In a way, books taught me about capitalism.*
*(not really, but it’s a good opening line.)
Not that I ever read any book on capitalism itself. But growing up in Karachi, the political economy of accessing books threw me into the arms of the free market.
At first, there was the school library. I used to borrow just about every conceivable Enid Blyton colonial-fantasy from there, as well as loads of paperback Tarzan stories in Urdu. Then one year, the library held a competition to see who borrowed the most books each week. All of a sudden, competitive kids who’d never read shit started borrowing like mad. There were poor controls for determining whether those books were actually read, and so I decided (for probably the only time in my life) to conscientiously object and not borrow anything.
My second source was my dada’s stack of termite infested classics from Rome and Greece. They were a bit too much for a 12 year old, although I did get through some of the Illiad. When he died (run over by an ambulance FFS) my dadi, who had spent all my life fighting with him, just broke down and died a few months later. The only time she seemed to not be broken and morose after dada’s death was when she gave away his books to the raddi paper wala, something she had clearly anticipated for decades.
My third source was going over to my cousins’ houses and reading whatever they had. A lot of the cousins in my family who were my age were girls, so I ended up reading an inordinate amount of Judy Blume. The problem with this approach was that visits ended before books did, and so I began to hit the comic books instead.
The only comics I had access to were Archie Comics. In fact, I was blissfully unaware of the Superman Batman sagas simply because I didn’t know anyone who had them. The only people in my class who would read them came from broken homes and cars-with-guards, so I felt that this was beyond my reach and hence interest.
Now Archie Comics were seemingly created to be palatable to post-Zia Pakistan. When I was in Uni, I tried to prove how cynical I was by discussing with other people about the potential sexual exploits constantly implied in Riverdale. Was Archie getting to third base? Why was no one using condoms, and why was no one contracting STDs? Surely Reggie would’ve had syphilis by now? However, just the idea of Betty fellating Archie was so disconcerting that I had to put it aside. Eventually however, Archie comics’ staggeringly naive outlook had their limits, and so I started seeking out Mad magazines.
This led me to my fourth source, the thela walas at Hasan Square (no longer there) who would sell second hand books. I would walk from Wasim bagh in the pink Bermuda shorts my mother had bought from Chase (how the fuck has Chase survived all these years, particularly as they seem to perennially have a going-out-of-business-sale going on?), cross the patri and make it to the thelas. There I would try and haggle and barter in order to get two without-cover magazines for one with cover.
This system of bartering meant that I started to focus on getting something that would ensure a fun read, would not disappoint by continuing onto endless series, and could be pawned back simply. Mad magazines checked every single one of those boxes.
I could’ve gone onto the superhero stuff at this point as well, but again my issue was the fact that I didn’t like reading an expensive, 10-12 page rag which would have a to-be-continued.
In fact, I didn’t come back to any other types of comics until I met Safieh. By this time, the world had changed and being a lifelong geek had actual cultural cache. Suddenly, comics were cool and every other film was based on a comic and all these cultural references were being picked up from them.
Despite my avowed resistance, Safieh helped me enter this cultural context by introducing me to graphic novels. In essence, these are comics with better dialogues and harder bookbindings, but their scale, scope and sobrierity allowed me to not be intellectually affronted, and hence move past the biases to appreciate the form itself.
What is most enticing for me about comics – as a medium – is their unique sense of dynamism. The images allow you to feel a sense of movement and atmosphere, but the fact that it’s not a film forces a greater focus on each panel/frame. I think this might be what allows comics to become epic. I am not using that term in the California-surfer sense, but rather that the form demands each image to make a statement. The juxtaposition of images and words makes it easier to incorporate fantasy and outrageousness simply because you’re not just dependent on fancy CGIs or flowery adjectives.
Of course, this is the limit to my understanding of the medium, simply because my experience is limited to Sandmans and Watchmans. But I think what we can all agree on is the sense of energy that comics can exude. Stuff like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Watchmen, with its constant intertextuality and pastiche, is much harder to pull off in films, and much more exciting than the written word.
So it was with this context in mind that I discovered Umru Ayyar.
But before you go *burger alert* I had heard of Umru as a paper-back pulp character back in the day. But this time around, I was meeting his modern, comic book incantation.
Now I know precious little about the history of comics in Pakistan, but AFAIK that apart from political cartoons or stapled-notebook-pencil-drawn-fantasies by teenagers, there isn’t much of a history here.
But clearly both the talent and drive were in abundance, because the internet saw an absolute explosion of Pakistani comics.
My first encounter was @jhaque_’s brilliant Pakistan ka Haal/Jay’s Toons series, but it soon became impossible to keep up with the plethora of new comics coming out. The popularity of memes also had a part to play in this (in my mind at least) because they were similar in the image+text format.
The importance of having memes around was that like with many other things, the popularity of the internet was not just limited to the fact that it was providing a space for artists to share their stuff, but (perhaps more importantly) it also cultivated audiences that could begin to understand and appreciate the kind of stuff being put out.
Moreover, because comics were not literature, they were free to observe the little nuances and paradoxes of Pakistani life, rather than feeling like they must comment on ideas of identity and the future political contours of the country.
This simple, light-hearted approach was what first attracted my attention towards Kachee Goliyaan, a webcomic which meandered about what it meant to be young and Pakistani in a way which didn’t involve the T-word.
But when the KG team decided to make its jump to a full-fledged comic, I was both excited and apprehensive. Apprehensive because I had heard of a few one-off attempts at desi comics and superheroes that hadn’t gone too well. Moreover, I was not too sure about how someone would pull off a Pakistani superhero – would they succumb to the hyper-patriarchy that often accompanies superheroes (anything I’ve ever seemed to read by Stan Lee) and be trumpeting the army and other clichés?
Still, at the same time, I felt that there was hope because this was an organic development. These guys had been making comics for a while, and Umru’s back-story meant that they could avoid making capital-S Statements because he wouldn’t have to be confronting with modern Pakistan. Moreover, a pulp character done with some intelligence is my favourite kind.
When the team finally launched the book and travelled to different cities to promote it, I decided to meet them as well. I learnt a lot about their impulses and intentions. Infact, I can launch into the nuts-and-bolts of how these guys came together to make this, but it would be too touchy-feely for now. Suffice to say, its inspirational stuff.
But what about the actual comic itself?
Perhaps because (or inspite) of the fact that I had never read or gotten into the DC/Marvel stuff, I was able to approach Umru with an enjoyment that one gets when confronting a mighty hero in print or on screen for the first time. There is a palpable sense of excitement when you see the hero embark reluctantly on his journey. What made it better was that unlike say a Pakistani film, there didn’t seem to be a whole host of technical and creative errors which you chose to ignore because you just wanted to appreciate the effort. The first edition of Umru starts grandly, and moves quickly.
But I don’t think I would feel right trying to review a comic book here. What I would like to comment upon is what this comic book means.
Recently, I had a conversation with @umairjav and @bhaichod about the debate over whether we should talk to the TTP or not. The discussion ended with the realisation that if one was to reject the army AND the militants, then you would end up with the politics of rejection. The only way forward would be to create new visions and narratives, original ideas which can be used to move past the impasse. The conversation above was far too long and nuanced to get into, but the basic point that we can all agree on is that there is a dire need for us to move beyond the imagined binaries that have been created in our national narrative.
Let me give another example. If you tune into morning shows during Ramzan, they are pale imitations of their normal selves. The reason they are so boring is that the false modesty and standards of piety hyped up (hypocritically) by these shows mean that they must adhere to the same ideals they espouse during the Ramzan broadcasts. That means no mehndi dances, no gudda-guddi ki shaadi, no jin-walay-baba, no faked real stories of adultery etc.
The one man who is absolutely decimating them in the ratings war has no such restrictions – Amir Liaqat gives away LIVE HUMAN BABIES in his iftaar show. While Mr. Liaquat might not be palatable, he is original in his unique mixture of Neelam Ghar with his Aalim Online format. It’s a dumb example, but an instructive one on how successful an idea that steps out of bounds can be. Amir has retained a veneer of religious credibility while putting together the most outrageously material show since Oprah.
In a same, different way this is what the Umru Ayyar comics also represent. They are something which picks on several strands – some desi (the legend of Umru) some valaiyti (the medium of comics) to create an idea which can stand on its own, which is not seeking validation from anyone else, and which is created with the local audience in mind, and not a panel of gorays adjudicating awards.
Rather than copy-paste ideas, they’ve actually reinvented the character, ridding him of his overwhelming greed and avarice for a more Robin Hood sense of morality. They’ve also abandoned the original storyline, and have instead plotted their own narrative, subtly working in local issues as they go along.
Now, you can appreciate the fact that the team donates a free comic for each one they sell to a child in an underprivileged school. It would also make sense to applaud them for putting out the comics in Urdu as well, and the fact that they have been actively looking for collaborators to use their comics as reading and educational material too.
But for me, the most exciting aspect remains the evolution of this comic. It is a coming together of an idea which was already suffused in the desi consciousness, it was brought forward by desis who loved and learnt from a ‘foreign’ media and learnt to appropriate it, and it was then conceived with a focus on an original reimagination. The whole process is a variety of different cultural processes that come together in one creative output.
For the longest time, the only creative field that I saw pulling off the process I described above was Pakistani music. Though there are millions of examples but my favourite one is also the most famous: Junoon took Zepplin and Delta Blues riffs, slapped on Sabir Zafar, Iqbal and Bulleya poetry, and created something that changed subcontinental pop music forever.
The media-fuelled millennium we have been living in has seen a host of other art forms take this on as well. We are seeing it in theatre, in sketch comedy, in blogging, in internet memes and in films. We are seeing creativity marvel at the brief space it has found, and revelling in it to create a fresh realm of ideas. Whether its a failure or a success, with Umru Ayyar we are seeing the process that began with webcomics enter a new phase.
With Umru Ayyar, we are now arriving at the worlds that lie beyond the stars.