MEFCC 2017: comic books give us the power to understand real-life villains and heroes

Far from a ‘men in capes’ convention, Middle East Film & Comic Con 2017 is a unifying force to explore complex social issues through comic books, says its daring founder

Imagine a superhero fan 20 years ago and you might picture a standard ‘geek’ – a solitary teenager poring over graphic novels through thick-rimmed glasses. Imagine one today, and anyone could come to mind. 

In recent years, superheroes have hit the mainstream, with people of all ages, professions and nationalities flocking to the cinema and comic books shops alike to immerse themselves in fantastical narratives of good vs. evil.

This sudden surge in success is due in large part to the Marvel and DC Comics franchises, two gargantuan entertainment companies that have turned the intricate worlds of their comic books – think X-Men, the Avengers, and Batman – into epic film franchises. The fandom, once a small crowd of super-aficionados, has become a worldwide fan base, and films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3 are categorised among the ten highest-grossing of all time. This success has led to a global surge in comic book sales, with audiences turning to traditional graphic novels to further explore the worlds of the characters.

Except, with the release of box-office flops like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which received widespread criticism for its weak plot, some audiences view superheroes as just “men in tights, beating up the bad guy”, and Hollywood deftly criticised as capitalising on a quick recipe for amusement.

The aficionados, however, say otherwise. Arafaat Ali Khan, Co-founder of Middle East Film & Comic Con, an annual film and comic book convention that takes place this year from 6-8 April 2017, joins Sana Amanat, Director of Content & Character Development of Marvel Comics, in arguing that comic books and superhero films are a profound art form.

In 1992, Maus became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize for it’s social exploration, though Arafaat Ali Khan says many believed it to be ludicrous at the time. Nowadays, says Khan, it’s more accepted as a genuine form of art

The superpower of visual stories

“The thing that’s closest to my heart is comic books,” says Khan. “Everything has so much life, so much depth,” he says, “from the story, to the world created, to the characters.”

To him, comic books merge profound stories and complex visual designs, creating a unique platform for reflective art. “There’s something to suit everyone’s taste – just like with movies, novels, and music.”

Beyond the entertainment value of graphic novels, Khan discusses their political and historical importance, citing the example of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s comic book memoir that describes the narrator’s harrowing experience as a Holocaust survivor. In 1992, Maus became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize for it’s social exploration, though Khan says many believed it to be ludicrous at the time. “Nowadays”, says Khan, “it’s more accepted as a genuine form of art.”

The now-ubiquitous comic book films from the likes of Marvel and DC, says Khan, are indicative of society’s acceptance of the art of graphic novels. “People are accepting them into mainstream media, which just goes to show how good these comic books really are,” he says. He even sees the much-criticised Batman v Superman as a failed artistic piece: “Of course, not everything is going to be good, like everything that comes out of art.”

Though often overlooked, the superhero story is a particularly interesting example of artistic allegory. Sana Amanat, who co-created Ms Marvel, the latest member of the Avengers, says, “There are so many great metaphors of really complicated social issues, told through the theatrics of superhero storytelling.

“People can say what they want, but everyone who thinks about X-Men knows that that’s an analogue for the Civil Rights Movement,” says Amanat. The franchise follows a series of mutants who strive to fight against their oppression in a society that values regular humans, or non-mutants. Launched in the ‘60s, the same year as Dr. Martin Luther King Junior gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, the comic books were lauded for their bold political allegory by underground fans.

More recently, superhero stories continue to explore important social values and ideas to a much wider audience. Amanat’s own comic Ms Marvel tells the story of Kamala Khan, a young Muslim girl “in a very tumultuous time,” striving to do good. This, Amanat says, echoes the political landscape in her native US. Like many other artforms, “Ms Marvel is there to tell the story of people who have been traditionally misrepresented, and empower them to find their own voice”, she says.

When Ms Marvel was first announced, there was an immediate positive reaction. “We had fan art maybe hours after the announcement. It was one of the top trending topics on social media”, says Amanat. Far from “men in capes”, superheroes act as what Amanat calls “unifiers”: relatable, 3D characters that speak to individuals and wider society alike.

We say at Marvel, ‘We are the world outside your window’, and the reason that we say that is because we want to reflect what’s happening today through the metaphor of the superhero story

Sana Amanat, Co-creator of Ms Marvel

Becoming the hero

As a Marvel Editor, Amanat uses her artistic platform to create bold, politically relevant stories for diverse audiences. “We say at Marvel, ‘We are the world outside your window’, and the reason that we say that is because we want to reflect what’s happening today through the metaphor of the superhero story.”

Inspired by stories like Amanat’s, and having witnessed the effect of comic books on himself and fellow ‘geeks’, Khan and his partner Ben Caddy founded Middle East Film & Comic Con in 2012, a multi-genre comic convention held in Dubai each year, and the first in the region.

Though he says the event was more “passion-driven” than “business-centric”, Khan launched the event with an important idea in mind. “We wanted to create a platform for the regional talent, because we knew that they were out there,” he says.

“Comic Con was a huge risk,” he says. “The pop culture community was quite underground at the time [in the Middle East].” And yet in the past five years the convention has grown from 15,000 people to a 60,000-strong event, with new artists and creators joining every year.

“I think these last few years have seen very solid support of the arts, of individuals and companies who want to create [in Dubai],” says Khan. “The community is taking note of all of the great talent we have here.”

The event is a legitimate platform for creators to showcase their work, and continue to tell valuable stories that will no longer be shrugged off as ‘superhero stories for kids’. If the sheer size of the event is not enough to exemplify the social importance of fostering the art of superhero storytelling, Amanat puts it well when she says, “Superheroes are the timeless gods and goddesses – the ones that are outside of religion, or faith, or culture, that represent positive ideas and ideals. That’s something that I believe is very timeless.”