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.