Fotonovelas : have I got a treat for you!

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 Zerodeals with the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse); Dead on Arrivalan interactive whodunnit; and, Twisted Kaiju Theatrethe 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.

 death holds a festival"

Cover of Mark Condor: Death Holds a Festival

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.

Mark introduces Schmidt to Tamara

Mark introduces Schmidt to Tamara

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.

Masked men keep watch

Masked men keep watch

Luckily for those inside the house, Tamara discovered the armed masked men in the nick of time, and raises the alarm.

Tamara raises the alarm

Tamara raises the alarm

Condor swings into action, and deals with the first gunman …

Mark wrestles with the first gunman

Condor wrestles with the first gunman

… while Tamara deals with the second one.

Tamara shoots the second gunman

Tamara shoots the second gunman

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.

Mark and Tamara help an injured Schmidt

Condor and Tamara help an injured Schmidt

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.

Spies across the street

Spies across the street

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 take a dinghy to shore

Condor and Tamara take a dinghy to shore

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.

Smedoff's fury

Smedoff's fury

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.

Checkpoint distraction

Condor and Tamara attempt to distract the checkpoint guards

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.

Checkpoint fight

A fight breaks out at the checkpoint

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.

Ivan passes away in the car

Ivan passes away in the car

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.

Drugged

Tonti slips drugs 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.

Attacked at Ivan's house

Condor wrestles his attacker

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.

Condor and Tamara are held captive in a dungeon

Condor and Tamara are held captive in a dungeon

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!

Alexi is found

Alexi is found!

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.

Smedoff's joy

Smedoff's joy

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.

Forced signing

Smedoff attempts to force Condor to sign a contract

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).

Condor finds Schmidt Senior

Condor finds Schmidt Senior

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 …

Tonti's demise

Tonti's demise

… while others make for Smedoff’s.

Smedoff's demise

Smedoff's demise

Weeks later, Condor and Tamara return to South Africa with Alexi and Schmidt’s father, where the latter is reunited with his son.

Father and son reunited

Schmidt Senior and Schmidt Junior reunited

With their latest mission successfully completed, Condor and Tamara head to the beach for a swim.

Condor and Tamara head to the beach

Condor and Tamara head to the beach

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.

 

Comment: 
This is great I loved the candid shots and the gripping storyline. I didn't know the name for this kind of graphic - Fotonovelas are still popular today for getting messages across - such as this educational one about diabetes: http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/ndep/pdfs/67-doitforthem-fotonovela.pdf As a previous teacher of English as a Second Language these are so useful and engaging as you can use any photo of a situation and teach the correct dialog whilst using the photo to teach vocabulary and ask questions. These days they are of course much easier to create and I would also like to know more about how they were created in the past. Thanks for another great blog entry!
Comment: 
I'm glad you enjoyed reading about fotonovelas, Lizzie. The pictures and storyline of "Mark Condor : death holds a festival", certainly are memorable! I am so thrilled to have brought this publication to light and to the attention of a new audience! Thank you for the link to the educational fotonovela - I enjoyed having a new one to read, and I learnt something at the same time! It's great that this entertaining form of publishing can be used to deliver important information to the masses. As for learning more about the creation of fotonovelas, I was thrilled to chance across a wonderful article this morning, written by South African journalist Sean O'Toole back in December 2012, called "The evolution of African pulp fiction". About half way through the article under the sub-heading "Unusual mash-ups", he talks oh-so-briefly about the writing and photographing of fotonovelas (referred to as pulp fiction.) Then under the sub-heading of "Growing an empire", O'Toole wrote a brief history of the Republican Press, which I was just so excited to come across! Sean O'Toole's article can be read in full here: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-12-07-00-the-evolution-of-african-pulp-fiction The exciting discoveries don't end there! Yesterday I picked up a new batch of John Ryan Comic Collection items to catalogue, and what was one of the first things I pulled out of the box? Another fotonovela! I am so excited about this, and the timing of its discovery couldn't have been better. The fotonovela in question is called "Die Nagvalk in Getuienis uit die graf", which translates into "The Nighthawk in Testimony from the grave". As you may have guessed by now, this fotonovela is in Afrikaans, so I've been earnestly translating chunks of it to enable me to catalogue it correctly, as try as I might, I haven't been able to find a trace of information about the title anywhere ... plus I wanted to know what the story was about. "Years ago, attorney Norton Kirby went blind after getting into a fight. Thanks to a miracle surgery, he was able to regain his sight. Only a few friends are aware of the dual role he plays in life: blind lawyer Norton Kirby, aka the Nighthawk." The catalogue record for this item can be viewed here: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn6813731 Thank you once again for your interest in the treasures held by the National Library of Australia – your comments are much appreciated.
Comment: 
Hi Alison, I'm a serious collector of these fotonovelas and have a quite large collection. About 3470. In South Africa it was very popular until TV came to existence. We called it photo story books or fotoverhale in Afrikaans. Presently we are negotiating with a publisher to shoot photo story books again. A lot of our photo story books had Italian stories in them. Translated into English and Afrikaans of course. There were about 386 different titles available. Some of the actors are still alive and some has passed away. Mark Condor and Die Nagvalk is only two the more popular ones. There were ones like Ruiter in Swart (also an English version called Rider for Justice. The Actor's name was Vonk de Ridder (real name Danie van Rensburg. Today he is a photo story legend in SA. Another very popular one was Beau Brummel (Michael Bush) who came from England where he was a pop singer. He made stares in a couple of books as Beau Brummel the pop singer but later starred as a cowboy in Beau the Untamed/Die Omtembare. In 1970 he starred in his only cowboy movie called Three Bullets for a Long Gun. Tessa (Erna van der Westhuizen ) also starred in a photo story book called Saal 10 (Ward 10) which was stories about a nurse's life in a hospital. She was stunning and very popular until today. Oh. I can go on forever about our phot story books. Regards, Pieter
Comment: 
Hi Pieter, Thank you so much for your wonderful comment – it was full of really interesting facts I enjoyed reading immensely! It was great to be able to put some names to the faces I’ve been coming across in fotonovelas, and to hear a bit about their history. I’m absolutely thrilled to hear that fotonovelas may be making a come-back – I so hope your negotiations with the publisher are successful, and I look forward to seeing the results! It is so awesome that fotonovelas still have a place in peoples’ hearts, and to hear that many of the stars who featured in them, are seen as legends, as fotonovelas are such fantastically entertaining publications. It’s important that all kinds of publications are preserved for posterity, so it’s absolutely fantastic to hear that you’ve got such a large collection of fotonovelas – may your collection continue to grow! Thanks again for getting back to me with such wonderful information! Kind regards, Alison
Comment: 
Hi Alison, just to add to Pieter's comment - it is indeed so that photo stories are making a comeback in South Africa. After a hiatus of more than 20 years, a new photo story series called "Izithombe" has just been launched (see image of edition 1 on George's blog), whilst our Afrikaans Sunday newspaper now also publishes a photo story serial, called "Die Valk". Obviously this is great news for all the collectors, and we're holding thumbs that many others will now follow. Kind regards. Sven
Comment: 
Hi Sven, That is fantastic news about the photo story books making a comeback! Thank you for letting me know the title of the brand new one, “Izithombe”. I tracked down the new entry on George’s blog as suggested (loved the cover!), then went on to find the publication’s Facebook page. Here, I found excerpts of issue one, which I really enjoyed reading. Going by Izithombe’s Facebook page having over 5000 likes, I’m hoping that the photo story books are here to stay! Cheers, Alison
Comment: 
Does anyone know how I could track down copies of some of the Mark Condor photo series stories? My Mom featured in a couple of the stories as a model (I think in 1970) and I would love to find copies for her, as her original copies have sadly disappeared. Please email me on jayneh23@yahoo.co.uk if anyone can point me in the right direction! :-)
Comment: 
Hi this specific episode of mark condor was the male actor on the covers name Chris Greeff please let me know I'm very sure its my grandfather he boasted acting on mark condor thanks my email is uwengeel@gmail.com