Shaka Rising is a graphic novel authored and illustrated by Luke W. Molver, a South African fine artist and graphic designer. The story is set in the late 18th century on the southeast coast of Africa, during a “time of bloody conflict and great turmoil” as Europeans moved further inland and the slave trade encroached on a young prince’s kingdom.

It begins with Gogo, an elder, announcing that the story of the young prince is the “story that is part of all of our stories…it is in the clay of our homes…in our blood and our bones.”

It goes on to chronicle the journey of Shaka, the son of Zulu chief Senzanghakona, starting with his struggle for succession against his brother Sigujana, which leads to his exile. Shaka then joins the neighbouring northern kingdom of King Dingiswayo and earns his stripes as a wise and accomplished warrior. However, he returns to his home to assume his responsibility as leader of the Zulu people when tribes attempt to conquer new territories and imprison soldiers for the slave trade.

This series opener concludes poised to continue the saga and legend of Shaka, as the Zulu nation begins to emerge as a strong, unified kingdom that will shape centuries of southern African history.

In a glowing review, Trevor R. Getz, author of Abina and the Important Men, described the graphic novel as “an innovative effort to use the comics medium to bridge the gap between academic history and folklore. In the hands of South African creator Luke Molver, this graphic novel converges the work of historians with oral tradition to propose an interpretation of Shaka’s story that is both intellectual and accessible, at once an epic legend and a work of historical fiction.”

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Graphic novels have been a popular form of communication, education and entertainment. More and more graphic novels, specifically from African writers and illustrators, are being released each year.

Speaking on this topic, Molver told Story Press Africa, “During the Apartheid years in South Africa, political cartooning was (and still is) a powerful force in newspapers and counter-cultural zines. In more recent years, the comic book scene has expanded beyond political and editorial cartoons into longer-form narratives and stories.

“Unfortunately, industry infrastructure and support is still largely lacking. A lot of comic book creators work similarly to me – self-publishing their work as labours of love,” he added.

Each book in the series will have 96 pages: 64 pages of the actual story and 32 pages of back matter to introduce new readers to the backstory. Those pages include a historical context, cultural particulars, discussion questions and a glossary.

“The reading guide gives readers insight into the production of this kind of history. Shaka Rising would work well in the classroom in combination with other, more academic histories of this event of global and African significance, but it is also an immensely enjoyable read on its own,” Trevor R. Getz concluded his review.

Shaka Rising has been praised by The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, Booklist and the Midwest Book Review.

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Molver’s influences are varied, which helps him create his unique illustration style. He told Story Press Africa, “I drew a lot of my early artistic inspiration from the muscular, painterly colouring of Simon Bisley, the intricate line work of Brian Bolland, the starkly distinctive black and white style of Frank Miller, the expansive, flat colour and meticulous ink stippling of Moebius, and the subtlety of form and pose captured by Frank Frazetta.”

The illustrator also told Kickstarter that the story entirely changed his preconceived notions. “I was, like most, only familiar with pop-culture’s Shaka Zulu: a warrior prince, violent and terrific. I knew very little of the nuanced and complex figure whose legacy has shaped South African history. I was to learn not only the immensity of Shaka’s influence on warfare, but also his ground-breaking innovations in politics and leadership. Shaka Rising is an epic tale set in a different age, but its characters and themes are as familiar to us as sibling rivalry, the heartache of a lost love, or simply a yearning to belong. It is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a saga of war and politics.”

Molver allows Shaka to retain flaws and scars that keep him human, as opposed to the historical depiction that paints him as a kind of demigod. This gives the graphic novel the layers that make it a must-read.