Adastra in Africa by Barry Windsor-Smith is a visual masterpiece with a deep cutting story. It follows a young, exiled goddess from another realm –deep into a horrible famine in Africa.
This is a bittersweet story. While it offers hope it exposes the lie that “modernity” the panacea to heal hunger. It exposes the indignity a people suffer when they do not have the means to feed themselves.
It challenges stereotypes and has a very controversial message at heart -while others can help, in the long-term nobody can save you but yourself.
And above all Adastra’s tale is told in one of the most beautiful, detail rich works of sequential art you will ever see!
Want to find out why this controversial graphic novel took over ten years to go from initial concept to reality? Want to find out why Marvel refused to publish this story even though Barry Windsor-Smith was one of the hottest creator in the 70s and 90s?
A Story Too Real for Marvel –Life and Death in Famine
Barry Windsor-Smith (BWS) originally meant Adastra in Africa to be the third, and final, installment of his story ‘Lifedeath’ in Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men series. The much acclaimed story arch featured the much beloved African mutant and weather ‘goddess’ Storm.
But Marvel’s editors got cold feet. The Ethiopian famine of the 80s was still in public memory and a similar disaster was brewing in neighboring Somali.
Needless to say this topic was then, just like today, way too political for a mainstream, commercial publisher like Marvel –especially because the story raised some uncomfortable questions about the status quo.
And worst of all, the story called ended with a character sacrificing himself so that his people could live. The editors interpreted this as BWS glorifying suicide!
They could not have been more wrong.
So BWS was forced to shelf the story. But after nearly a decade he decided to dust it off and publish it through indy outfit Fanta graphics.
Storm was out, replaced by a very similar goddess called Adastra, from BWS’ ‘Young Gods’ series.
Keeping Old Promises
Adastra finds herself in some unspecified African region that is hit by a severe draught. Companies from wealthy countries had come to this corner of the world with promises of modernity, beckoning with jobs in industrial agriculture and factories.
But their promises are hollow. Tractors rust in the fields, irrigation canals are half built and the factories stand in ruin.
The local people have forgotten how their ancestors survived before all this.
And a horrible draught has turned a once fertile land into a desert.
It’s here that Adastra in Africa begins to challenge to common narrative of the causes of famine in Africa.
Our beautiful goddess has come to this place of suffering and death to honor a promise to a long dead friend.
Once she arrives the people worship her as their savior and she reflects on how things were different when her friend, the shaman Mijnari was alive.
While the tribe has forgotten much, they have not forgotten the ritual and faith that their ancestors used to beseech the gods for rain.
Adastra ascends into the heavens and uses her power over the elements to bring down rain onto a dry and thirsty land. The people rejoice, but Adastra know that it won’t be enough.
She knows that filling the ponds and reservoirs with water is only a short-term fix. The land is dead, and the tribe will die with it unless it can be resurrected. Adastra despairs because the power to do this is beyond even her.
Hope Amongst Suffering
It is here where we witness a miracle. As the rain hits the grave of her dead friend, lush green plants and trees begin to spring from the ground and cover the valley. The spirit of Minjari rises up to turn the desert into a tropical garden.
But the danger to the people isn’t over and their survival isn’t guaranteed.
Adastra knows that unless the return to the old ways, which died with the elders, one day this garden will once again turn into a desert. So she speaks to the tribal leaders and faces her hardest challenge yet.
How does it all turn out? You have to read Adastra in Africa in order to find out!
The Art and Writing of Adastra in Africa
Adastra’s journey into Africa is one of the most beautiful and stealthily hopeful graphic novels I have read. It has the same bittersweet feeling of the heart-breaking Maus, but carries a message of hope.
BWS normally writes Adastra as a fun loving and somewhat irresponsible goddess from another place in the universe. Yet in Adastra in Africa, she is all serious –because this is a serious story about life and death, suffering and sacrifice.
Adastra knows that simply saving the tribe today is not enough. She knows that if they don’t return to a more sustainable way of living and reclaim their destiny they are dead. But how does she, an outsider convince them of this?
There is a part where Adastra asks about a friend of hers from the last time she visited and is saddened to hear that the young woman died during the famine. She meets her friends’ son, a baby whose life she saved at birth and you can just see her heart break when she sees this starved boy.
In Adastra in Africa, challenges the consensus that Western ways and knowledge are the solutions for everything and everyone. And it does so without being patronizing or slipping into a savior complex.
And yes… a sacrifice is needed to save the land and its people. Death follows life, life follows death. Something mainstream PC publishers don’t want to acknowledge.
The art is another reason why Adastra in Africa stands out!
BWS was one of the star of 70s and 80s US graphic fiction. He left his mark on Conan the Barbarian and created the monumental Wolverine origin story in the majestic Weapon X miniseries.
His art is detailed and beautiful –sometimes to a confusing degree.
This is one of the only things about Adastra in Africa that gave me pause, there is so much detail in every page, in every panel it’s hard to know where to look. You can get visually lost in the scenes and characters.
Aside from that the black and white illustrations BWS uses in this masterpiece of graphic fiction are stunning!
A sad story about human suffering in the face of nature and unsustainable living is brought to life by a glimmer of hope. Brought to life by the glorious art of one of graphic fictions most talented (and underrated) creators.
If you have never read anything by Barry Windsor-Smith, get Adastra in Africa for your collection today! You won’t regret it.