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Saturday, September 9, 2017

SOUTH AFRICAN PULP

 SOUTH AFRICAN PULP

Last year, I wrote a post examining the phenomenon of Lance Spearman (CLICK HERE), the superhero spy (known as the black James Bond) of a long running series of South African fotoboekies or look books/photo books—a term coined for magazines featuring action photographs accompanied by comic strip style captions. These hybrid comics are relatively unknown in America. However in many other parts of the world, these comic mash-ups had a rabid following from the ‘60s to the late ‘80s. In Africa, fotoboekies served as surrogate movies—a way to tell film-like stories—at a time when commercial African cinema had not yet been invented. 

Recently, I came across an interesting short documentary on YouTube (CLICK HERE) celebrating South African fotoboekies kultuur—which translates as pulp photo story culture. I also came across a trove of covers for a photo-book series named after its gorgeous title character, Tessa, a platinum blonde who battled evil the jungles of urban South Africa clad only in a bikini and high heels. Clashing with sinister looking individuals wearing bad suit and sunglasses, Tessa always came out on top, with not a strand of her bottled blonde hair out of place. 

To her ardent continent-wide fans, Tessa, the bikini-clad, Karate kicking government agent, was akin to a goddess. Every 30,000 copy issue of Tessa sold out almost instantaneously on the newsstands—creating a lucrative secondhand market. Those 30,000 copies in today’s Internet savvy market would equal numbers to put the Kardashian’s Twitter followers to shame.

The South African publishing company Republican Press were the low-budget force behind the phenomenon of the photo comics Tessa and Kid Colt, as well as the Playboy knockoff Scope. At its zenith, Republican Press was printing 20 different fotoboekies a month. Grafting Western influenced literary myths onto African settings, fotoboekies were most often written by authors based in Johannesburg—many of them black South African students working for minimal pay—then photographed by white professional shutterbugs using a team of black actors in Swaziland. 

The actors were mostly locals from working-class neighborhoods. While the top fotoboekie  models were paid 25 to 30 rand a day—which at the time was a lucrative way to pay your rent—most appearance fees were negligible. The recognizable main male actors were generally consider eccentric, hard-living, womanizers. Working quickly, an entire book could be shot in one to three days depending on the complexity of the simple sets. 

 

There were also army heroes—Swart Luiperd, Wit Tier, Kaptein Duiwel, Grensvegter (Black Leopard, White Tiger, Captain Devil, Grantsman) and others. They were most often depicted out in the jungle clutching their wooden machine guns, killing cigar smoking Cuban clones. Almost always, the villains held the proverbial disheveled damsel in distress captive after her convoy/aircraft/helicopter/hospital was invaded/crashed/broke down. The real South African soldiers who read these outrageous tales figured they could go back to civilian life if only these heroes existed outside their fervent imaginations.

Fotoboekie cowboy heroes were also featured regularly. Danie van Rensburg was Ruiter in the Swart (Rider In Black), one of the first photo books published by Republican Press in 1966. Ruiter in the Swart became arguably the most popular of the cowboy fotoboekies

The storyline focused on  the character of Ben riding across the 1880s Lowveld—a low-lying subtropical climate where broad-leaved trees and thorn trees co-exist in relatively open woodland, interspersed with long grass and lots of game. After his son is kidnapped, Ben makes it his life's ambition to root out evil while searching for his son.

When the series ended after 17 years and 491 issues, Ben's son was still missing, but many evil-doers had been put down. In 2012, the character was still fondly remembered. Ruiter in Swart Productions produced a film version, which brought Danie van Rensburg to his most popular role 30 years after the last print version. 

In the movie version, Ben is retired from the ZARP (Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek Polisie). When evidence his long lost son, Eben, is leading a gang of cattle rustler, Ruiter in Swart has no hesitation in donning his famous black outfit, strapping on his gun belt, saddling his black stallion, and setting out in pursuit.

In a real world twist, Ruiter in Swart’s manly star, Danie van Rensburg, was married to Erna van der Westhuisen, the sexy lady who played Tessa.

Etienne van der Westhuizen starred as Kid Die Swerwer (Kid Colt), a fotoboekie cowboy who would share pages with Tessa as the popularity of the photo book declined. Born in a province of South Africa known as Free State, Etienne van der Westhuizen was an outstanding college rugby player.

While sitting on the beach when the weather was to bad to go fishing, he was approached by a fotoboekie scout who asked if he was interested in playing a part in a Western photo story. Fortunately for Etienne, he could ride horses and do stunt work. After the first week, he was hired to work on a regular basis. 

Many of the cowboy fotoboekies where shot at an old monastery, which was the perfect backdrop for a Western. Etienne was constantly riding horses for every issue only to have to fall off them again and again to be sure of capturing the right photo. Another Western set were the scrub bushes and sand dunes in an area around the Umgababa. The dunes were so steep the horses couldn’t be used. However, if a script called for desert sequences, Etienne and the other actors had to create their scenes on the difficult slopes. Etienne eventually became an organizer—taking charge of photo stories and organizing the wardrobe, changes of clothing, and continuity.

Of his time starring as Kid Die Swerwer, Etienne is quoted as saying:

Friends from yesteryear still call me Kid—but back then it was very much a name. At one stage, right at the beginning of the book, it was very hard to sit in a restaurant and not have kids point at you and have people ask whether you were that guy from the book. At the end of the day, I thought of myself more as a stunt rider than anything else, but I got to meet lovely people from all walks of life. Whenever we needed extras, we’d go down to the beach and chat to folks—usually backpackers from Australia or New Zealand—and offer them bit parts. It was great fun.

The Hang Fire Books blog features a post (CLICK HERE) with an account from Dianne, a model who was often featured as a secondary character in the Tessa books...

Most of the filming was done at Republican Press in Mobeni, Durban. They had a separate section which was used for photo stories and they had various sets arranged—a jail, operating theatre, doctors office, etc.

On the whole, it only took a morning to shoot the entire book. We used to get there by 0830 and were finished between 1200 and 1400 depending on your part in the book. We would bring three day outfits, one evening outfit, and a bikini. All of us became quite adept at changing in the back of the Combi [a slang word for the VW van used on sets as a trailer for the actors]. It was a good laugh to go through the books when they were published and see all the mistakes that were made!

These mass produced popular culture pulps, along with many similar fotoboekies, were considered disposable at the time of their publication. Today, they have become lovingly remembered collectors items and even a literary history of their times.

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