laugh came across the phone line quite clearly in our first actual conversation, and I imagined a twinkle in his eye as he spoke. In animated conversation and as a guest on our podcast, he does not evoke the image of the eloquent film scholar I imagined him to be when he mercilessly but gently skewered the arguments of online adversaries in Facebook film debates.

Nupowaku’s charming and self-effacing manner hides a prodigious intellect and nigh photographic memory – if you ever get the chance, ask him to name a movie from some obscure screengrab if you doubt me. It is this combination of keen memory and intelligence, alloyed into steel edged with razor keen wit that makes him as scary an online opponent as any you would find defending their preferred fandom.

Unlike most however, Nupowaku’s deep mental reservoir of knowledge filled with facts and insight into books, comics, television and movies fuels not just his fandom but also his creativity and business.

When he’s not taking on enemies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by night in online debates, he co-runs a digital creative agency by day and has been involved in some of the more unique advertising projects out of Nigeria.

He also produced ‘Moremi, the Revised Standard Version‘ a play rooted in Yoruba culture that also improbably incorporates rap battles and a musical score that includes a classic western theme from Ennio Morricone. The eclectic play was designed to spark youth interest in the arts in general and in the stage in particular.

“For some time, I had been prepping certain scripts to make into a feature length movie. Of course funding had been tough. There was always something [stopping it] you know. But the [Nigerian] central bank announced last year that they wanted to have this initiative for filmmakers and all that. So I applied.”

“My business partner and I had been working on that. Lots of pre-production. The idea was to use a digital backlot, which is essentially, you know, the 300 approach… Now of course, the problem is our [Nigerian] CG houses here.

They’re good, they’re good. Just‚Ķ” I interjected unheedingly thinking he was trying to let down the local film industry gently.

“Oh, no no no, they are…,” He quickly corrected my misunderstanding, “I’m just saying there aren’t so many [of them]. And oftentimes there is a very big contingent of people who are essentially freelancers, and not necessarily working with major vendors in that sense.”

I felt chastened and glad he corrected me. It was not so much that the local film industry did not have the talent to execute his ideas, it was that the scope of the vision coupled with the growing demands of Nollywood meant there were not enough talented artists. He went on to elaborate on the plans for the movie.

“Essentially, a lot of the shoots will be indoors. We’ll build some sets and we’ll rotoscope those ones”

I was impressed. He wanted to make a rotoscoped film. For a Nigerian filmmaker, that was a huge step and potentially groundbreaking for Nollywood. In spite of the challenge, they had found the right people and begun concept artwork, at least until Nigeria also shut down due to the coronavirus.

“COVID stepped in…, ‘ he stated matter-of-factly, “but we’re still going on. The movie script is also partly based on a comic book we launched some years back. So we are thinking we should have some sort of comic book out. So as to meet with the launch and all that.”

His mention of a comic book companion to the planned movie reminded me of Trinity, his last entry into the Nigerian comic book scene in 2018 through Revolutionary, an offshoot of his Revolution Media company.

With a cover featuring an armed woman and masked man dueling across a large golden snake, it caught the eye. And on an inner page, a priest holding a gun and a bible had just the right hint of subversive appeal that could spark controversy in a deeply religious Nigeria.

And controversy sells.

But I wondered if Trinity did. The Nigerian publishing industry is disjointed and has no independent tracking of sales numbers. Creatives around the world wrestle with finding the channels for their vision and talent to reach the right audience.

In Nigeria and with Revolutionary, it is no different. In fact, with the lack of basic infrastructures, things are worse – as is true for comic creators across much of Africa. And to my surprise, online publishing with its low entry costs and broader distribution opportunities had not made it easier for Revolutionary.

“When we were thinking about Revolutionary, you know, the comic books, we felt that [we needed] four sub imprints. So there’s Prodigy, there’s Dreamwalker, there’s African Queen and there’s Maestro.”

“Dreamwalker, is young adults, teenagers, that kind of thing. That’s where books like an upcoming book [we have called] ‘Naija Hardcore‘ is going. ‘Sahara and the Time Riders‘ is for younger kids, 8 to 12. For those two categories, the idea was to do these comic books, and then have normal novels and novellas.”

“And I found out that Nigerians are maybe a little bit much more amenable to “proper books” than comic books, you know.”

I did in fact know.

Comics have nice art but few pages. Books have more pages and more words. By implication they have more substance. More bang for your buck, or naira, if you will. And by and large, Nigerians are nothing if not pragmatically commonsensical about spending their money.

Which is not to say that people didn’t buy the comic, they did in fact prefer buying the scarce hard copies over the much cheaper digital version. A fact that baffled Nupowaku as it severely limited distribution plans.

“I’m proud of the work we did on Trinity. But I find that many people, in fact an overwhelming number of people, haven’t read it. [Yet] a lot of people bought it… you know? I was taken aback by the fact that people didn’t mind spending two thousand [naira] on just a 42 pager. They were ready to pay for that. And I would wonder, why don’t they just buy a digital copy for 500 naira? Nigeria is still essentially an analog country and all that. So they are thinking ‘Oh my goodness, if I’m going to spend money on this thing that I should be able to hold and touch it’ and all that.”

And thus was proven the tactile hierarchy of publications in Nigeria – many paged books over fewer paged comics over intangible digital media. Clearly the Nigerian comic book market belongs to those who can surmount the twin obstacles of cost of production and distribution in a market more likely to spend on the most expensive medium to produce and ship.

But Nupowaku is nothing if not a survivor. And he’s watching the market keenly to see who is doing things differently and succeeding. A few publishers have caught his eye, and he aims to learn from others. It’s a lesson he learned painfully by not listening in 2007.

“In 2007, I had been interviewed by a South African broadcast outlet, SABC specifically. And so the guy who interviewed me introduced me to one of the managing editors of this very big publishing company in South Africa that was owned by Naspers – probably the biggest media company in Africa. He asked me, the one question that I regret to this day, [because] I gave a very, very idiotic answer.”

“So the guy says, ‘Mr. Sewedo, Have you ever thought, (mind you don’t judge me? This was 2007), have you ever considered putting comic books on phones and laptops?'”

“And then I brashly said, ‘Who will want to read comic books on phones and laptops?!'”

“Oh, my God! I mean, the next year or thereabouts. Comixology launched. Oh, look, I would be rolling in dough right now for crying out loud!”

During our talk, Nupowaku himself provided the background context that he was missing when he faced this situation.

Somehow in 2007, many South African companies made business decisions that implied they feared there was going to be a major recession in 2008. Naspers itself was divesting itself of its printed publications and sold off major brands like FourFourTwo football magazine. They were selling their properties. They were acquiring digital companies.

“I’m sure they were thinking ‘Can we have a digital copies kind of deal with you?’ And you know, like a purist, I felt he had insulted, you know, my comic cred.”

Sewedo Nupowaku laughs heartily at the memory now. There are many more stories. But overall he counts everything in the net positive column of life. His laugh is the self-effacing sound of a man who has moved on and is much the wiser for the experience. And as a man with his share of tales of missed opportunities, I laugh heartily with him.

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