Point Blank Evumbi Thriving in comic book writing

  • PublishedMarch 29, 2017

So you know how people say they always knew they were going to pursue a certain skill or profession because it runs in the family?

Well, that’s not my story. My father is an academician and my mother an entrepreneur. Me? I’m an artist. Drawing is all I have always wanted to do, much to my dad’s confusion.

Accepting the call…
I grew up in a large family in Dagoretti in the outskirts of Nairobi. Often times I felt like a round peg in a square hole as I struggled to become a ‘model’ student with good grades.

However, as fate would have it, I was not a bookworm or the eye candy; or the stellar athlete or witty clown. So I let my imagination run wild. The freedom I found getting lost in fiction, fantasies and movies became a sweet escape, laying the perfect foundation for my dalliance with the comic publishing world, which took root pretty quickly.

I became an avid comic book collector, always looking to giant industry names such as Marvel Comics, publishers of Captain America and Spiderman, and DC Comics publishers of Batman and Superman for inspiration.

In my teenage years, my curiosity increased and I started putting some ideas on paper then emailing them to Image Comics Publishers, an independent publishing house founded by some of the initial creators and illustrators of the X-Men and Wolverine comic series.

They never wrote back. I then reasoned they probably had more than enough emails to go through so they either never got around to mine or they went to spam.

At the age of 17, in my struggle to ‘excel’ in school, I had an epiphany after I scored poorly in a mathematics quiz.

I figured my father would be livid and I was at my wits end as to how I’d explain myself out of his disappointment. Amidst that confusion, my art teacher requested to see me briefly.

A few weeks earlier, she’d convinced me to enter an arts competition and I submitted two pieces. As it turned out, both pieces had won and I ended up winning Ksh6,000!

It was then that it dawned on me that the works of my hands were good enough to sustain me and I immediately stopped struggling.

I decided that from that point on, whatever it is I would do with my life, I would be brutally true to myself. It was then I took on the moniker Point Blank.

After high school, I started scouting for colleges to study illustration with the end goal being to work as an illustrator for an international publishing giant. I had set my sights high and identified a college in New Jersey, USA, where one of my heroes, illustrator Joe Kubert, was tutoring.

Unfortunately, my family couldn’t afford the school fees. So I looked for the next best thing and enrolled at Shang Tao Media Arts College in Nairobi in 2005.

A year later, after graduating with my certificate and working as a freelancer, the school invited me to join the faculty as an associate lecturer. It didn’t feel like a cop out putting my publishing ideas on hold for the new job.

However, after two years, the study bug bit and I enrolled into the Creative Arts College to study renaissance art, effectively setting myself on a course I consider unprecedented hitherto, yet successful entry into Kenya’s entertainment industry.
The renaissance begins…
In my high school years, following an embarrassing challenge by a student one grade lower than I to compete with him in a rap battle (that student was King Kaka, currently one of Kenya’s finest lyricists), I realised that rapping came easily to me. I took advantage of that and when Channel O Emcee Africa came calling in South Africa I represented Kenya and won.

I didn’t think much of it but when word got back home, things started moving very fast. Suddenly, everyone wanted to interview me, or partner up for collaborations. Invitations to emcee events also started coming in fast and thick.

Thanks to my emceeing skills, I ended up hosting the WAPI? (Words and Pictures) events for the Kenya British Council. Soon enough, I was offered an opportunity by Ghetto Radio to host a hip-hop segment. I had arrived and the world was going to sit up and listen. Little did I realise that that attitude would be my undoing.

Being in my mid-twenties, no responsibilities, having grown-up in a middle class setting where you only heard stories of how the ‘other side’ lived, and with plenty of loose change, I was determined to live my life up. I paid top dollar for anything I wanted.

I never thought the gravy train would come to an end, but that’s exactly what happened in 2011. Kenya, just like the rest of the world, was reeling from the effects of the US recession.

Entrepreneurs and corporates alike slashed their budgets and events fizzled out. Basically, I was out of a job. I had also at that point resigned from my radio-hosting job following work place related frustrations. Things were not looking up and I found myself back home living with my parents at the age of 29 after my landlord evicted me.

That situation was a game changer for me. I took some time to regroup and think about what I really wanted to do with my life and came back to comic book publishing.

However, I didn’t want to publish just any type of comics. The Kenyan comic book publishing world is highly driven by NGO’s.

Most comics end up being about passing on some informative message such as sexuality, agriculture and so on. I, however, wanted to write adventure stories.

I also had another epiphany. Often times, we think an external force would appear out of nowhere and fulfill our dreams. We don’t look to and believe in ourselves as being sufficient enough to fulfill our own dreams.

Once I made this connection, I realised I didn’t need to go abroad to publish comic books. With some money I had made from a music project, I registered my own company – PBE Publishing Limited – and set to work, finishing my first two-book issue series Home Guard in 2012.

Kenyans identify with the name, which in its colonial setting basically means a collaborator. In my book, it is the reverse. It is a derogatory term labelled on good, uncorrupt policemen by dirty cops as a psychological weapon to discourage them even as they deal with corruption within the force.

As we speak, even after two print runs, the book is sold out, which just confirms that Kenya has the buying power and interest in such books and genres. Ironically, while we thought it is millenials who would buy the books, our biggest sales came from the generation X.

Maybe because the book’s setting is in the seventies. If the transition sounds easy, it wasn’t. The year was 2013 and being an election year, most people, including investors who had pledged to support my publishing projects, were jittery and pulled out.

After a lot of brainstorming, following a partnership with two other friends, Sidney and Rodney Afande, we decided to self-publish Home Guard.

Luckily, just prior to that, I got an animation contract and got back into employment and that helped with finances.

Aside from being my maiden publishing project, the Home Guard series is special to me because it is an homage to the art of comic book writing in Kenya.

The local artists I grew up reading wrote detective comics. As someone who loved Modesty Blaise on Daily Nation and Maddo’s Miguel Sede in The Standard, I fell in love with the black and white comic book noir. Miguel Sede was particularly special because its setting was Kenya.

In 2016, there was an exhibition by the Goethe Institute in Kenya and Germany and Maddo was sent to represent the artistes participating. Later on as I went through some of the events photos, lo and behold, Maddo was holding Miguel Sede and Home Guard side by side.

To me that was validation. Seeing my hero holding my book made me feel like I have no excuses to make. Since the release of the Home Guard series, I’ve published two books in the Adventures of NRUFF: Super DJ series, again self-funded and sold out. Adventures of NRUFF: Super DJ is based on a DJ who gets super powers through music and uses that to do good in space.

It had three print runs. Of course, the proceeds are not what some may call a killing so I do other animation and events contracts on the side to support the publishing.
Lessons learnt…
There are plenty of things I’ve learnt along the way but the biggest lesson of all is definitely financial management. I’ve learnt the value of money and how to quantify it so much so that I walk with a notebook to help evaluate my spending habits.

I believe in personal evolution and hence never settle for doing one single thing. One of the phrases I live by is from US President Donald Trump. He once said that in order to succeed, one needs to find a need in a market, be the only one to satisfy it and do it so well, that no one can beat you at it.

While plenty of people quantify success with assets, for me, the epitome of success is the legacy of a name.

Anyone with the name Marley, King or Mandela can have doors opened to them anywhere in the world because of their pedigree.

I want the same for my children. It is this desire and my faith in God that keeps me grounded, and motivates me to refine my craft always.

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