Struggle inspires Samoan superhero

By Rebecca Blithe


The entrance to Johnny Angel's apartment is lined with framed pictures of Martin Luther King, Michael Jackson, Oprah, Bruce Lee.

"They're people who inspire me," says Mr Angel as he leads us to the small living space of his Queen St home.

Further along the wall is another image of inspiration. This one, his own creation.

"The first Samoan superhero," he says, grinning at his comic-book character, invented as a role model for children.

"I always used to read Maori and Samoan myths and legends, but I wanted to make something set in the future. I thought, there's European and Chinese futuristic superheroes - why can't we have futuristic Polynesian characters."

Afi was the result and Mr Angel hopes to feature his Polynesian protagonist in a series of 12 comic books and, one day, a movie.

The comics follow the adventures and challenges Afi faces.

"He's good because he was raised up good," says the artist, who has also worked on the bro' Town cartoon series.

Mr Angel's own story of bravery is tougher than most. The Samoan-Chinese artist and musician has overcome severe mental health problems to get to where he is today. While at teachers' training college, Mr Angel became overwhelmed by the workload, suffered depression and eventually became suicidal.

"I tried to jump in front of cars. I tried to hang myself," he says. His sister, who works in mental health, contacted the mental health crisis team.

During his time in care, Mr Angel rediscovered his love of art, a passion instilled in him by a teacher at primary school.

"I'd spent 13 years unemployed. But there are three things I love - art, singing and acting," says Mr Angel, who has also appeared on Stars in Their Eyes.

Since producing his comic books, he has been invited to work with schoolchildren, helping them create their own superheroes.

"Even though I failed teachers' training college I was able to go back into schools. I did an eight-week workshop at Panama Road School. I asked the kids to create their own superhero, to sketch from what they were, if they were Tongan or Fijian, then write a profile and a little story."

The result was a mural of the children's superheroes painted on a block wall beside a shopping centre in Riverside.

Mr Angel hopes to continue running workshops and has toured schools with the Duffy Books scheme, which boosts children's literacy. He is also a mobile support worker with the Pathways mental health service and recently appeared in a Like Minds, Like Mine advertisement.

"I did it because I was in a good frame of mind. It was a good time for me. I could say: 'I'm well, I helped myself.' And I knew it was going to help others."

He also received help with his creative endeavours - funding and support from the Auckland Council, Copybook Digital Print & Copy and Creative New Zealand

The second of Mr Angel's comic books, The Adventures of Afi - United Hearts, is on sale at Real Groovy and Heroes for Sale.

- THE AUCKLANDER

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