Fotonovelas : have I got a treat for you!
An absolute treasure from the John Ryan Comic Collection
17 March 2015
The John Ryan Comic Collection is full of surprises! Have you ever heard of fotonovelas? Well I knew nothing about them until I chanced across one in the Ryan Collection and was captivated. I had to find out more, and my research has uncovered a whole new world for me that I must share. Hopefully I can open up the door to this wonderful world for the uninitiated, or bring back fond memories for those who already know and love this genre.
Fotonovelas are publications containing photographs and speech bubbles, as opposed to the traditional comic book format of illustrations. They can be traced back as far as the 1940s, when they were published to accompany the release of major films. It was thought this made the story more accessible to a wider audience, as a published book lasts longer than a film’s run at the cinema. The trend of creating fotonovelas of popular films waned with the invention of VCRs during the 1970s, and people were able to own and access their favourite movies whenever they wanted.
Fotonovelas were (and still are) a popular form of publishing in Latin American countries. At the height of their popularity, Mexico was publishing 70 million fotonovelas each month during the 1980s! While there are fotonovelas based on fictional stories, the main focus of fotonovelas in Latin American countries, is on health and educational issues. It is thought that their important messages presented in a simple and easy to understand format, reach a wider audience who possess varying levels of literacy.
Interestingly, fotonovelas have found a new lease of life in English speaking countries, on the web! I’m really pleased to see this development—there really are some wonderfully entertaining titles out there from various genres to please just about anyone. For example: Night Zero—deals with the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse); Dead on Arrival—an interactive whodunnit; and, Twisted Kaiju Theatre—the exploits of a group of monster figurines.
However, my personal favourite type of fotonovela are the fictional ones, published in South Africa, where they were immensely popular during the 1960s through to the 1980s. The titles I’ve come across during my research sound absolutely fantastic, such as Die Swart Luiperd (The Black Leopard), Chunkie Charlie, and Tessa. I can only begin to imagine how wonderfully entertaining the photos are inside! It seems such a shame that not many of these publications seem to exist now. I’ve come across discussion boards where people discuss having had piles of them that reached the ceiling, but later got rid of them (which they now regret). However, on searching the National Library of Africa’s catalogue, I discovered that they hold a small selection of the more entertaining titles.
The title I discovered in the Ryan Collection is one of the South African fotonovelas, Mark Condor: Death Holds a Festival. What an absolute treasure! Pulp fiction at its finest. Here’s how the story unfolds.
Mark Condor, South African industrialist millionaire and adventurer is at home with Tamara Zaridza, a former Russian astronaut. They’re discussing plans to go to Russia to rescue Condor’s friend, Alexei, from a prison camp.
That same night, Heinz Schmidt, a scientist who defected from East Germany to the west before settling in South Africa, has learnt of Condor’s plans, and goes to him for help in saving his father, who is also being held prisoner in Russia.
Little does Schmidt realise, that he has been closely monitored since settling in South Africa. On seeing that Schmidt has gone to Condor for help, the masked men decide the time has come for his elimination.
Luckily for those inside the house, Tamara discovered the armed masked men in the nick of time, and raises the alarm.
Condor swings into action, and deals with the first gunman …
… while Tamara deals with the second one.
With his hosts having their hands full, Schmidt is left unattended, which is when his enemies struck, shooting him in the head. Hearing the shots, Condor and Tamara rush back to Schmidt. On seeing that the shot isn’t fatal, Condor checks the rest of the house to make sure none of the gunmen are hanging around to finish off the job. On finding the coast clear, Condor and Tamara take Schmidt to the hospital.
A few days later, Condor and Tamara set off for Russia. They stop off in New York to get final details of their plans to spring Alexi (and hopefully Schmidt’s Dad) from the Russian prison camp, from Colonel Thompson of the American Secret Service. They will leave the USA in a submarine, arriving in Russia in a few days’ time, where they’ll meet up with a man “who prefers to be known as Ivan.”
Unbeknownst to the three friends, they’re being watched from across the street by former General Georgi Smedoff of the Russian Secret Police, and his assistant, Tonti Chukov. Smedoff lost his rank when Condor hijacked a Russian spaceship and got away with it. Smedoff was given the option to get Condor or die.
Days later, Condor and Tamara arrive on Russian soil. Smedoff loses track of them, but has a general idea of their whereabouts.
Condor and Tamara’s arrival is witnessed by a Russian peasant, who reports the suspicious activity to the authorities. Word filters through to Smedoff, who sets to work narrowing down his targets’ exact location.
Condor and Tamara have stayed the night at Ivan’s. Before they awake, Ivan goes out to check that the area is safe to move on from. Unfortunately for them, the surrounding area is crawling with bad guys. Ivan gets his friends moving with almost no time to spare. Moments later, his house is over-run with Russian Secret Police, but the three friends are already on their way to a nearby village and a woman called Chatka, who can help them. Along the way, they come to a manned roadblock. Luckily for them, Condor speaks fluent Russian, and attempts to convince the guards to let them by, by plying them with vodka.
Unfortunately, Condor’s plan doesn’t quite work, and a fight eventually breaks out. Condor manages to kill all the guards, but not before Ivan is wounded in the process.
Condor and Tamara help wounded Ivan into the car, and race to get him to the next village where help awaits, but alas, time is not on Ivan’s side.
The following day, Condor and Tamara arrive at Chatka’s house in the village of Norsk. Unbeknownst to them, Chatka has been executed by the Russian Secret Police, and replaced by Tonti Chukov. Tonti is taken by surprise, as she wasn’t expecting their targets to be arriving so far ahead of schedule. To give Smedoff time to arrive so he can deal with them himself as requested, Tonti slips sleeping tablets into Condor and Tamara’s drinks.
Later that night, Condor and Tamara awake to being attacked by Smedoff’s men. Condor does his best to fight their attackers off, but he is outnumbered.
Hours later, Condor awakes to find that he and Tamara have been chained up in a dungeon. In a darkened corner opposite them, comes a strange noise, but they can’t make out its source.
Soon, General Smedoff comes in to gloat at their capture, and reveals the source of the unusual noises—it’s Condor’s friend, Alexi, who he and Tamara had set out to rescue!
It’s quite apparent that Alexi has gone mad from being held prisoner for so long in the dungeon. Condor is visibly upset by the big change in his friend, which delights General Smedoff.
General Smedoff later sends for Condor, and tries to make him sign a false confession in regards to the Russian spaceship he hijacked, but Condor refuses.
Tonti is the next person to try and convince Condor to sign the confession, but he still refuses. On his way back to the dungeon, Mark sees a man leaning against the wall with one finger missing, and comes to the conclusion he must be Schmidt’s father (before being shot, Schmidt told Condor and Tamara that his father was missing a pinkie finger).
The days pass by. Condor refuses to sign the confession. He works shifts in the saltmines, and is beaten by Smedoff, and lured by Tonti over the confession. The only ray of light comes by Alexi eventually admitting he is not insane, and that it was all just an act. He wanted to be sure that Condor was really who he said he was, first.
Once again, Condor is escorted into Tonti’s office for another attempt at getting him to sign the confession. Condor seems to weaken, saying he needs just one more night to think about it. Little does Tonti realise that Condor swiped a builder’s file from a toolbox that has been left behind.
Back in the dungeon, Condor sets to work freeing his companions from their chains with the builder’s file. They overpower the guards when they arrive with that night’s meal, and get their keys to set all the prisoners free. The prisoners make for the Arsenal Building, where they arm themselves and go in search of the guards who have made their life hell. A group of them make for Tonti’s abode …
… while others make for Smedoff’s.
Weeks later, Condor and Tamara return to South Africa with Alexi and Schmidt’s father, where the latter is reunited with his son.
With their latest mission successfully completed, Condor and Tamara head to the beach for a swim.
Mark Condor was portrayed by actor Martin Pols. As of 2014, Martin was still alive and well in South Africa. I would be really interested to know who the actors/models were who portrayed the other characters in this story. I would also love to find out more about the process in making fotonovelas (particularly South African fotonovelas), such as who came up with the storylines, who decided what kind of photos were taken, how were the actors/models chosen, and did these actors/models specialise in fotonovela work. If anyone could shed any light on these questions, I would be very grateful. I would also be extremely interested to hear any anecdotes in relation to people’s experiences working on fotonovelas, or about how much they enjoyed reading them during their popular days.
To read Mark Condor: Death Holds a Festival in its entirety, and other titles in the John Ryan Comic Collection, I highly recommend a visit to the Special Collections Reading Room at the National Library of Australia.