We’ve heard she has the superhuman ability to count 1000 ants without losing track. Some say she can hear a mongoose napping underground from two kilometres away. It’s even been theorised that she knows the pop song the whales are really singing in the Iziko Whale Well. And many believe she is Eliza Thornberry’s third cousin, born in the heart of South Africa. All we know is that she is our, Iziko’s, super curious friend, Mbali.
Mbali came to life on the 5th of February 2020 when we presented our character ideas to our very talented exhibition designer and illustrator, Nkosingiphile Mazibuko. The idea for Mbali (meaning “Flower”) came about while developing a pop-up exhibition for Earth Day. Mbali was to be the friendly face that guided children through our Earth Day activities, helping them explore our ‘Climate Action’ projects and objects on display.
We chose a character that would be recognisable, approachable, and relatable to most South Africans. The white shirt and grey pants worn by South African schoolchildren, although not a stereotypical superhero costume, was perfect for Mbali. She is a hero that would help a classmate with hard homework or pick up litter in the playground.
We chose to make Mbali tell our stories in a way that is easy to understand, engaging enough to be remembered and impactful enough to change minds. Mbali is the learner that’s always in attendance at the school of South Africa’s Natural History and Heritage.
When Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were implemented, we feared Mbali’s story would be lost as we couldn’t open the exhibition to the public. Some hope remained, as we had already made the comic style assets for the exhibition, and had developed the story and character we all loved. All we needed was a bit of courage and creativity and we would have a webcomic.
The graphic novel (webcomic) style was a quicker, more effective online medium than turning the physical exhibition into an online virtual 3D tour. This format would also allow us to develop a more linear narrative style, highlighting this hero’s journey as she explored the environmental sciences and stories.
The webcomic adaptation had other benefits that fitted our design aim of accessibility. We needed a small-file-size format that would be easy to distribute and help bridge the digital divide. The format was intentionally developed to be best suited to reading on your phone and forwarded via WhatsApp, at no or minimal cost. This allowed us to reach out to every parent, teacher, and educator we had within our personal WhatsApp network. We also made use of the official Iziko social media, and Mbali is still hosted on the Iziko website for anyone who wishes to read her webcomic.
Aside from accessibility, the choice of a webcomic was appealing because of the success of comics. Comics have been an influential medium of storytelling throughout history. Serialized images can be found in Egyptian hieroglyphs and on Greek vases telling tales of myths and legends. More recently the impact of comics is seen in the popularity of movies adapted from the pages of ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Batman’, or the lesser-known ‘The Mask’ and ‘300’ released in 1994 and 2006 respectively.
Villains and heroes often mirror those who fought conflicts and generational challenges. This has kept the medium relevant during different periods of history. A character’s successes and failures shared important ideas and ideals with the public – specifically via newspapers, magazines, graphic novels and, more recently, webcomics.
The form of comic we are most familiar with gained popularity during and after World War II. Although subjects of comics have varied since then – from historical, to spiritual or political – the medium is currently evolving into an important medium for science education. Comics have seen renewed importance as an effective science communication tool for helping to break down fears around controversial science topics – such as stem cell research. EuroStemCells success with their webcomic, Hope Beyond Hype, has given the medium new relevance in the field. In essence, comics use characters and their stories to help break-down overwhelming challenges and foreboding topics while leaving the audience with a powerful sense of awe and hope. This was an important aim of the Earth Day 2020 exhibition and made the webcomic medium even more appealing.
As a team we found the experience of putting this webcomic together to be enthralling, confusing and stressful; nevertheless, it was a wonderful experience. Because we had not used this medium before, in the context of our museum, we felt like what we were doing was on the frontier of public engagement in our community. In the fears surrounding the Covid-19 lockdown, we felt there was an even deeper need for the public to experience this uplifting story and celebrate Earth Day from the safety of their homes. So aside from time constraints and budget limitations, we were given creative freedom to make this content available to the public. It was a steep learning curve for most of our team, luckily, we had comic-book enthusiasts and veterans to inspire us, a science communicator to craft fun dialogue, and tireless and talented exhibition designers to keep us going.
We still have much to learn about this medium and how to get it to our audience. Because we distributed the webcomic via WhatsApp for easy distribution and accessibility, we didn’t get the evaluation and feedback we desired, and as a team we regret this. Currently, we are not sure how much of the target audience was able to access Mbali’s Earth Day Adventures, even though the reviews we received from parents, educators and teachers were overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. In future, if we were to create a webcomic we would have to consider how we would build in a form of feedback so that we can understand the public’s reaction and know what children are feeling when they read our content. This is the best way Mbali’s story can develop and grow.
We hope that Mbali will continue to find new adventures to explore and share. We would like to thank everyone that supported Mbali’s Earth Day Adventures and our Earth Day 2020 exhibition. Many people gave their time and effort freely to make this project possible and without your support, this project would never have happened. We hope that our reflections will inspire more stories to be shared in this dynamic and vibrant medium. More importantly, we hope that those who read Mbali’s webcomic felt inspired to become superheroes themselves.