It has been a while since the last time I’ve explored the LinkedIn group Comics and Graphic Novels. Said group is still very much active, and creative authors, akin to Lucy Freeman, continue to link their works and promote new projects. One such author promoted his own graphic novel, his second authorial work overall, digitally on Amazon. The work in question is titled Phantoms of the Lake.
This review, I ought to stress, comes with a certain dose of excitement. Namely, this would be the first time ever that I review a comic book created completely by an African native author – the creator of the graphic novel is Jackson Onyango Konyango from Kenya – plus, his graphic novel would the second comic book overall that I own which happens to be created by an author from this particular continent (the first would be the graphic novel „Aga“ by Ethiopian artist Minas Kahsay Halefom, published in Serbian by the Bosnian-Herzegovinian comic publisher Deveta dimenzija). The comic book culture in Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, offers a lot of variety and requires deep and detailed research, especially regarding comics published over the past three decades or so. But this isn’t an article about the history and the legacy of a medium; the focus here is on a creator that’s just starting out and presenting his work to the audience worldwide.
With that in mind, what does Konyango have to offer with his second graphic novel?
Let’s summarize the plot first. Phantoms of the Lake contains six chapters, with the story revolving around the Vvenda people, the inhabitants of a remote archipelago, whose friends and family are slowly being taken away due to constant threat of the Phantoms, a certain race that lives on the nearby continent. The heads of the Vvenda frequently send their banner men (dubbed the Dele Dam) to deal with the threat, but it always ends in failure, with none of the banner men returning alive. A young banner man, Ah’etta, will end this chain of death via his own sacrifice, sailing to the continent. I’m avoiding going into detail on purpose – I highly implore you to read the comic; it’s available for free on Kindle, so make sure to download it ASAP.
With Phantoms of the Lake, the first element that requires looking into is the worldbuilding. Konyango skillfully and meticulously crafts this story’s world, and even at the beginning of the graphic novel we have a map describing what’s going on and where the plot takes place. Even on a micro-level, i.e. the forests, the towns, etc., Konyango provides plenty of details and skillfully illustrates every aspect of the daily lives of the Vvenda. An equal amount of effort is invested in the architecture, the clothing, the props, and, my personal favorite, the designs of the enemy Phantoms.
The second element, one worthy of an objective analysis, is the art. Konyango has a specific style which clearly fits the surroundings he aims to illustrate. What I would personally recommend the author is to focus on improving the anatomy of his characters and to diversify their designs. As is the case with many independent artists, Konyango shows some evident missteps when it comes to illustrating the human body, and additional practice regarding perspective would also greatly benefit his art. Considering he did all of the penciling, inking, and colors himself, it’s obvious that he opted for some quick and easy solutions in certain panels, which resulted in some slightly clunky depictions of ships, waves, plant life, and so on.
However, what he lacks in human anatomy art-wise, Konyango more than makes up for in storytelling. The plot is self-contained and flows nicely, and other than a few segments which are a little sparse and unexplored (for instance, the hypnotic call to a rower by a Phantom near the middle of the graphic novel, as well as Bah’etta’s background story) and a few spots where there were walls of dialogue meant to churn out exposition, the entire project is, overall, fairly well written. You can tell that Konyango had a clear vision for the story he wanted to tell, and that’s precisely the story we got.
This clear vision is also evident in the bonus sketches the author provided at the end of the graphic novel. The details he put in his building design, the selection of a varied palette of colors to represent different aspects of emotion that the Phantoms affect, all of that is evidence of hard work and research that Konyango invested during the creation of the comic. The cherry on top is the explanation of Vvenda terms in English between the chapters, as well as the inclusion of the native script on public declarations within the story – this is a Kenyan comic, but represented in such a way that it draws the reader in, allowing him to peer into the world of the author and welcoming him with open arms.
Taking everything into consideration, Phantoms of the Lake is definitely a story worth your time. Konyango is not a complete beginner (again, this is his second published work overall), but he’s also not a seasoned veteran of a few decades. In essence, he is currently in the single most optimal period of his authorial life, where there’s still room for improvement, but with unique qualities that, as a complete author, make him stand out and shine. Once again, I highly recommend reading this comic, and secretly hope that this is but an introduction into the world of Kenyan comic authors, and that they will, in a decade or two, manage to create some spectacular pieces of the 9th art that will take the world by storm.
Ivan Veljković, December 1st 2023