Graphic details!

Published: August 7, 2011

Cover of Wahid, a graphic novel Jamal Khurshid wrote and illustrated.

A few pages from Jay Haque's novel. We’ve had our largest city nuked (in JLA’s WW3), our expats sent to concentration camps (In V for Vendetta), and have been nearly invaded by Russia (In Watchmen)…but despite all the literary and artistic talent Pakistan can boast of, we still don’t have a graphic novel to call our own. Cover of Wahid, a graphic novel Jamal Khurshid wrote and illustrated.

With his long ponytailed hair, strong features, and facial stubble, Jamal Khurshid – a thirty-one year old graphic designer from Karachi – looks almost like a soccer star from Milan. As I sit with him in his living room, he tells me with a marked lack of pretence about his love of drawing, how one of his teachers – a comic book artist himself – tore up Jamal’s drawings instead of giving him direction, and of how Jamal’s prodigious talent was finally recognised at his art academy, where he was asked to impart skills to students several years older than him.

As Jamal gets up to fetch something from his bookshelf, I glance around at the delightful randomness of my surroundings; a PlayStation sits in the center of the room; art boards covered in sketches lie in a corner; a huge Donkey Kong collectible toy occupies one shelf while a tower of board games totters precariously near the  TV. As I glance into his work room, I see a wonderfully eccentric collection of gas masks, some from the Second World War, and others from Afghanistan.

Jamal returns to me, carrying a book with great care. I recognise the cover from his deviantART webpage; it is Wahid, a graphic novel he wrote and illustrated. As one of his Persian cats jumps onto my lap I wonder why I’ve never seen it on the shelves of local bookstores. Anticipating my question, Jamal explains how, nine years ago, his publishers deserted Wahid, even after he had printed the sample copy himself. “They didn’t even show up at the launch, and wouldn’t return my phone calls,” he tells me ruefully.

Compromise is a song few artists are willing to sing, but Jamal tried to hum a few notes by incorporating pieces of local folklore such as parees and ajooj majooj into Wahid. But the publishers wanted him to work on graphic novels based on Allama Iqbal and Tipu Sultan instead, something he wasn’t willing to do. “In the end, publishers are simply unwilling to risk the investment,” he says, shaking his head.

Author Musharraf Ali Farooqi and illustrator Michelle Farooqi had a little more luck with their project, titled Rabbit Rap. After initially planning it as a graphic novel, they then changed the format and subvmitted it to publishers as an illustrated book manuscript.  A cautionary eco-fable starring a cast of rabbits, Rabbit Rap is now complete. Farooqi says he wasn’t inclined to incorporate any ‘local’ flavour in his story. “Rabbit Rap is a universal fable about folly, and so I wasn’t interested in putting my rabbits in dhotis and pagris simply for the sake of having cultural indicators. If it were about Pakistani rabbits then, of course, a dhoti-clad rabbit would have been just the ticket!”.

Of course, Jamal and Farooqui are not the only would-be graphic novelists out there. Journalist Jahanzaib Haque’s  Jay’s Toons Facebook page has nearly 5,000 fans already, with groupies to match.

With incredible hilarity, Jay’s Toons jabs at political and social issues using raunchy humour, balanced by just the right undercurrent of wit. While it’s now a comic strip, the original idea was born out of a graphic novel he was (and still is) working on.

“Originally I wanted to do something big… something epic. I wanted to write the great Pakistani Graphic Novel. Sixty pages in, however, it kind of collapsed – largely due to a nasty breakup with my girlfriend, who also happened to be a central character in the Graphic Novel,” he says.

Like the classic superhero born out of emotional pain, Jahanzaib converted the negative energy from a painful breakup to propel his comic strip. And then Salmaan Taseer was assassinated and Jay’s Toons were officially born. Jahanzaib’s attitude is superheroic, as well, “I have also been blessed with a lot of threats and warnings by religious extremists, die-hard nationalists and political party supporters. I consider that a high compliment.” Unfortunately, the original Graphic Novel still remains incomplete.

Other Pakistani artists have also gone online as well. Fauzia Hussain’s Dirty Laundry graphic novel is innovative in that its script is directly affected by user feedback. Of publishing her work, Fauzia says, “With the internet as a platform there’s definitely space for many voices but the downside is that without monetary support some of us have to take long breaks where [w]e deal with real life and bills and student papers.”

Then there are Ramish Safa and Nofal Khan, who recently launched what they plan to be Pakistan’s first daily comic, Kachee Goliyan. Impressively, their team seems to be moving with an actual business plan in mind.

So clearly, there’s no shortage of would-be writers, but are there people out there willing to read what they’ve written? In my search for unlikely fans, I came across Pakistani standup-comedian, and comic book geek, Sami Shah. When asked about rumours that he had inadvertently caused the nuking of Karachi in a Justice League of America comic book, Sami laughs, “When I met the Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison through a mutual acquaintance, I mocked his countrymen for hours. Weeks later, he sent a message through our mutual acquaintance, asking me to check out the latest issue of JLA: Karachi had been nuked off the face of the planet!”

Another graphic novel aficionado is none other than the multi-talented Tapu Javeri. While saying that he would love to see a Pakistani Graphic novel, Tapu’s more than a little skeptical about whether one will ever see print: “Comic books in Pakistan can have a unique flair, but getting something published can be a nightmare,” he says.

Not considered a child’s medium for decades, graphic novels from numerous countries are earning international literary awards (see Box: Kid’s Stuff). Silver screen adaptations of books like Persepolis, Road to Perdition, and A History of Violence, are finding success both commercially, and amongst critics.

The rage has also caught on across the border. Recently, India drew 15,000 fans to its first comic book convention, with its homegrown books selling well. Jatin Varma, the founder of the event, says that while the organising aspect hadn’t been easy, there was a lot of local interest: “There certainly is a great amount of interest and the best thing is that it attracts all age groups and even women. Comics and their related industry – mainly merchandising and animation – are highly lucrative and are doing very well in India. India’s graphic novels include fantasy adaptations of the Ramayan, and titles such as Devi – themes that resonate with the Indian readers.”

So if it works in India, then why can’t it work in Pakistan? Why can’t an artist as skilled as Jamal Khurshid get printed? A small part of the answer lies in the fact that graphic novels are a collaborative endeavor; teams of writers and artists work together to create a great graphic novel. While Wahid is a good looking book, narrative isn’t its strongest suit. The Jinnah graphic novel, published some years back, faced the same problem, albeit in reverse. While the story was compelling, the somewhat stilted artwork made for a less-than-average Graphic Novel.

Farooqi feels that the Indian model of using ‘local’ literary icons in the style of the popular comic series Amar Chitra Katha could work in Pakistan. “The market for English graphic novels is too limited for it to be a profitable venture for most publishers,” he says. “For graphic novels to really take off, they need to be locally-themed and published in Urdu, so that they can be accessible to the mass market. Just look at the way the popular Urdu digests are published – bulk printing allowing for a low cover price; with that sort of model, the genre can really take off.” Of course, says Farooqi, that would depend on a publisher actually sitting down and making a solid marketing plan. “Unfortunately, that’s something most publishers are unwilling or unable to do,” he adds.

Assured that Pakistan isn’t lacking in terms of talent, I decided to visit the local bookstores to see how well graphic novels were selling. At Liberty Books, Pakistan’s largest bookstore franchise, I found the comic book shelf presence to be woeful, with the branch managers blaming the economy.

I then visited The Last Word, a book store with branches both in Karachi and Lahore. There, I was pleased to see a sizable collection of graphic novels on sale, including less traditional work like The Preacher and The Walking Dead.

That evening, the proprietor of the chain, Aysha Raja, spoke to me with passion about comic book culture, telling me that interest in graphic novels was actually increasing in Pakistan.

When asked what she felt a quintessential Pakistani comic should be, her simple answer summed up the thoughts of every artist and fan I had questioned on the subject: “Above all, it should be socially relevant.” And of local comic books not finding publication she said, “You show me a good complete Pakistani graphic novel, and I will publish it!”

During my research, while I have come across both talented artists, and writers, I haven’t come across a high quality, recently put together, complete and quintessentially Pakistani graphic novel. And I know this: in Pakistan, it only takes one successful product to kick-start an entire industry.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 7th 2011.

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Reader Comments (22)

  • Jawahir Habib
    Aug 7, 2011 - 2:26PM

    Love J toons …expresses well the agony and dismay we face daily

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  • Faraz Chaudry
    Aug 7, 2011 - 2:37PM

    Kachee Goliyaan rocks the original n actuall comic scene in Pakistan…away from extra sarcasm n do provide wt actually comics r meant to…”entertainment”

    Recommend

  • Sally
    Aug 7, 2011 - 2:51PM

    Read a lot about pakistani contemporary painters but never actually bothered to look into the graphic novel scene, which is weird since my heart belongs to illustration. So very informative article, hope to see more!

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  • hamed
    Aug 7, 2011 - 2:52PM

    jay is a legend!!

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  • Aug 7, 2011 - 3:34PM

    Thankyou Noman. Your article was a good read. :)

    Recommend

  • Aug 7, 2011 - 4:07PM

    I am a big fan of KG :D

    Recommend

  • Habiba Rizvi
    Aug 7, 2011 - 5:00PM

    Honestly, I believe Kachee Goliyan deserves a lot more recognition than whats been written. They’re covering every aspect of entertainment for the viewers. Let it be celebrities, stereotyping, things over hypocrites. They’re not subjective to just one category. The humor they apply is something that everyone can relate too. They deserve so much more publicity and recognition.

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  • Moiz Ali Mirza
    Aug 7, 2011 - 5:06PM

    K.G is an excellent source of entertainment… Very amusing series of comics relating to all sorts of events… and Jays toons are excellent in their own aspect as well :D these pages are on top of my list when m bored and have nothing to do on net….
    the article was very well placed

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  • Aug 7, 2011 - 5:20PM

    Thanks Nofal, but the piece was made infinitely better by the hardworking talented editors at the Tribune Magazine. :) Seriously.

    BTW, Kachee Golyan is pretty funny. The Wolverine comic is my favorite. Everyone should check it out.

    And yes, J-Toons rocks. I was laughing in disbelief the first time I read it. At the time, I was thinking, “The dude who is writing this, certainly has big brass ones!”

    Recommend

  • Disco Molvi
    Aug 7, 2011 - 6:01PM

    I wanna be a comic artist too but just don’t know where to start from, having been turned down various times for having no qualifications in the field of art except my natural gifted talent.

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  • Aug 7, 2011 - 6:32PM

    Kachee Goilyaan is different comic in all terms, It deserves much more recognition than given. My ‘across the border pals’ love Kachee Goliyaan too! :) keep up the good work, Ramisg Safa and Nofal Khan. :)

    Recommend

  • Talat Haque
    Aug 7, 2011 - 6:33PM

    Your article may help actualize some of those unfinished , unpublished graphic novels ………. thank you for writing about all these writers ……… Jay’s Toons :) :) :)

    Recommend

  • Tahir A
    Aug 7, 2011 - 9:16PM

    Kachee Goliyan is truly awesome.

    It is about everything. You just don’t see jokes about the economical and political mess we are in. They ARE truly unique,unexpected and hilarious. And they don’t use vulgarity to make their jokes funny.

    And a new comic every day is quite a feat.

    K.G team is brilliant. Thumbs up to your for bring back quality to daily comics ( and best part they are free :D )

    Some one should really take a risk and publish Pakistani author works. I am sure it will be profitable looking at the fan base of K.G and other online artist.

    Recommend

  • schaique
    Aug 7, 2011 - 10:31PM

    Honestly, Kachee Goliyaan’s humor is not obscene but also not Lame…I love the balance Ramish and Nofal :) …Thought I’d share*

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.178309208893064.46786.176546942402624&type= 1

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  • Omer Mirza
    Aug 7, 2011 - 10:41PM

    Glad to see someone appreciating creative talent in Pakistan. A nice read!

    Oh and I love Kachee Goliyan, and the reason is simple; I found myself laughing out loud to it. It’s not just about pretty graphics, the humor is original and pretty good. JC and Sufi are gonna go a long way.

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  • Majid Rashid
    Aug 8, 2011 - 2:09AM

    @Disco Molvi:
    I think Karachi university fine arts department offer courses in sketching and illustration, and indus valley and some other institutes as well may be you can start here to get a qualification. Also universities world over have upload video lectures of their courses on youtube and other websites search for illustration courses as well. try practicing practice drawing yourself and reading graphic novels and comicbook specially from renowned comic book artists like alex ross, jim lee, doug mahnke, frank quietly this may also be usefull, hope this helps.

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  • Yousuf Sajjad
    Aug 8, 2011 - 2:59AM

    Read Jay’s Toons! It’s awesome!

    And HAHA, Sami Shah got Karachi nuked :-P LoL!!! Makes me glad we have nukes, we’re so annoying we need the protection HAHa!!

    As for Jay’s sample, I’m deeply impressed that Jay mentions the “Maut Kay Dabay” trains that came across the borders in 1947. That’s something else, and a level of detail people never mention nowadays.

    I would definitely read/buy Jay’s comic book.

    Recommend

  • Aug 9, 2011 - 1:42AM

    @schaique:
    Thankyou Schaique!! The balance is hard to keep but balance is what makes things beautiful. :)

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  • Aly
    Aug 9, 2011 - 12:52PM

    the biggest problem we have here is that talent in Pakistan goes unnoticed. I’ve seen Jamal’s stuff and his work is incredible.

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  • Disco Molvi
    Aug 9, 2011 - 5:53PM

    @Majid Rashid:
    Much appreciated my friend! Right now I’m stuck in the final year of BDS so it’ll have to wait. You’ve just named some of my most fav’ comic artists, I dig the works of Alex Ross (Kingdom Come, Astro City), Jim Lee (Batman: Hush), Frank Quitely(check out his art in the 2nd volume of ‘The Authority’ written by Mark Millar), Michael Turner, Todd McFarlane, J.Scott Campbell etc.

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  • Majid Rashid
    Aug 17, 2011 - 2:29AM

    @Disco Molvi:
    No problem friend, yes kingdom come is one of my favorite comic of all time, the way superman was drawn and written in this comic simply awesome. Frank quielty is also a very favorite artist and in my view he is the best artist that can do justice to grant morrson script Grant’s new batman run (my all time favorite) and all star superman wouldn’t be as great with out frank quietly. Alex ross is also the master artist its sad that he mostly do covers and not the interiors art, you probably already know he use real people to model the characters hes drawn i saw the picture of the guy who is the model of kingdom come superman, and he use his father for the character of norman mckay man hes got a class of its own. I not familiar with work of todd mcfarlane, J.scot campell or micheal turner. I know todd is the creator of spawn but I never had chance of reading his comic.

    Regarding your time for drawing, I have suggestion if I may, may be you can start drawing as a side hobby and once your bds is complete then you can pursue drawing full time, I heard there is book by stan lee “how to draw comics marvel way” may be you can start with that. I know final year is a very busy and hectic year in any degree but may be this can work.

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  • Disco Molvi
    Sep 3, 2011 - 3:30PM

    @Majid Rashid: Your suggestion is in consideration friend! High Five

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