Creative arts are increasingly being used by the South Asian diaspora, including Pakistanis, to tell the world their unique stories. For two New York-based medical residents, Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin, a love for their ancestral roots and the desire to share that story with a global audience led to the creation of Zindan — a non-fiction comic series set in 17th Century northern India where South Asian superheroes save the day.
With its vibrant colours and meticulously sketched out characters set against grandiose backgrounds, Zindan (the Persian word for ‘prison’) is the perfect amalgamation of Mirza’s love for comics and Mehtabdin’s passion for South Asian and Middle Eastern history. The story revolves around Timur and Zain, two orphaned brothers who find themselves struggling for survival when the prison they call home falls in the hands of an evil, greedy king. Throughout their journey, they come across people from various cultures and religions.
Zindan senior editors Nadeem Mirza and Sayeda Abbas role playing as Timur and Tara.Photos courtesy: Zindan Facebook page
“It’s a love story from me to my culture,” says 29-year-old Mirza, who was born and raised in the United States but still calls Lahore home. “If I write about the American experience, I might have a different perspective but the real, unique story is about my ancestry,” he says, referring to his Pakistani lineage. His former roommate, friend and co-creator of the series, Mehtabdin, agrees. “South Asian history and culture is a beautiful thing and we want its story to be told,” he says.
Moreover, the series is an attempt to showcase an element of South Asian Muslim identity to the world, which is different from the one that floods their newsfeeds and television screens daily. According to Mirza, art allows one to talk about things that might be brushed under the rug otherwise. “There’s a lot of strange and downright weird stigma associated in our culture regarding brown skin and its need to be fairer,” says Mehtabdin. “That’s not an accurate representation of the majority of South Asia. Why not show the world that brown-skinned South Asians can have morals and do good?”
Work on the first issue of Zindan started in October 2013 when Mirza and Mehtabdin brainstormed ideas for a weekend and chalked out a rough sketch for what they wanted the series to look like. The next step was to find an illustrator who could breathe life into their story with the right imagery. Their prayers were answered in the form of Sajad Shah, a Miami-based comic artist who has been in the industry for several years. “I had always wondered why there weren’t any more ethnic heroes. Or why there were no more stories told about this particular time period (Mughal) [which] was so epic,” says Shah, who decided to come on board after a few initial exchanges with Mirza. “This was our way to do that,” he adds.
The Zindan team — Adelso Corona, Sabine Rich, Sajad Shah, Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin — at NYC Comic Con. Photos courtesy: Zindan Facebook page
By pursuing their childhood passions of writing and drawing along with successful day jobs, the team also hopes to change the conventional approach towards arts in a vast majority of South Asian households. “I hope Zindan becomes a vehicle to further this idea of creativity among Pakistani households,” adds Shah, who is an electrical engineer by training and the only one of his four brothers who continues to pursue sketching on the side. “Be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an engineer, but you can still be anything else you want to be,” adds Mirza.
However, the process is neither short, nor easy. Along with balancing rigorous day jobs, the duo has to communicate with various team members located in different parts of the world and make sure the final product is in sync with everyone’s style. Hence, once Mirza and Mehtabdin chalk out every single scene and dialogue, the script is sent to Shah who draws out each character in pencil and decides the angle, pacing and look for each scene. As soon as the illustration is complete, the sketches are sent to inker Adelso Colona, who goes over them with black ink and forwards it to Venezuelan colourist Alonso Espinoza, who shades each character and scene according to the mood and time period in which it is set. Finally, the sketches come to letterist Jessica Jimerson who adds the bubbles and the accompanying words.
Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin at the New York Comic Book Marketplace 2015. Photos courtesy: Zindan Facebook page
“Our team is scattered all over the world but technology and the Internet has made it possible for us to collaborate and work together on something we all care about,” says Mirza. The team not only coordinates and communicates virtually but has also used various social media platforms to build an audience for Zindan. While they store at a few local comic bookstores, most of their sales take place through their website. The team is also keen to enter the Pakistani market soon and is currently exploring various distribution channels.
Poster of the character of Timur 2014. Photos courtesy: Zindan Facebook page
While Zindan has been showcased at various conventions such as the Boston, Baltimore and the New York Comic Con, where it has been received positively by comic aficionados, Mirza admits that the venture is not financially lucrative. “I would be happy if I could just make a successful comic and earn enough [money] to keep making it,” he says. However, he realises the challenges that independent comic books are up against in a world dominated by giants like Marvel, backed by Disney, DC and Warner Bros and wants to set up a publishing studio in the long run to foster talent and provide a platform for collaboration between various artists.
Sarah Munir is a freelance multimedia journalist. She tweets @SarahMunir1
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 5th, 2015.