Audiences will soon be flocking to cinemas around the world to catch Ant-Man, the latest comic book adaptation from Marvel Studios. Much like with Guardians of the Galaxy last year, Marvel has once again dug deep to introduce to viewers one of its quirkier villain-busting crusaders.
As traditional giants of the industry continue to delight fans the world over with their vast universe of sparky characters, a new breed of superheroes has risen to combat crime, tyranny and even a ban on YouTube in the most unlikely of locations.
Given its frequent propensity to make global headlines for all the wrong reasons, a burgeoning comic book and animation scene is not something that one would readily associate with Pakistan. But despite all the challenges, or indeed because of them, local talents are harnessing the power of their art to help reposition the domestic narrative and provide positive role models in a country severely lacking in them.
Among those leading the charge is Pakistan Man – the self-styled Pakistani superhero. Sporting a handle bar moustache popular with the land-owning classes and kitted out in the dark green of the national colour, the crime fighter is set on the path of heroism after the brutal murder of his parents. Assisted by his mentor, Sultan Rahi, the character comes to assume superhuman abilities from a mystical power. Once he is fully trained and ready, Pakistan Man emerges from the wilderness as a champion against tyranny to fight against villains like The Corrupter and The Banner, an evildoer intent on upholding the country’s infamous restrictions on YouTube.
His real life genesis is a little less dramatic, as Pakistan Man’s creator, Islamabad-based graphic designer Hassan Siddiqui explains: “I started drawing Pakistan Man for my friends and cousins when I was 12 years old. Everyone really liked him, including my cousins from England, even though most of it was mainly just doodles.”
In the subsequent years the crusader remained largely in intermission, but when Siddiqui began university, like many young Pakistani artists he started publishing his work on the internet via Facebook. His page, HS Comics, soon grew to have more than 10,000 likes and the popularity of his cartoons gave him the impetus to re-launch the Pakistan Man character for a wider audience.
As Siddiqui says: “Following the success of the Facebook page, I thought I would take a risk and produce a full-fledged comic. I had totally forgotten about Pakistan Man but when I made the decision to publish something, I remembered the character and thought he made a perfect fit.”
The first issue had a run of 500 copies, and in spite of equally modest subsequent print runs the comic has garnered plenty of acclaim and recognition. He has been invited to give a TED talk, featured in a number of national newspapers, and 17 institutions in the United States, including Harvard University and the Library of Congress, have ordered copies of the first three issues of the comic for their archives. A fourth instalment is due out in the middle of August.
And Pakistan Man is not alone.
Pakistan’s smorgasbord of recent superheroes owes a lot to social media. New characters have come to life through web comics started on Facebook and Twitter, through which readers have helped them go viral. The comics have also flourished because they bear a very local imprint, telling stories that reflect the concerns and everyday experiences of ordinary Pakistanis.
“There have been comic books before in previous generations,” says another comic-book writer, Zaka Khan, “but now thanks to the digital democratisation of media, today’s efforts are reaching more people.
“And as with the graphic art of years gone by, the rise of the contemporary comic scene is a reaction to the current national confusion that engulfs Pakistan. Are we eastern or western? Are we traditionalists or modernists? Are we religious or secular? By using the comic strips as a form of expression, new artists are addressing their own personal angsts and frustrations as well as everyone else’s.”
Khan’s own character, Shamsheer, devised in collaboration with his cousin, was born of the conscious need to have a superhero who would act as a mirror into the historical, cultural and social heart of the region.
“My cousin, Salman Nasir, is a born artist,” he says. “During his thesis at art school, he developed the idea of a Pakistani superhero who had an identity we could own and relate to as Pakistanis. He shared this idea with me, and we developed the character. Shamsheer – named after the curved sword favoured by the Mughals – is the story of a boy named Nabeel [noble] living in current day Karachi, who finds a secret power that the Mughal kings developed as a weapon to help them win wars.
“The concept is that through this sentient strength, Nabeel will discover the power of his own heritage and learn what it means to identify as a Pakistani. Through him, we hope our audience will take the same journey.” The character first appeared in print in 2012.
Television and cinema have proved an even more popular medium for comic artists than social media and print formats. Perhaps the most well-known member of Pakistan’s burgeoning dream team of superheroes is the Burka Avenger.
The eponymous hero of her own cartoon series, which first aired in July 2013, the character is a schoolteacher named Jiya who hides her identity under a long flowing burqa, while fighting for causes such as girls’ education and against opposition to vaccination campaigns. The show has been a runaway success and has won both a Peabody and a Kids Emmy Award. The Burka Avenger was also selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential fictional characters in the world in 2013 and, more recently, the series was launched in India by the ZeeQ channel.
Even though it’s a children’s show the Burqa Avenger touches on many locally sensitive themes, which has only served to broaden its reach among both children and adults. It further helps that the shows are broadcast in Urdu, giving them a wide appeal in Pakistan.
This summer, Pakistan also saw the release of the first locally made digital animation film, 3 Bahadur (The Three Braves). The movie, directed and produced by Oscar winning documentary maker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, was embraced by Pakistani audiences and broke the domestic record for an animated film when it earned over 4.5 billion rupees (Dh2.6m) at the box office. A prequel is now planned for 2017.
Like many others working in the industry, the filmmakers were motivated by more than just a desire to tell a simple story. “3 Bahadur is unique because it is not just a film; it is a movement to empower the youth of Pakistan. For the first time in history, Pakistani children saw themselves represented on screen and felt an immediate connection with the three young superheroes who owned up to their problems and lead by example as they encountered and eventually defeated forces that are similar to those experienced by the Pakistani youth,” says Obaid-Chinoy. And yet, in spite of national and international recognition, Pakistani comic artists face considerable challenges.
There still exists a popular perception that comics are just for children, and those writers who target their work at an adult audience find it hard, if not impossible, to be picked up by publishers. Cultural sensitivities further preclude artists from commenting upon the complex spectrum of issues facing the country, especially with regards to religion. As one writer reluctantly admitted: “It would be impossible to have a superhero who wasn’t at least nominally Muslim. Something like a Christian character would be impossible. And I don’t think anyone would produce a villain who was a religious fanatic.”
Many of today’s comic-book creators work on their comics part-time while holding down day jobs because in Pakistan, as increasingly elsewhere, people are unwilling to pay for printed content. Zaka Khan says: “In our society there is a concept that any sort of intellectual property is not worth paying for. There was an online comic called Kachee Goliyan. When they went into print they were hugely successful for as long as they gave their comic away for free. The moment they put a price on it nobody wanted to know.”
Khan and his partner faced the same problems with Shamsheer and are now developing the character for an animation show instead of a comic book. “With an animation,” Khan says, “you can still make money because of advertisers and sponsors; in other mediums that’s not possible in Pakistan.” The result is that artists often move on to more conventional and financially viable projects and their fledgling characters fail to leave any sort of lasting legacy.
And so the country’s comic artists must learn to triumph over adversity just like their superhero creations. Stick at it and even with all the obstacles thrown in their way, they might just come to Pakistan’s rescue and save the day.
This story was originally published here