When Omar Mirza, 29, and Khurram Methabin, 28, aren’t saving lives, they are busy writing a comic book set in the Mughal Empire. The two are friends, former roommates and medical residents in New York State.
Comic books don’t seem like the obvious choice to tell a non-fiction historical tale of 17th century India, but that’s exactly the route the New York-based Pakistani physicians chose when they set out to create Zindan – The Last Ansaars. Zindan is the story of Zain and Timur, two orphans with a dark and convoluted past. These South Asian superheroes pair their capes with shalwars rather than with tights and venture through northern India rather than the streets of New York.
|Zindan comic books are vivid and eye-catching.|
With dynamic larger than life art, Sajad Shah delivers each character brilliantly with his pencil work. Adelso Corona meticulously goes over each illustration with ink and Alonso Espinoza does the colours for each page – every shade carefully chosen based on the era in which the characters are set. And the latest addition to the team, Sabine Rich is a French artist who created Tara – a strong female protagonist for future issues of the comic.
They’ve released their first issue – Zindan Issue 0 and hope to release more issues in 2015.
The duo provides more insight into the birth and future of Zindan and their passion for comic books in a candid interview.
Have you always had an interest in comics?
Khurram: Growing up I was a colossal X-Men geek and card collector. I had binders and binders of X-Men cards that we'd trade in school, watch the cartoon after and everything. As I got older, my passion morphed into politics and history, particularly of South Asia and the Middle East.
Omar: I grew up in Ohio so it’s a classic American story. I went to a friend’s house and he gave me this one comic called Mark which is from the 1970s and that's where the obsession started. I used to go with my mother to the grocery store; I used to pick up Superman and X-men comics and it just progressed from there. For many years, even through high school, I would collect them. Whatever I had - $20 or $30 of birthday money, I would spend on comic books. I probably accumulated around 700 comic books in total. And when I got into residency, I started collecting a little more aggressively because I was making money.
What sparked the idea for Zindan?
|The cover for Zindan. - Photo courtesy: www.thelastansaars.com|
Omar: When I saw Sajad Shah's art, I thought who is this fantastic artist from Florida. I had never come across a Pakistani doing comic book art of that sort. I found him on Facebook and hit him up and he was coming to the New York Comic Con so I said we should meet up. That’s when the idea started churning for me and I thought, I love comics so much – maybe I could write one. I spoke to Sajad who was open to the idea – the natural progression there was to reach out to my old roommate Khurram and get him on board as well.
Khurram: The idea for Zindan came from our shared passion. Omar's super into comics, and I'm really a history nut. We combined these two powers for Zindan.
What were some of your initial concerns?
Omar: I kept reading it’s hard, it’s not profitable, there are things stacked against you. The most important thing was that we were confident in the project. As long as we believed in it, we knew we'd have a good time. It was never about money, that's not what constitutes success for us. Even if no one bought it, at the end of the day, I’d still have a comic book that I really enjoy and just to produce that would be a success.
Khurram: Omar is an idealist whereas I'm a realist so we make a great team. When I think something isn't possible, Omar has always been there to give that extra push and oomph of confidence to pull it off. Whether it's about getting through medical school or planning Eid parties or writing a comic, Omar has always been the one who keeps his head up no matter what and gets things done.
What is the process of creating an issue?
Khurram: It's a really time consuming and involved multistep process to get it done perfectly. And that's exactly what we did with Zindan. First comes your storyline and plot development, which is forever morphing and evolving. From here, you get your artist to make some basic pencils. It's amazing to see that process of your thought process being drawn into a comic format and really visualise it and transform it into real art. From here, it goes to the inker and finisher.
Once the shadowing is in, your colourist takes over and it really becomes vibrant. And as the page is done, your letterist takes over and strategically places the dialogue on the page. Meanwhile, you're still arguing over comma placement and punctuation with the editors.
|The two posted pictures on their blog to let the audience know more about the artistic process of creating Zindan. - Photo courtesy: www.thelastansaars.com|
What stories do you hope to tell through Zindan? Is there a particular narrative?
|Omar and Khurram are committed to educating people about history through a fun medium. - Photo courtesy: www.thelastansaars.com|
Khurram: From my perspective, it's a way to tell the story of India's rich past. We capture a real historical context while throwing in some fantasy comic flair through a fictionalised story set during Mughal India. Zindan hopes to glorify and romanticise this time period. As our series continues, we want there to be life lessons that we can all take from the book and tackle some taboo topics that are still occurring in this part of the world, all in the hopes of self-betterment.
Omar: One thing that struck me was people at Comic Cons would look at our art and be like “oh the Muggles, like from Harry Potter” and we would laugh and tell them about the Mughals. It’s such a huge part of history and so many great things came out of it and no one knows about it here. There is so much negativity surrounding Muslims and we want to present a different voice through pop culture. It’s not always about making a social statement, but it’s just about having a fun comic and giving people an alternative to the conventional American Superhero.
Is this a passion project or do you have funding for each issue?
Omar: We aren’t backed by anyone – it’s challenging but immensely rewarding. Every step of the way was pure passion. We compensate our team for the work because it’s a lot of work. Each artist is paid per page and a finished page can range from $300 to $350. A normal issue is 24 pages so it’s a significant amount of money. We tend to work with professional artists as we don’t want to compromise the art – for example, Sajad takes around six hours per page. Everything so far has come out of our personal accounts; everything has been out of pocket. After serious thought, we did recently launch a Kickstarter campaign but it was important for us to be able to show that we had already done this much without any help.
How do you raise awareness about Zindan?
|Cosplay at the New York Comic Con 2014. - Photo courtesy: www.thelastansaars.com|
Khurram: The power of social media is incredible. Throughout the Zindan creative process, we've been sharing our progress via social media and I think that really gave us the confidence and support to bring about our final product with Issue 0. We've gotten over 8,200 Facebook fans; have attended countless Comic Cons throughout North America in the hopes of spreading word of Zindan's release. Just in the past few months alone, Zindan attended NY Special Edition Comic Con, Boston Comic Con, Baltimore Comic Con, New York Comic Con and Queens WinterCon.
Omar: You know, we actually made the website ourselves. What I’ve learnt is that there are so many amazing free services out there; it’s just a matter of looking. On top of attending Comic Cons and handling all of our social media, we do things like make posters and hand them out for free.
What has the response been to Zindan?
Khurram & Omar: The response has been so positive. We've sold out our first run of print copies, with more on the way and we just released Zindan Issue 0 online in the United States via ComiXology, and also in India via HuHuba. We are also currently searching for a digital platform in Pakistan.
Over the years, Comic Con conventions in various American cities have diversified and expanded in many different directions. Zindan is helping this trend and hopes to position itself as a prominent and long-term voice in the arena of comic books. While Zindan is a tool that can help raise awareness about South Asia, the creators of the comic say they would be happy creating a comic book that is simply fun and interesting to read. Even though the duo's project is moving at an upward trajectory, they both admit that they won't be quitting medicine anytime soon. The two hope their project will inspire people to explore creative outlets, even if they have more traditional jobs.
Samar Warsi is a lawyer and a freelance journalist currently based out of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @swarsi