When Zaid Adham and Yasser Alireza met in the comic-book section of Dubai bookshop Kinokuniya they had little idea they would embark on a unique storytelling collaboration.
What Alireza didn’t know was that Jordan-born Zaid had won a Middle East Film & Comic Con (MEFCC) writing award for his outline for a new Middle East superhero comic and needed an artist to bring his vision to life.
And what Adham didn’t know was that Alireza, who hails from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, was an MEFCC award-winning artist looking to fulfil a childhood dream of working in comics.
Talking to the pair, who will launch the first issue of their comic book, Wayl, at the next MEFCC, from April 7 to 9, it’s not difficult to believe that fate brought them together.
For while their personalities are chalk and cheese — Zaid considered, thoughtful and philosophical; Alireza passionate, excitable and talkative — they share a similar passion for storytelling.
“What’s really great about our collaboration is not that we agree on every single thing, because we haven’t,” Alireza said, “but we have a high regard for each others’ point of view because we both think deeply about every single decision we make going into this project. And we both respect the idea that somebody has to back down.”
Wayl — Arabic for woe — isn’t the first attempt at an Arab-based English language superhero comic. Kuwait’s Tashkeel Comics entered the superhero market with The 99, which ran for five printed issues from 2006 and continued a digital run until 2013. But The 99’s religious background attracted condemnation from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Adham and Alireza intend to tell a secular story, grounded in the streets of Adham’s hometown, Amman.
“I didn’t want to create a fictional city, because I wanted people to relate,” said Adham. “I wanted to make sure that, when they pick this up, they understand they are looking at something coming from within. Because this is a homegrown superhero story, it had to have a homegrown approach.”
The result is a gritty, street-level tale set against a warts-and-all look at Arab culture.
“[The Arab world] tends to be very proud, to the point of vanity I think,” Adham said. “No matter how many errors there are in the society or in the people or anything, no, this is a utopia, this is the best, our word is key, our word is final, there’s no contesting it. Every Arab nation is the best nation, every Arab people is the best people.”
This pride, the pair say, prevents self-criticism.
“If you look at most content that comes out of the Middle East, whether it’s bilingual, English, Arabic or what not, aside from the Egyptians and in some occasions the Lebanese, they really tend to stay away from preparing stories within a real context, within the context of a real city,” Alireza said.
“You want to avoid social sensitivities more than political stuff. You know what the lines are politically, what not to cross, so you don’t even go there.
“But socially... the social aspects that drive the Middle East are so overbearing and it’s so hard to understand who you’re insulting from near or from far that most people just want to stay away from that, they kind of put things in a fictional context. Let’s just make up the name of the city, the land, the people, whatever, let them fight mutants, let them not fight the other ethnic group or religious group. So they kind of just whitewash it that way.”
Wayl is anything but whitewashed. The hero’s first obstacle — his origin story, in Issue 1 — is to deal with the greed within his late father’s construction company, with corrupt businessmen who will murder to keep control.
“Yes, we are presenting the Arab superhero, but we are presenting the Arab villain,” Adham said. “The flawed community, the flawed society with errors and flaws that could very well be real, on the streets.”
They are aware that could create a backlash. But they are prepared for that. “We are willing to take that risk, because people need to see something that’s different from the sugar-coating that we keep getting,” Adham said.
“What’s very important to us is that most stories that are told within the social context that exists in the Middle East, they always tend to tread very finite things about dignity, about honour and about, well, I guess moral conduct,” Alireza said. “And the real world isn’t like that. I mean, you are a good person. You may not make all the right moral choices, right, and that’s something that’s very important for us to portray in this comic, whether it’s in the art or actually in the story.
The dark side
“We believe that it’s time to tell a Middle Eastern story that’s all about treading the grey. And it’s from the Middle East, it’s not a commentary about the Middle East from the outside, whether it’s from a Middle Eastern artist living outside or from a Western artist or writer or whatever.”
By exploring the gritty side, the pair hope not just to entertain but to prepare young adults for life, in the way they learnt from the Arabic-language comics of their childhood, such as Abu Dhabi’s Majid and Saudi Arabia’s Bassem.
Alireza explained the philosophy. “We said, ‘Well, we need to be honest with ourselves. What are the things that bother us about our society?’ And it’s the things that had I known growing up, had I known in my teens, to be specific, I would have been able to handle the real world and I think I would have been more ready for the real world — especially coming from Saudi Arabia, which is much more a closed society.
“It’s just understanding that people are not black and white. If someone does something bad that doesn’t make them evil. If someone does something good, well, oh boy... what you see is not what you get. I think people growing up and preparing for professional careers, whether they’re in college or late high school or fresh in their careers, would read this and gain from understanding how complex human beings are.
“One of the valuable lessons that you pick up from [Issue 1] is you see the stark difference in how the villain portrays himself in public, when he’s not sure he can get away with something, versus when he’s face to face with someone he knows he can take advantage of. These are complex, adult issues that you wouldn’t really see in a children’s comic.”
Wayl is a self-funded project, which the pair work on in their spare time — Adham is a media and communications manager, Alireza a visual communications manager.
“Ultimately we are hoping to attract enough attention and enough popularity to be able to grab ourselves a publishing deal, either with someone regionally or one of the big guys internationally,” Adham said.
With the first issue already printed in preparation for the MEFCC launch, Alireza is finishing artwork for Issue 2, which will feature the villain Abu Shukoosh, Hammer Man, a villain drawn from Amman’s urban legends, while Adham has completed the script for the initial six-issue story arc and is working on the second arc.