Adventures of the Trail Master
By Saqlain Haider
Illustrated by Saqlain Haider
Infini, Karachi
53pp.

We need a hero.

Or rather, ‘they’ do. I’m half done with my estimated life expectancy so I’m personally not bothered much by the lack, but I have a child. I feel responsible for her future and I think it would be nice if there were a homegrown superhero — I use this term in a gender-neutral way — for her to look up to.

According to UNICEF data for 2023, my child is one of 102 million people under the age of 18 currently existing in Pakistan. That’s a lot of kids. In a balanced utopia, there would be at least a handful of local superheroes to offset the aspirational requirements of Pakistani youngsters. How sad is it that we have no sensible, reassuring and relatable fictional characters who can inspire our children to become what the majority of our grown-ups are not?

Yes, Pakistan has a soap-sponsored warrior. Who else? Both my memory and Google are drawing a blank. No, the biscuit-based royal and the burqa-clad teacher don’t count — they have no superpowers, so technically they’re not superheroes. Where’s our Superman? Our desi tights-wearing crime fighter?

Enter Trail Master, protagonist of the action comic Adventures of the Trail Master, written and illustrated by Saqlain Haider. The recently published Volume 1 is the origin story introducing us to teenager Tray and it tells us how he discovers his exceptional strengths, comes to terms with his unique abilities and matures into an orange-and-blue suited powerhouse against lawlessness.

A Pakistani comic book takes on the responsibility of providing a homegrown action icon, as well as encouraging reading among children of all language proficiencies

For jaded old me, though, it was the origin story of the origin story that captured my interest. Marketing and communications professional Haider has based the character of Tray on deaf and mute youngster Kashaf Alvi, whom he met when designing Alvi’s book The Language of Paradise, which narrates his experiences of living in a world pulsating with sounds he cannot hear.

Like Alvi, Tray is also deaf and mute. He can communicate through sign language and typing text into his phone, but his social interactions are greatly limited. Ironically, whereas he is physically unable to, it is the ones who “choose not to hear or even see” that cause him to get hit by a car.

After the accident, Tray discovers he can see little bubbles floating around people. Every individual has different coloured bubbles — someone is surrounded by blobs of purple, another leaves a trail of tiny yellow balloons. Tray’s father explains these are people’s auras, and Tray, with his now heightened senses, not only sees them, but is able to feel something close to people’s emotions.

When his own aura shows up, Tray takes a literal plunge into the bubbles and is thrown into a world within a world. Scenes from his past float behind him, so he deduces that the visions ahead are his future. Before he can catch a glimpse, though, a strange entity awash in flames frightens him into breaking out of his bubble (could this be a metaphor?) and into the real world.

The aura bubbles, the mysterious flaming creature and Tray’s father’s secret job all come together to turn Tray into Trail Master. Helped by his father, a super-suit complete with cape, a pair of spectacles that lets him ‘hear’ with his eyes and his flying robot sidekick Drono, Tray begins to take down criminals in his unnamed city.

His personal life gets a boost, too. Until now a social misfit, he makes several new friends, his closest buddy being Selena, the girl who inadvertently caused his accident and therefore his super breakthrough.

In true superhero comic fashion, Adventures of the Trail Master also features a possibly mad supervillain, fancy gadgetry, a conspiracy to take over the world, wisecracks, immense potential for betrayal and plenty of smoking guns that will most probably be tackled properly in forthcoming volumes.

The intent of the comic is to reach as large an audience as possible, so it is available in both English and Urdu languages. Interestingly, when conducting preliminary research — essentially showing the book to a bunch of kids and teens in the family and neighbourhood — author Haider discovered, much to his surprise, that youngsters more comfortable with reading in Urdu didn’t quite know how to read a comic.

So, the Urdu version has an extra page of instructions that explains the difference between speech bubbles, thought bubbles and narrative boxes. It also points out that the image of hands, that appears above several panels, shows that communication is being done in sign language, but I wish this explanation had been put in the English as well — Haider is giving English-language readers too much benefit of the doubt here!

What is bothering me, however, is that while the comic is enjoyable and certainly a most commendable effort to a) produce a Pakistani action comic series, and b) encourage reading among children of all language proficiencies, its fundamentals are not really Pakistani, per se. Why are the characters named Tray, Selena and Ned? Why not Tahir, Salma and Nizamuddin?

Perhaps Haider will revisit this in future issues. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see something for Pakistani youngsters that will appeal to their modern sensibilities. Fairies, djinns and deos [ogres] will remain timeless classics, but a contemporary costumed icon is the need of the day.

I also hope that, following Adventures of the Trail Master, more desi superbeings will rise; then our kids won’t feel that one can only experience the magic of superheroics if one is in possession of an American visa.

The reviewer is a member of staff. She tweets @sarwatyazeem

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 26th, 2023

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