Meet the Emirati entrepreneur giving Japan’s most popular art form an Arabic twist.
If Superman and Sultan got into a fight, who would win? One is a US superhero from the DC stable, the other a teenage Emirati manga character whose sidekick is a falcon named Majd. Granted, it’s not yet a conundrum set to divide the comic-book masses, but if 33-year-old Qais Sedki has his way, superhero junkies will at least be asking the question in a few years time.
Sedki, a slight, softly-spoken man with a background in IT, is the author of what is being billed as the first original, Arabic-language manga comic. Gold Ring, which tells of Sultan’s adventures and challenges as he competes in an epic falconry contest, is his stab at putting an Emirati slant on a uniquely Japanese genre.
With it, Sedki hopes to encourage more children to read in classical Arabic, and to create a window into Emirati culture. More broadly, the book’s launch is a sign that manga mania is at last starting to bite in the Middle East.
Manga, an edgy art form born in the wake of World War II, is hard to miss. The comics resemble cinematic storyboards, where action-packed narratives are carried along by exquisitely drawn saucer-eyed characters with spiky hair and — bizarrely — pointed ears.
Far from being a niche market, however, these novels have sales figures that most conventional publishers would kill for. Despite sliding a little in popularity in recent years, the manga market is still deliriously large and comprises nearly a third of all printed materials in Japan. (Ride the Tokyo subway and you’ll see the full gamut of greying corporates, schoolchildren and twenty-somethings pawing through their daily fix.)
Little surprise then, that the former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso — a self-confessed comic addict — earlier this year suggested ramping up the export of Japan’s manga heroes as part of a 15 trillion yen ($162.48bn) economic stimulus package.
Still, manga hasn’t waited for an invitation to spread its wings. By setting up Pageflip, the Dubai publishing house producing Gold Ring, Sedki is now serving for a slice of a competitive $5bn global market. In Britain alone, graphic novels last year generated the best part of $16m in bookstores. In the US, sales have tripled in the past four years; astonishing in a country where home-grown comics rarely seen a print run of more than 150,000.
From its start as a cult, manga is now a fully-fledged publishing phenomenon and top literary houses including HarperCollins, Random House and Simon &Schuster all have fingers in the pie.
For Sedki, his interest traces back to the first wave of crossover anime cartoons in the 1980s, which were dubbed into Arabic and aired on local television networks. Nearly all began life as weekly manga comics.
“Some Emiratis grew out of it, but a good chunk, like me, held on to that interest,” he says. “It fuelled an interest in all things Japanese — I am fascinated by their ways, their work ethic, their culture and history.”
Most Middle Eastern kids today are familiar with Pokémon-style graphics and anime (Japanese animation) but Sedki’s is the first made-in-the-UAE manga. His aim is to create a tempting comic format to bridge the gap between kids’ books and heavy novels for 10 to 12-year-olds, in a bid to show young Emiratis that Arabic isn’t just a language for academia.
“Kids don’t think of classical Arabic as an entertaining form,” he says, shrugging. “I want to show that it can be just as fun as any other language, and not all associated with work or study.”Just as Emiratis are outnumbered a dizzying five-to-one by expats, Sedki frets that Arabic is being sidelined in schools in favour of the more widely-spoken English — so much so that the next generation is in danger of losing touch with its roots.
“I don’t think [English] should come at the expense of the mother tongue, and I’m trying to play a role in bolstering the importance of Arabic,” he says. “I want them to be proud of their heritage.”
For this reason, Gold Ring has an unmistakably Emirati flavour. Its pages are lit up with desert dunes, dishdashas and falcons, and a slew of other local symbols, putting an Arabic stamp on a distinctly foreign art form. Its central theme is one of perseverance and Sedki hopes Sultan, its button-nosed protagonist, will hit a nerve with its audience.
“Manga stories, they tend to be very inspirational. They always involve things like challenges to put you through your paces,” he enthuses. “It’s that kind of ‘stop at nothing’ approach, you know — when you dream, dream big. Don’t sell yourself short on ambition. I want kids to absorb that.”
Sedki is a case in point. Gold Ring was five years in the making, from concept to first print run, and saw the father-of-two throw in his day job and bankroll Pageflip entirely by himself — a fact that is all the more startling, when you consider how much state-backed financial help is available to Emirati entrepreneurs.
Even if the initial 14,000 print run sells out at AED60 ($16) per book, the firm won’t turn a profit, so Sedki is banking on a second run to eventually cover the loss. With no regular income, he’s under no illusions that there is a lot at stake — and that, as a one-man publishing house, he’s going to struggle to make waves in a global manga market. Talk about taking the high road.
“It’s not something I would recommend to be honest,” he says shortly, “but I want to see if it stands commercially by itself. If I’d taken the risk-free easy route from day one, the story behind the [Gold Ring] story wouldn’t really match.
He has opted for a scattergun approach to marketing, with plans to try everything from pitching Gold Ring as an Arabic-language educational aid to schools, to commissioning a six-foot sand replica of the front cover to generate some coverage.
“I’m trying to approach non-conventional sales channels. Schools are next because I see this as an educational book,” he explains.
“I am kind of hinging on that happening because I need to pursue different sorts of revenue from this. Even selling the book at full margins I’m not breaking even.
“And negotiating within the [book selling] system as a start-up publishing house with a non-established product, I’m not coming from a strong standpoint.”
Lucky then, that Pageflip has a lot going for it, not least of which is the talent of two of Japan’s foremost manga artists. Sedki recruited the female duo Akira Himekawa, who have worked on bestselling titles Legend Of Zelda and the remake of Astro Boy, to morph the Gold Ring concept into a fully-fledged comic book.
“It was a good fit because their preference is to illustrate animals, and the falcon-theme of Gold Ring means it really revolves around them,” he explains.Both the Arabic and Japanese reading styles turn pages right to left, which helped to preserve the traditional style.
“The calibre of their work really added to the authenticity,” he adds.
The book’s timing is good. Kinokuniya, the famed Japanese bookstore chain, opened its doors in Dubai last November, complete with an entire section devoted to graphic novels. The store has sold some 50,000 manga books to date, and has already added Gold Ring to its stock.
There’s little doubt that the market will make room for its first Arabic comic — the genre is nothing if not eclectic. In the UK alone, for example, you can now delve into manga versions of the Bible, Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ and Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.
But that’s not to say that some cultural hurdles haven’t cropped up. In Japan, most manga has gained a name for being both graphically violent and X-rated explicit. Sedki winces slightly when I mention this.
“I know the nature of manga and how it can be inappropriate,” he admits, before adding hastily, “but I made it clear I didn’t want any excessive violence, no suggestive content whatsoever. It’s clean manga.”
Other rough patches included trying to explain to the Japanese team why bicycles aren’t a common sight in the desert, or why Emiratis would find cat-eared characters bizarre.
“I had to say; ‘it would be very strange and I’d have to explain it to everyone,” he says, smiling. “It’s a learning curve, but they were pretty good about it.”
Translating staple manga onomatopoeias such as ZA!, DON! and KIIIIN (the sound of a superhero leaping through the air, were it not obvious) which carry the narrative, proved an unusual challenge. Long hours were spent with a typographer trying to imitate the sound of fluttering wings, and then finding a matching Arabic phrase.
“We’d be trying out the sound in a coffee shop somewhere, just sounding like total madmen making up the sound, the booms, the crash,” says Sedki, shaking his head. “We’d sometimes have to remind ourselves we were in public.”
Despite the difficulties, he’s not short on ambition for Gold Ring and Pageflip. There are plans for an English-language version of the comic, of another five or six volumes — some leaning more towards a female readership — and of franchising the brand out across the Middle East. The launch of the book has already spawned a response from local manga writers and artists that Sedki hopes to utilise on future editions.
In fact, fast-forward five years, he suggests enthusiastically, and there could be “initial discussions with animation studios to have a series, movies merchandising, clothing; the whole nine yards.
“There is really no end to the ambition.”