Supa Strikas had it all: football, beautiful pictures, familiar names and a young hero, Shegs Okoro.
On a Saturday morning in the humid city of Lagos, a young Shegs Okoro leaves the flat he shares with his mother for the most important game of his career. He will face his childhood rival, Aniekan, in a local cup final, under the watchful eye of scouts from around the country.
For Shegs, the son of a late football legend, expectations are high. The plan is simple; win the cup, score some goals and hopefully convince everyone, including scouts from the team his father played for, that he can fill these big boots.
Over the next couple of hours (or pages, depending on how you choose to look at it), Shegs scores a goal, faces intentional attacks by Aniekan and the opposing team and lifts the cup trophy. The club of his dreams offer him a contract and so, the story begins.
No. This is not something out of the biography of a Nigerian footballer, at least, not a real one. It is the origin story of the iconic football comic, Supa Strikas.
For the millions of young people who enjoyed their childhood in the period between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, there is no way to justly explain what Supa Strikas was. I know this because I’m one of them.
The first issue of the football comic was released in stores across Nigeria in the year 2001, and in the months that followed, it went from a visual story of players with funky hair and strange names like Dancing Rasta to a totem, a colorful symbol of youthful imagination.
Because they could get it at Texaco branches, a lot more teens became interested in being in and around the fuel station on Saturdays when new issues dropped. Monday mornings became an opportunity to exchange new issues.
Between those pages and the many adverts were the things that made it appealing to its biggest fans; football, everyone’s favorite underdog, Shegs; the father-son relationship between Shegs and the team’s coach; the understated rivalry between him and his team’s other striker El Matador; the adventures they had in nameless countries with very questionable footballers.
The stories were unique yet familiar, the shape of his hair is still an unanswered question, but every young boy wanted to be Shegs. I was one of those dreamers.
It is why Supa Strikas has a special meaning to every 90s baby; one that goes beyond beautifully drawn pictures and goals that remind you of Shaolin soccer.
It is no coincidence that the most famous comic in Nigerian history is basically a story about football.
In Nigeria, the beautiful game is more than just a sport, it is a culture. Young boys learn to kick the ball as soon as they can stand on their own two feet. With time, they begin to play, first among friends, then in school and among age mates.
The most talented ones channel their ability into dreams about big stadiums and begin to chase careers as professional footballers, buoyed by the success stories of national legends like Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha.
For the young Nigerian boy who is any of these phases, anything that has football in and around it is like a gift; time well spent.
It is why from the moment that the guys at Strika Land decided to create a comic about a football team, it was destined to become a part of the lives of its readers.
The memory of Supa Strikas is more than football though, for most of its readers, there was an emotional connection, like a childhood sweetheart that only showed up every other Saturday.
There was something about the comic that made us want to run down to the fuel station or Mr. Biggs just to get the newest issue before it sold out.
Because the emphasis was on football (and corporate sponsors), Supa Strikas was never the most well written comic. After the first set of issues told the story of how Shegs became a member of the team and settled in with his teammates, new issues labored to convey a complete story, with weak shots like an aquatic themed football team with a stadium built on water and players like Liquido.
Looking back now, it all feels like a load of burnt Dodo.
But what it lacked in a plot, it made up for with the beautifully drawn graphics, the iconic cover images, vivid adventures, promotions and as always Shegs.
“Our plots are about training in the most intense environments,” Richard Morgan-Greenville, Chief Executive Officer of Strika Entertainment told South Africa's 702 Breakfast Show in 2015. “It’s about adventuring to the most wonderful places in the world, about how you work together as a team and about leadership. Those things are cool whether you’re in Tel Aviv, Panama City or Johannesburg".
The comic was so well made that it almost became aspirational for the kids who fought and prayed to get it. Owning an issue became like a small feat; having a collection made you a living legend of sorts among your friends.
When the storytelling waned and became sub-standard, everything else ensured that it retained its place.
But beyond all this, nothing secured the impact of Supa Strikas than its novelty; in the year when it came out, there was nothing like it anywhere,
It was new, unseen, unexpected, unprecedented, almost like a solar eclipse.
Kids at that time had limited options in terms of what to watch; there was regular television programming, news, shows, dramas, and cartoons. The Breakfast shows of that era, like Cadbury’s Breakfast Television, were filled with American and British cartoons and foreign kids telling foreign stories from a foreign land.
For the average kid, comics were pretty hard to come by, and when you could find them, it was familiar yet curious stuff; Spiderman trapping criminals on spider webs skyscrapers in NYC, Batman putting the Riddler down in Gotham.
Imagine the surprise when a boy opened the first issue of Supa Strikas and saw that the main character was named Segun Okoro.
A comic book character with a Nigerian name, living his dream, playing football across the world.
Ultimately, Supa Strikas came at a time where the generation of kids who became its biggest fans needed something that they could relate to.
Shegs was their guy, one that they gave the support of their good wishes and high expectations as they read through each episode knowing that at the end, someway, somehow, after three of his teammates had gone out injured, he would take the ball from midfield, do a 1–2 with himself and score the winning goal.
The success of the comic was also based on the fact that very few people actually paid money for it.
Supa Strikas was originally created by a Nigerian company but that relationship only lasted a few months. After it was bought by a South-African company, it became, like all successful comics, an exercise in making money out of fandom.
It has now become the circulated comic on the continent, and even then, it was clear the potential that it had. Chevron came on board as the global sponsor, and in time, it was joined by GTB, Visa, and Nike.
As a marketing gimmick, fans could only get the comic after patronizing the partners at any of their branches.
While it often meant a visit to a GTB branch, buying a burger from Mr. Biggs or fuel from Texaco, it also meant that it was easier to get the comic than it would have been if I had a price tag.
Free stuff tends to go very far and Supa Strikas reached a lot more people than it would have otherwise.
Some of these people just wanted to read, others wanted to collect but some were so impressed by what they saw that re-creating such art and telling visual stories became the priority.
They were the guys in class tracing the outline of Shegs’ hair, re-drawing entire scenes with biro and pencil.
For them, Supa Strikas was a manual.
Nowadays, the influence of the comic is evident in the work of certain contemporary artists from that generation. You can find some in the work of Duro Arts, a contemporary graphic artist, and designer who prefers a texture similar to that used in the comic. The color value of his drawings, often light with average intensity, also evokes comparisons.
Since the height of its prominence in the mid-2000s, Supa Strikas has not enjoyed a lot of popularity. Beyond its problems with sponsorship and consistency, its original fanbase has outgrown it, and despite revampings and a new television show on Disney Junior, it has failed to catch on among a new batch of pre-teens.
For the 90s babies who read it ardently and followed it issue by issue, it will always be the sign of a time that is long gone. It was just a comic but it was also a validation of their imagination, something that they needed, even if they didn’t know it at the time.
If Nigerian comic culture ever develops to have the impact that Japanese Manga and the western icons like Marvel and DC have achieved around the world, we must remember Supa Strikas as the 12-page celebration of Nigerian football culture and history where it all started.
It was the first, and still is, the only one that got it right.