By Neil King
Another successful Middle East Film and Comic Con event took place in Dubai last month, showing the world the strength and diversity of the region’s popular culture offerings. One of the exhibitors, Mai El Shoush, tells StartUp how meeting people at last year’s inaugural event led to her breaking into the world of comic books herself with her debut series, Drawn
April this year thousands of film and comic book fans made their way to Dubai Marina Club for the second annual Middle East Film and Comic Con – a celebration of popular culture complete with cult celebrity appearances, comic book creators, exhibitors from around the world, and a whole host of activities, games and competitions.
Building on its highly acclaimed debut in 2012, the 2013 MEFCC saw even more people both attending and exhibiting at the event, many dressing up as their favourite film or comic characters, making the two-day convention a colourful spectacle of the creative arts.
One of the exhibitors during the lively weekend was Mai El Shoush, whose story is a true example of how following a passion can lead to amazing results, and serving as a lesson to those of us who are reluctant to act upon our impulses.
El Shoush is the creative force behind one of the region’s newest comic books, Drawn, a mythical adventure rooted in the history and culture of henna. But just over a year ago her storytelling ambitions were nothing more than a pipe dream.
The Sudanese-born, British-bred Dubai resident of ten years was on a routine job for the newspaper she writes for, she explains, when inspiration raised its head.
“I was covering last year’s MEFCC for work and did a preview for it. The preview was published and I decided to check out the event to see what it was all about. While I was there I came across so many interesting people both regionally based and from around the world who are doing some amazing things.
“One of the people I had spoken to for the preview was Sohaib Awan of Jabal Entertainments, and I spoke to him at the event. We stayed in touch. He was really passionate about finding talent here and telling stories with a Middle Eastern twist that appeal globally.
“I spoke to the organisers a few times and they said that if I’m so interested in comics then why don’t I do something myself? So I said OK!
“Since school I’d had a passion for creative writing and storytelling. I had always been interested in it, but never had the opportunity to do something about it.”
With this newfound confidence and drive, El Shoush set about gathering ideas for her project.
“I started brainstorming and thought what could I do that’s different and part of my life as well.
“When I had put some ideas down the guys at MEFCC said I should run with it. So I spoke to Sohaib and asked for his feedback. He read it and told me he loved it, and that I should go away and expand on it.
“He also said he’d like Drawn to be the second series for Jabal Entertainment after their first series Jinnrise. I was really excited and touched that he thought it was so appealing.”
Sohaib Awan is the founder of Jabal Entertainment, a company formed in early 2012 with the aim of telling universal stories with regional twists, and whose debut series Jinnrise is grounded in Middle Eastern myth and theology.
He is a keen advocate of writers and artists from across the world telling stories from their own cultures, bringing authenticity to the page and bringing different cultures together through familiar themes.
“I started sending more detailed plots and character analyses,” continues El Shoush. “He said he wanted to do it for the next Comic Con and sent me details of artists that he recommended. I couldn’t believe it was happening!
“I never in a million years thought I would do graphic novels. I studied film so I thought I would tell stories through that. I’d never collected comic books or followed it in any way, but when Sohaib saw it he said it would really work as a graphic novel, and I thought it would be really cool.”
The plot of Drawn revolves around Rayann Lawsonia, a seventeen year old student from America with Middle Eastern heritage, whose life is changed when she comes across a mysterious henna artist.
El Shoush says: “She creates a tattoo design on her hand which takes her to a mystical world where every symbol represents a different power and she finds out there are mythical forces which are after her.”
The history and culture of henna is an important part of Drawn, acting as the central theme running through the series.
“She somehow has a connection to this other world, and has to dig deep into the history of henna itself,” adds El Shoush.
“Drawn really teaches the history of henna – how it started, how it came into other cultures – it’s an insight into the Middle East’s culture and how it spread. In different cultures the henna symbols have different meanings. It’s very interesting to explore it.
“I was born in Sudan and moved to the UK when I was three or four years old, but went back to Sudan every year so henna was very familiar to me.
“Living in Dubai we see a lot of people from around the world who want to get henna done. It’s one of those things that tourists like to get done so they can tick it off their list.”
As well as attaching great importance to the cultural aspect of Drawn, El Shoush was keen to ensure lead character Rayann was a strong, fully developed character. Female leads in comic books have traditionally been drawn and portrayed as sex symbols, wearing skimpy costumes and with accentuated figures, but Rayann is a very different prospect.
“Now people are very hungry for characters that have depth,” explains El Shoush. “Over the Comic Con weekend we pretty much sold out of the teaser issue of the magazine, and the majority who came to buy it were male. It proves what we were aiming to do.
“The appeal isn’t just the fanciability of the character. People aren’t drawn to the book because there’s a hot woman on the cover. Having a lot of male buyers proves that. People who bought Drawn on the first day of Comic Con came back on the second day to talk to us about it, which made me really happy.
“Jinnrise is also introducing a strong female character – Haya. She’s a tough chick. Now is the time when female characters are really going to develop and make a difference.”
Making a difference is something that El Shoush and Awan believes people in the UAE can do in the comic book world.
She adds: “Meeting people from Comic Con, I feel like now is a great time to explore talents in the creative field. Sohaib wants to set up a hub here in Dubai and he wouldn’t do that if he didn’t believe in the talent in the region. He can see the potential.
“There are lots of people here who have stores to tell in different ways. I’ve lived in Dubai for ten years so I consider it one of my homes, and there are so many other people who call the UAE home who have a talent for storytelling.”
The global comic book industry is worth $5bn annually, with millions of sales driving ever more diverse output. And while the UAE and Gulf region is due a boom in creativity, it is also true to say it has already had its share of acclaimed publications.
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is about the author’s childhood and early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Published in 2000 it was turned into a film in 2007, winning that year’s Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, despite criticism from the Iranian government.
Founder and CEO of Teshkeel Media Group, Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, launched The 99 in 2007, a series featuring a team of superheroes based on Islamic culture and religion. The 99 is a reference to the 99 names of Allah, with 99 teenagers attributed a superpower based on each of these names. Popular around the world, the series has been turned into an animated TV show, as well as a theme park in Kuwait.
Emirati artist Khaled Bin Hamad is also winning numerous fans for his sci-fi graphic novel Nasser’s Secrets, which also sold out at MEFCC, and the illustrator has also been signed up by Dubai’s Expo 2020 team to create characters for the bid. Nahyan’s Expo Adventures was also launched at MEFCC.
Drawn aims to be part of the growing catalogue of comic books coming out of the Middle East, and plans are already in place for the first full issue.
El Shoush says: “This was just our teaser issue. Our first proper issue should be a ready after Ramadan. We plan to have four or five issues per year, and inshallah it will continue as long as there’s demand for it.
For budding writers and artists looking to get into the industry, El Shoush offers sound advice and encouraging examples of other people’s success.
“For people who want to do the same thing I would say stay ambitious. Have a lot of passion and confidence in what you’re doing. Go to events like MEFCC. I met people who last year had rented out a stall, and now they had a booth. Khaled bin Hamad is one example. He now has a fully fledged graphic novel which sold out there.
“Go to these events because you get to meet actors, writers, comic book creators and so on, and they can give you real advice. They are there for a reason. Don’t just go as a spectator. Plan something new and go there with a stall. Show off your talents and you never know what could happen.”