[From the desk of A.B. Sina]

Absina

The first comic book I ever read was Tintin’s The Black
Island
in a Farsi (or Persian) translation. I remember the cover perfectly – a
boy and his dog on a small motorboat heading out across the choppy waters
towards a dark castle in the distance with blackbirds circling ominously
overhead. Everything about it said ‘Adventure’ and I could easily imagine
myself as that boy, all eager and determined. My dog was pretty smart too,
though his name was Igor. When I looked at the cover again recently to confirm my
memory, I realized that castle from afar looks very much like the citadel in
the Prince of Persia graphic novel (rendered perfectly by LeUyen and Alex),
except instead of a body of water, our citadel is set apart by a desert, a body
of sand. This was not deliberate at all. It had something to do with memory, of
course, but I also suspect Adventure has its own structures, its own visual
forms and traditions.

All of Tintin’s adventures had been translated into Farsi,
but thanks to a number of comic book stores and westernized outlets we also had
access to a pretty wide range of comics in English. Two of our favourites were
Asterix and Lucky Luke, which happened to be French but which we read in
English translations. I also remember reading the American comics, everything
from Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich the Poor Little Rich Boy to The
Green Lantern
and Captain America. Aside from the characters, I remember two
things very distinctly about those Marvel and DC Comics books. First, the
smell. They had that mulchy smell of new paper, unsullied still by the sweat
and scent of human hands, but thanks to the cover they also smelled like
plastic. They smelled the way they looked: glossy. The second thing I remember
was the repetition of those odd ads inside every cover. The little strip of the
scrawny boy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face and then, thanks to
the Charles Atlas body building manual, taking his revenge on the bully and
walking off with the bikini-clad girls. It was the storyline of all the
superhero comics in a nutshell; it also summarized the motives of the audience,
perhaps a little too well. Then there were those mail order sea horses. Drop
some dry stuff into water and you get real live sea horses in your own bowl.
Those Americans could do anything. But what I could never forget were the
Twinkies, the cream-filled lusciousness of those Hostess cakes. I’d go to bed
dreaming of twinkies and their creamy insides. Imagine the disappointment when,
on a visit to the US, I first unwrapped the artificial and ignobly uncreamy
bars.

So I had my little comics collection, but it paled before
the stacks my cousin had accumulated. His budget was clearly more generous.
Whenever I went over, I was sure to find two new, knee-high stacks of comic
books in his bathroom. I’d go in for Number Two and emerge three hours later
having travelled to Egypt, outer space, suburban America and back, the small
matter of Number Two long forgotten. That was where I got my real potty
training. Or rather, that potty was where I got my real training – where for
uninterrupted hours, my imagination learned how to take flight and just go
elsewhere.

‘Elsewhere’ is a pretty good place to head for if you are
going to write anything, but especially if you’re going to write graphic
novels, because their horizon of possibilities is so limitless. What I didn’t
realize until much later, was that while I was reading all those foreign comics
with all their obvious elsewheres in foreign lands, I was also being exposed to
another source, an older source, of inspiration. I was lucky enough to be
exposed to a small family collection of old books which included lots of
manuscripts with miniature paintings. Iranian miniatures may be considered some
of the earliest versions of the form we have come to call the graphic novel.
They were originally drawn in order to illustrate episodes in epic or narrative
poems. That is, they were made for books, for the art of the book, hence their
size and their attendant label. To be totally accurate, the first miniatures
were drawn in the 9th and 10th centuries to illustrate scientific
books, books on plants and mechanical instruments. Depicting people was still
deemed too idolatrous. For about 4 centuries after