August 2, 2013

The Shaka Zulu Project: How Great Stories Come Together

In the 19th century, one man changed the face of South Africa forever: Shaka Zulu. Combining innovative battle strategies, brutal military training, and a complete top-down reorganization of Zulu society, he united the fractured tribes of the vast region in a manner that rivaled the campaigns of William Wallace and Alexander the Great. 

But was Shaka a hero or a villain? It is a question that continues to embroil historians, with cultural ripples that alternately inspire and haunt South Africans to this very day.

In July 2012, new South African producer and fellow VFS student Alfred Ngubane invited me to write the script for a comic book, tentatively titled The Shaka Zulu Project, that would serve as his final assignment in the Entertainment Business Management (EBM) program. The plan was simple: complete one, eight-page "proof of concept" issue with a story centered around a key historical battle and Shaka's subsequent rise to power. Alfred would secure the artist. My job was to write the script based on a concept he had developed. He would take it from there.

Having seen the 1986 mini-series, I was as familiar with Shaka's history as television could make me. In other words, I had a lot of research to do. I accepted and we met in the first of a series of meetings that would transport us back in time, halfway around the world, and into a story that remains a hot topic of African debate.

Two months and several revisions later, I delivered the goods and neurotically waited to see would come of it. We writers, you see, worry about whether our stories will be faithfully - heck, even intelligently - translated, or whether they'll be butchered and Frankensteined into monstrosities utterly unlike what we original thunk up. No offense to Mr. Ngubane, but I've worked with a number of producers and directors who talk big and deliver small or who simply don't get story, even when the original idea is their own.

When Alfred handed me the final product, I was elated. Angel Rams Figueroa's artwork was fantastic, the packaging on par with anything I'd find at the comic store down the road, and most amazingly, the story was fully intact, exactly as I'd written it. Not that I would have been offended if he had made a few alterations to clear things up. A writer has to expect that now and again, almost always in fact. But in the case of Shaka Zulu, the original vision and story design had managed to travel right through to the end and culminate in a final product that was deeply gratifying.

How did we pull it off? How did a "good idea" that could have stagnated  in a jar somewhere actually come to fruition?

I attribute our success to at least five factors:

1. A good leader with a clear vision. Alfred knew exactly what he wanted to execute, conceptually and product-wise. He knew what needed to get done. If he didn't, he called on a network of strategically-chosen resources to help out, whether VFS teachers, family, academic experts or connections back home. He was culturally connected to the story and therefore both passionate and "in the know" about his subject - always a good idea. He organized his affairs via action items, milestones and deadlines. He communicated regularly with his team. He was decisive without being dogmatic, remaining open at all times to our ideas and to story changes necessitated by new research. He was (and continues to be) the consummate team leader.

2. A riveting story. No spoilers here. Suffice to say, you're gonna love it! I will say, however, that we spent a lot of hours making sure it appealed to as a broad an audience as possible, whether or not readers have any previous knowledge of the events covered. Love, betrayal, revenge, redemption, blood and guts, sex - it's all there.

3. Lots of research. "Have you heard the one about the South African producer who gets a Canadian who has never been to Africa to write a story about a Zulu king?" As previously confessed, I knew next to nothing about Shaka's story or about South African history in general. Nothing wrong with that, writers venture into unfamiliar subjects all the time. That's what research is for, especially when accuracy and cultural sensitivity are non-negotiable. So for a long time, I sat at Alfred's feet and listened. And read. And Googled. And trolled bookstores when I exhausted my online resources. And fact-checked. And cross-referenced. And revised as new information came to light. It hasn't stopped. And I suspect it never will.

4. A disciplined writing process. Alfred and I met regularly to discuss, share research, review, edit, and celebrate our progress. We started by discussing major story objectives then drew up an outline that we systematically and aggressively massaged until we were comfortable moving forward. Then I went to pages with Alfred periodically checking in to see where things were at until the fat lady finished singing. If ever I needed proof that "two is better than one" and that accountability is the mother of progress, this was Exhibit A.

5. A positive writer-producer relationship. From the beginning, Alfred graciously invited me to absorb and participate in his vision, allowing me to share my thoughts, ideas and opinions without censoring or shutting me down. He may not have always agreed and he was clear about what he wanted to stay put in the story, but he always listened. And I reciprocated. Don't get me wrong, we're a couple of opinionated guys with healthy egos. We couldn't move this rock up the mountain otherwise. But somehow our love for the story, our commitment to its faithful execution, and our interpersonal chemistry combined to make the whole thing a pleasure rather than a pain. A relationship like this is not always possible, so if you're lucky enough to find yourself in the middle of one, cherish it!

Alfred Ngubane with Professor Jabulani S. Maphalala 
As it turned out, Alfred had bigger plans for Shaka than a mere ten pages. Last month, after several weeks of further development, I handed off the script for episode two, a 32-page whopper that will contribute to a ten-part graphic novel the man plans to publish and distribute worldwide in the near future. As I type this, I'm currently working on episode three.

It all began with one person, one big idea, and most importantly, the commitment and work ethic to carry it through to the end. The rest was blood, sweat and teamwork.


Follow our progress on The Shaka Zulu Project Facebook page or at


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