You've got to be cynical about the headline "Local publishing house launches first Arabic manga graphic novel". In a region where a good bookstore was a rarity till recently, and books based in the local milieu are non-existent, how do you get it right with a graphic novel that adopts a style from faraway Japanese popular culture?
Qais Sedki knew he would never know till he tried. The creator and publisher of Gold Ring, the first-ever Emirati manga graphic novel series, realised a long-nurtured dream in July this year when the first volume of his graphic novel was unveiled during Summer Surprises.
"I worked in total secrecy for about five years on this project because I didn't want to go on endlessly defending the idea. I didn't want people telling me the idea of a manga comic series in classical Arabic wouldn't work," says the 33-year-old Sedki, who called time-out on an IT career (he was head of data communications at Dubai Police and then worked for Emaar at the Group IT level) to pursue his dream.
It's too early to pass any judgment on how successful Gold Ring will turn out to be, but you can't ignore Sedki's commitment to the project. It's not easy to turn a boyhood obsession into an occupation. "I think you have to be fortunate to earn a livelihood by pursuing a dream you are so passionate about, especially when you have a family to look after," says the father of two. "I do IT well, but it just wasn't my thing, and I didn't want to end up falling into that trap of doing a job just to earn a living."
It's an unusual device for telling a story here, given the region's exposure to Japanese entertainment had been limited to poorly-translated telecasts of popular, but dated Japanese anime serials for a long time. "Long before I became obsessed with manga, I remember being hooked on Japanese animation. A lot of these serials were originally manga comics that became popular enough to be turned into animated serials," says Sedki.
"Manga is an engaging format of storytelling. The sequences of frames change with every flip of the page, so there is a sense of anticipation the flip is a reveal of sorts," he explains. "These small devices add to the buzz. The theme of most manga stories deal with perseverance, something that I identify with."
The creative process
When Sedki sat down to write his graphic novel, the script didn't tumble out of him. Instead, he had to first devour books about screenplays to get a grip on the writing process since, as Qais puts it, "manga is like reading a film."
The story had to be set here in the Emirates and be rooted in Emirati culture. "We have stories and legends in our culture, yet we look outwards. My vision was to serve something that was modern, yet rooted in tradition." So he wove a tale that chronicled the adventures of a 15 year-old Emirati falconer Sultan and made up a fictional sport called Gold Ring. But how did Sedki, a self-confessed geek who prides himself in his ability to pick up people's accents and admits to solving logic puzzles in his spare time, illustrate the novel? He can't draw, and in Japan, most manga creators both write and illustrate their comics.
A friend's Japanese mother helped him rope in two of Japan's most prolific manga artists to illustrate the script. Akira Himekawa, as the duo is collectively known, are seasoned manga artists and have their name attached to popular titles like The Adventures of Zelda and Astro Boy. The creative process went to another level when they came on board. "They were fantastic and so committed to the craft. They also had some awesome suggestions for the storyline. My initial draft was sequential, but they felt that certain sequences could jump forward in the narrative," he recalls. Due to prior commitments, the duo had to finish illustrations from Japan, so they relied on the photos and videos that Sedki sent them. And the results are stunning. Even without understanding a word of Arabic, the illustrations will keep you engrossed. The attention to detail is fantastic.
So far, so good, so what?
As far as following through on an idea is concerned, Sedki couldn't have done it better. He's got an original storyline, some of the best manga artists to illustrate the novel, and he wove a few morals and values into the fabric of the story to help him approach schools in an attempt to let them use Gold Ring as reading material.
He wants Gold Ring to instil in young readers a love for reading, something that he says he sees little of here. He says the success of friend Mohammad Saeed Harib's Freej was inspiring the 3D animation series that chronicled the lives of four elderly Emirati women that live amidst the hustle and bustle of Dubai but he doesn't want to take the animation route yet. "I wouldn't rule out animations of Gold Ring in the future, but to take the animation route right now would defeat the purpose of writing the book," he says. Sedki will soon start on the next volume, although he is unwilling to put a date on when the next issue will be out. "The format is flexible, so I could go on for about six more volumes, or cut it back to three." English translations are also planned in the future.
One question remains: will Gold Ring usher in a fan following for what is arguably Japan's most popular cultural export? Manga may be huge the world over, but it hasn't quite caught on in the UAE. Book World by Kinokuniya at Dubai Mall stocks over 5,000 titles, and according to managing director Yukihiro Kawakami, most of the buyers are in the 15-30 age group. "The introduction of manga in Arabic will definitely raise more awareness amongst locals who do not yet know what manga is about," reckons Kawakami.
However, Sedki is in no hurry considering that, at the time of going to print, his book was only available at Modhesh World. "The primary aim of Pageflip Publishing was about giving back to the community. That's one of the reasons I didn't approach publishers. It wouldn't make complete business sense to them," says Sedki.
"I've had a few enquires regarding investment in the company since the launch. I'm going to look at them carefully before I make a decision."
Gold Ring is currently available at Modesh World