A popular Japanese animation style takes an Emirati twist with the publication of Gold Ring. Oliver Good meets the man behind the first Arabic-language manga comic Translated into English, the Japanese word manga means "whimsical pictures". But don't be fooled, it's a highly evolved art form. With its complex narratives and bug-eyed, spiky-haired characters, it's not only one of Japan's best-loved cultural exports, but also a global industry worth an estimated Dh18 billion. Even Japan's prime minister, Taro Aso, is a fan of the comics and has argued that manga can help the country build cultural ties with other nations. And with the launch of what is being called the first original Arabic-language manga comic, it seems he might be right.
Qais Sedki, a 33-year-old Emirati who loves manga, is the author of Gold Ring. The father of two gave up his IT job to launch Pageflip, the Dubai-based manga publishing house that is producing the book. Sedki hopes that Gold Ring - based around the adventures of a teenage Emirati falconer who faces a series of challenges as he competes in an epic contest - will not just bring the world of manga to the Middle East, but also help bring the Middle East to the rest of the world. He also wants the comic to have a positive social effect, encouraging literacy among the region's youth.
The exact origin of manga is a subject of debate. Some trace it to the US occupation of Japan after the Second World War, when comic books introduced by American GIs became influential. This time is seen as the birth of modern manga, which became an important part of the country's post-war economic and cultural restructuring. But others trace the style back as far as Japan's patriotic cartoons of the 1870s, which often focus on war and conquest.
Since the 1960s, manga comics have appealed to multiple levels of Japanese society. Although still best known for their action-packed, sci-fi orientated shonen manga (for boys up to 18 years old), stories of romance, sports, historical drama, comedy and business have emerged as subgenres and targeted different age and interest groups. In the 1970s and 1980s manga began to travel beyond Japan's shores. Several television channels in Europe, the Middle East and Asia began showing dubbed versions of manga cartoons known as anime. This led to growing interest among international audiences and a wider availability of translated comics. Titles such as Astro Boy, Sailor Moon and Evangelion became common on bookshelves around the world. In turn, Japan began making its own manga-ized versions of US characters including Spider-Man and stories such as Star Wars.
"I grew up watching a lot of Arabic-dubbed Japanese animation," Sedki says. "At the time I just assumed they were all Arabic cartoons. I think it was actually a Jordanian company that did a lot of the dubbing and made [the programmes] available to other TV stations. "When I learnt the truth, it sparked an interest in all things Japanese for me," he says. Sedki has visited Japan several times and believes that Japanese and Emirati cultures share certain similarities, including a devotion to etiquette, tradition and a strong emphasis on family.
Sedki says this similarity has helped him work with Japanese artists. Certain practicalities have also helped. "As far as the literature goes," Sedki says. "We both turn pages in the same direction, right to left." This has meant that Gold Ring could be presented in the traditional tankobon format. Western publishers have famously struggled with the Japanese page-turning direction. Many resorted to a technique known as "flipping", which reversed the cells of every page, creating a mirror image of each book for the Western reader. This caused certain problems, though, such as the reversing of recognised logos, text on T-shirts or billboards and spatial opposites such as accelerator and break pedals on a car.
"The western trend now is to adopt the Japanese format. But they have instructions on the back cover saying: 'open the book on the other side,'" Sedki laughs. One of Sedki's canniest moves has been to recruit the masters of the genre Akira Himekawa to draw Gold Ring. The secretive duo of female artists have worked together since 1991 and have chosen not to reveal their full names. They are best known for drawing the recently retooled Astro Boy - one of manga's best loved characters - as well as books based on the Nintendo franchise Zelda.
"When it came down to artist selection, I had a line-up of samples that I had to review," Sedki says. The writer relied on a close friend's Japanese mother to help track down potential artists in Tokyo. "A lot of people think manga has a very uniform look but there are a lot of different visual styles. [Akira Himekawa] have arguably the most popular of all the styles and the most easily recognisable. They know each other very well and do not work separately," he says. "It just struck me that their qualifications were the most impressive."
Sedki looks to be on a particularly steady footing. He's got a format that lends itself to Arabic readers, some of the best Japanese artists money can buy and an audience that is already well versed in the tropes of manga. But is Gold Ring the best story to launch Arab manga? "The protagonist's name is Sultan. He is a 15-year-old Emirati boy," says Sedki. "He gets engrossed in this fictional sport of Gold Ring. It revolves around falconry but it's not violent. There's the issue of the bond between falcon and falconer. Sultan is going to be challenged in the story. Really challenged."
The author says Gold Ring's central theme is the importance of perseverance. "You will see him put in positions where the easy way out is put to him but he must try not to do that," he says. Although based on an artistic style that is altogether foreign, the author says he wanted the book to faithfully depict Emirati culture, both new and old. "There are modern aspects to Sultan, but he has defiantly not abandoned all traditional elements of his culture. Ignoring the modern way of life is probably not the best thing to do, but neither is the opposite," Sedki says. "That's another message that I'm trying to say, neither extreme is a good thing."
With Gold Ring, Sedki wants to do more than Arabise an exciting Japanese art form. Since the story is aimed at children, he hopes the comic will foster a love of reading in its audience that will eventually grow to include more than manga. However, some might contest that manga, with its emphasis on pictures as well as words, is a questionable way of introducing books to the young. "For someone who is not too keen on reading, if you give them a novel, it might be a put off, but if you took all the dialogue in this manga, it's not too much," he says. "At the end of the book, when you flip the last page, you still get that sense of ownership and achievement that you get by reading any other book. You can confidently tell your friends that you've read the first edition of Gold Ring."
Since he is without a deal to sell the book in UAE shops, Sedki hopes that word of mouth will help build the comic's notoriety in its initial months. He plans to approach schools in the Emirates and encourage them to use the book as a reading aid in the hope that it will eventually reach a wider audience. He has a lot riding on the project. The family man has no regular source of income and the book's initial 14,000-copy pressing was entirely self funded. Even if every book is sold, at Dh60 a piece, Pageflip will not turn a profit. The author is relying on a second issue of Gold Ring to eventually cover the loss.
"From a financial perspective, it's not the smartest thing to do," he laughs. "There's a lot of stability and assurance in knowing that at the end of the month you get that pay cheque. It is not something I would recommend in a heartbeat to anyone." Despite the difficulties, Sedki has high hopes for Gold Ring and Pageflip. He plans to serialise the book and introduce new titles aimed at different audiences.
"The action plan is to start locally - the UAE only - and then try to generate interest in the region and expand outward," he says. "The long-term plan is to eventually have a cultural literature export. I'd like it to reach the ends of the world, selling translation rights and having other publishing companies make my titles available." Should his foray into publishing be a success, he expects to one day relinquish his role as writer.
"I want to continue working with traditional Japanese artists," he says. "But I also want to tap into local talent. I would be interested in seeing what local writers could come up with. In the long run, I'd like to ease out of the writing role and become more of a creative director and maybe give some advice to some budding Emirati writers." Gold Ring is available at Modhesh World at the Dubai Airport Expo until Aug 14.