Etan Comics - An Ethiopian Outlook on Superheroes
An entertainment company that publishes comics inspired by African and Ethiopian stories. They cover a range of genres from fantasy to superhero, folklore, and adventure.
Watching spider-man into the spider-verse or black panther might have quenched your thirst for seeing people who look like you on the big screen, but it’s not quite enough, is it? We still want that feeling of relatability; we don’t see Peter Parker hail a bole taxi or walk the streets of Addis. But what if we could? Not Peter but Amanuel, an Ethiopian superhero.
Loline interviewed the founder of Etan comics, an entertainment company that publishes comics inspired by African and Ethiopian stories that cover a range of genres from fantasy to superhero, folklore, and adventure. Beserat Debebe, the founder, is the writer and publisher of these stories.
Like most kids who grew up in Addis Ababa, Beserat watched Ababa Tesfaye, used his taxi money to rent animation movies, played mortal combat with his friends, and enjoyed power rangers. He does not remember where his father brought that cassette of the 1941 superman movie, but he remembers re-watching that one episode a dozen times and more. He loved animated stories. He did not know what comic books were until he moved to the states with his family at age 15. He would then learn about comics, grow to love them, and read a wide range of genres.
Beserat is an aeronautical engineer by profession, so Loline asked why he chose this field. “When I went to college, I had no plans of writing comic books. My goal when moving to America with my family was like any other immigrant’s. I wanted to get a good education, a good job, and a stable life. I liked engineering and performed well in math and science, so I decided to study aeronautical engineering. The comic books and graphic novels came after I graduated, worked for a while, and decided to focus on my interests while experimenting with different ideas."
How it started
The journey of Etan comics began in Beserat’s office. It was a regular work day, and Beserat was sitting at his desk when Biruktawit Tigabu’s Tibeb girls appeared on the News. These Ethiopian power puff girls are three heroines created to teach young girls about the many changes they will go through during adolescence. Beserat loved the animation and the purpose of the story. His love for graphic novels and comics came rushing back, connecting all the dots. "I did not have much experience in storytelling. I had so many moments of ‘what am I even doing?’ and so many doubts, but I took it one page at a time and gradually improved. Jember came out around the same time black panther did, in 2018, and it had an incredible reception; the whole experience was surreal." Beserat reveals.
The comic books
Loline asked Beserat to give us a summary of the comic books published under Etan comics so far. Without spoilers, of course.
Jember follows Amanuel Tilahun, a recent college graduate searching for a job. Beserat says the current unemployment situation in Ethiopia inspired the story of Jember. “This situation is challenging and makes you question your self-worth. So, what happens if you’re given superpowers in this situation? How is it going to change your life? Does getting power increase self-worth? Does getting a job? We see Jember face these questions in a city that is not New York and is definitely not applauding a masked man with strange powers.“
In the same universe, we have Hawi, the story of Emnet Legesse. Emnet is adventurous, but her mother is very protective due to an event that made them move to the states in the first place. On their way back to Ethiopia, Emnet's mother gets kidnapped by a masked mercenary out of a portal. Emnet jumps along and finds herself in an epic fantasy world inspired by the Aksumite empire. We get to see Emnet's journey of self-discovery while being awed by the glory of the Aksum Kingdom, one of the top four world powers of the time, along with Persia and Chinese kingdoms.
Moving on to Zufan in a separate universe, we have a sci-fi story inspired by the victory of Adwa. “Most Ethiopians are familiar with the story of Adwa, so I did not want to re-tell that. In Zufan, set in 2100, we have planets that are light-years away from Earth where the aliens reside, but they face a shortage of resources and other problems. So, they decide to look for other galaxies and find Earth. Explorers, business aliens, and politicians of the planet with different purposes come to scramble for Earth. It is exciting to see the story through this lens and figure out what’s happening in this universe that we know a version of.” he shares.
Beserat also shared why he named the company ‘Etan Comics.’ “I loved the smell of incense from my childhood. We had it at home when we had guests over or at church; I associate Etan with good moments and places. I want our readers to feel that way when seeing and reading our books.”
You’re probably wondering,” Is now the right time to say MCU what? “ (Nothing’s impossible in this universe.)
Sensi’ils and the comic book industry
Beserat advocates and pushes for the name ‘SENSI’IL’ (read Sen-si-il or ሰንስዕል) to be used in place of ‘comic books.’ The word traces its roots to the 17th century Ethiopian books called 'Sensul' that told religious stories with drawings. They were known as accordion books because they folded like an accordion. These books are still in use today. “We did not want to dilute their specific use, and we also needed a new term that could accommodate other genres outside of religious storytelling. Sensi’il is a portmanteau of Sensel and si'il, meaning sequential art.”
“Readers want to learn about others’ cultures and perspectives. I learned about Japan by reading Naruto and about America by watching superman. As Ethiopians, we have our own values and traditions. So, instead of completely adopting another culture, we can nourish and update our own.” Beserat claims.
Loline asked Beserat what the best part of writing a comic book is. Beserat answered, "Being able to think something in your mind and then having that in your hands to touch, feel and share it with others. This journey also allowed me to research and read about Ethiopian history."
Beserat also told us about the all-African team at Etan comics. "We mainly work with Nigeria and South Africa-based artists. I initially wanted to work with Ethiopian artists, but they weren’t doing comics. Then I met Stanley Obende, who is now our artist. You can do a comic book alone, but it is much more effective if you do it with different people having different ideas."
Challenges and future plan
The road to success is not without obstacles, and there are no superpowers to smooth them. But with enough passion and hard work, it can lead to greater heights. At Etan comics, they have faced several challenges, ranging from prejudice towards comics to logistics and distribution challenges. The absence of comic book printing companies and the reluctance of bookstore owners to carry the books also add to the challenge. Although the problems are not entirely solved, the community is now more aware of the books and is ecstatic to have them.
Independent comic book publishing is no easy feat. But with the community’s support, Etan comics has come a long way. They have had 88,000+ orders on Kickstarter, the NOMMO awards shortlisted Jember, and Hawi has gotten international acclaim for being the first Ethiopian female superhero. And they certainly do not plan to stop here.
“In the future, we want to develop the sensi'il culture, work with African artists, and publish different types of stories, folktales, mythologies, and more from all over Africa. We want to connect people with their history and culture. We also have long-term plans of expanding to video games, animations, and TV.”
Sum and substance
We might watch movies or read books for entertainment, but we still want to get something back from those stories. We want to learn, grow, see places and imagine. Beyond providing these stories, ETAN also fosters a community willing to learn and see beyond one’s perspective. The sensi'il community on Telegram, where comic book creators share ideas, and resources and learn from each other, is a prime example.
This story is about superheroes and superpowers, but it is also about finding meaning, representation, and inspiration. Beserat concluded by advising the youth to keep learning, growing, practicing their craft, and putting out content. Your dream might seem unreachable, but all you have to do is take it one day at a time and be consistent in flipping the pages. When it gets hard, look into these stories to have a good time, feel at home and expand your imagination.
You can find the books at Jaffar and Emana bookstore (Getu commercial bldg, 2nd floor). The books are also available at Abrehot and Womezekir libraries.