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Mandela the reluctant comic book hero

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Johannesburg (dpa) - Nelson Mandela joined the likes of Superman, Batman and Judge Dredd on Friday with the launch of the first in a nine-part comic book series outlining the life and times of the South African hero and international political icon.

The frail, grey haired 87-year-old who can now barely walk unassisted, admits to deteriorating eyesight, appears to tire easily and is always surrounded by a shield of anxious caretakers, made a brief appearance at the event in Johannesburg.

"You know that you are really famous on the day that you discover that you have become a comic character," he told journalists, sponsors and guests, eliciting much laughter at the launch of the "Madiba Legacy" Series at the offices of his foundation in Johannesburg.

In the first publication, a 24-page volume titled: "A son of the Eastern Cape", a speech bubble attached to a mud hut in a rural setting announces his birth with an exclamation of "WAAAAAHHHHH!".

The pages that follow trace the early life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in Mveso village, a part of the Thembu Kingdom in the southeast of the country, illustrating in colourful snippets the games he played as a child, his friendships, his school days and the death of his father.

It also details how he fled home to avoid entering into an arranged marriage as a teenager and shows how he and a friend stole and then sold some of the regent's cattle to fund their escape from the district to a nearby town and later the city of Johannesburg.

The comic concludes with the statement: "They have finally made it to the city of gold - what challenges lie ahead?".

The comic book series forms part of the Mandela Centre for Memory and Commemoration project that was launched last year as a means of preserving the aging figure's legacy.

It is intended as an educational tool and, according John Samuel, the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, designed to reach the country's huge youth audience by circumventing barriers to accessing literature such as prohibitive costs, uneven distribution networks and low literacy levels.

Describing Mandela as "one of the greatest gifts to the world" Samuel said using a comic to communicate Mandela's story did not signal a simplification of his life. In fact, he noted, research for the work included the extensive use of archive material and "conversations with Madiba".

Mandela expressed hope that the comic would encourage reading, particularly among young people. A million copies of the launch instalment is to be distributed to schools and through newspapers at no charge.

Speaking about his love for the written word on Friday, Mandela said reading and deep reflection were "advantages" in prison. He expressed hope that the comic would encourage reading, particularly among young people.

The man who is as widely admired for humility and charm as he is for his achievements, spent nearly 27 years in prison for resisting white domination. He was released in 1990 and became the country's first democratically elected president in 1994.

For Umlando Wezithombe, the company commissioned to create the comics, Mandela's tale in comic form marks the first in many "positive stories" about black South African heroes that are still to be told, said director Nic Buchanan.

His illustrators, artists from South Africa, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, opted for a photo realistic style for their work that, he noted, will include images of torture, murder and other "difficult scenes" relevant to Mandela's life as the series progresses.

History books in South Africa have lacked critical information for a long time, Buchanan notes, outlining his company's plan to produce comics on other black South African heroes and significant pre- colonial civilizations and events.

"With heroes like Mandela and Steve Biko we have so much to be proud of," he noted.

Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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