by Anthony Del Col
Batman now fights crimes in the Middle East. Well, he shows up at comic conventions here, at least.
This past weekend (April 20-21) I took part in the first-ever Middle East Film and Comic-Con (MEFCC), held in Dubai. I attended mainly to promote my IDW Publishing series Kill Shakespeare (along with my co-creator Conor McCreery) but I also went in a quest to answer a question I’ve been wondering: how big is the comic book culture in the Middle East?
The answer is: quite big. And it’s growing.
The event was organized by Ben Caddy and Arafaat Ali Khan of ExtraCake, a Dubai-based PR and events planning organization, who knew that there was a demand for something like this. Plus, they’re also huge comic geeks and gamers that really wanted an event like this to be held in Dubai that they themselves – and other geeks – could attend.
And attend they did. The show was packed on both the Friday and the Saturday (the two weekend days in the Middle East). The final attendance figure hasn’t been confirmed but Khan guessed that roughly 15,000 people attended. The Dubai International Marine Club (by the beautiful waterfront, of course) was packed with a great combination of people dressed in traditional Middle East garb, Western wear – and cosplayers (the highlight was the woman dressed up as Batwoman that combined the outfit with her traditional Iranian burqua).
It was a very diverse group of attendees. There were a lot of “ex-pats” at the show – people originally from the U.S. and Britain (which is on par for the general Dubai population). But a large contingent were from the Middle East area. I spoke to a lot of people who came from Saudi Arabia, unable to purchase any comics or graphic novels in their country (I hope that they didn’t have problems bringing the books back through their border people…). There were attendees from Kuwait, Bahrain, and other Emirates such as Abu Dhabi. I spoke from one woman who travelled all the way from Belgium to attend – she had been looking for an excuse to come to Dubai anyone and this provided the perfect opportunity.
I – along with all of the other North American creators – felt incredibly welcomed by everyone that attended. I was thanked by so many for coming all the way to their country. I was asked by many locals what I thought of Dubai. And Conor and I talked to a number of people who said that the show inspired them to pursue creating their own comic books, or even start their own comic book stores.
There are no comic book stores in Dubai and the Middle East but the bookstores do quite brisk comic and graphic novel business. One of our first stops upon arrival in Dubai was to check out Book World by Kinokuniya, at the Dubai Mall. This is the mall that is attached to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building recently climbed by Tom Cruise – or, I’m pretty sure, his stunt double – in Mission Impossible 4 (otherwise known as the film that proves that Brad Bird can animate anything – even Cruise’s career…). The mall itself is the world’s largest (notice a theme here for Dubai?) and the bookstore is just as impressive – it’s perhaps the largest that I’ve ever seen, and its graphic novel section is larger than most comic book stores I’ve seen here in North America.
The store’s comic section is actually its second highest-selling section (just below the best-sellers). In the Middle East, it’s difficult to order books (and other products) online so most make their purchases in-store. In addition to Kinokuniya, local retailer Jashanmal also does brisk comics business, as does Virgin Megastore and Borders (hey, remember that chain of stores? They still exist in the Middle East – and are even expanding!).
River Jordan signing
I was able to meet and talk to a number of creators that came from other countries to launch their titles at the show. Merik Tadros, a Jordanian American writer-actor, brought his self-published graphic novel River Jordan, a story about a nine-year old Jordanian-American growing up in Chicago, here at MEFCC (after officially launching it the previous week at Chicago’s C2E2). Sohaib Awan, the superb host of US-based Fictional Frontiers radio show (and now a television pilot), officially launched his first foray into comics at MEFCC with the release of JinnRise, an aliens vs. genies action story, now available digitally through ComiXology (Sohaib also moderated a lot of the panels over the weekend). And Sheikh Danish Ejaz and Zak Khan came from Pakistan specifically for the show to launch their new title Shamsheer, the first Pakistan comic book series.
Walking through the Artist Alley section, which featured approximately 75 local artists and talent, was an eye-opener. I didn’t do an official count but it felt like there are just as many female artists as male artists (a nice contract to most North American shows). I especially enjoyed the comedic take of Aisha Thani, an artist with a darkly comic sense of humour in her Warrior U series of books and sketches – though in person she was quite bubbly.
Amongst the Western creators, celebrities and artists that attended were Jason Mamoa (Game of Thrones), John Rhys Davies (Lord of the Rings), Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead), Luciana Carro (Battlestar Galactica), Max Landis (Chronicle), Alvin Lee (Udon’s StreetFighter), Jeremy Hahn (Top Cow’s Darkness), Mark Sable (Image’s Graveyard Empires), Yishan Lee (TokyoPop) and Sonia Leong (Selfmade Hero). All of us were overwhelmed with how welcomed we were by everyone involved and many of us formed a tight-knit travelling group throughout, checking out some of the tourist spots together.
Of course, seeing as how it was the first year for the convention there were some glitches along the way. My biggest complaint was that the show hours were LONG, with each day starting at either 10am or 11am and not finishing until 10pm each night. And the local book suppliers were also caught off-guard on the demand and a lot of big titles (like our Kill Shakespeare books) sold out early. But these are both growing pains and will probably be taken into consideration for next year.
Oh, did I mention the Dubai is quite beautiful? This was my second time in Dubai so I had already experienced some of the tourist things to do but I was able to get to the top of the Burj Khalifa (via elevator, not spider-gloves…), the Hotel Atlantis (at the tip of the palm tree islands) and some of the other North American artists were also able to check out the Old Dubai markets. Oh, and there were shopping malls. Lots of them. Dubai can sometimes be summed up by a quote I read on a bus shelter: “Dubai is… An excuse to find time to go shopping.”
I’ve attended a lot of shows in the past two-plus years (and am currently in the midst of a nine-conventions-in-the-span-of-eleven-weeks-on-three-continents convention tour), from small to large, and the MEFCC had something special about it. Yes, obviously it’s set in an exotic locale with great weather and tourist spots (I’d be remiss not to mention that…). But that’s not why it stood out for me. What made it so special is that it really feels as though this convention is a harbinger of a whole new market for comic book creators and publishers to explore.
I think that with the fun time had by all the word of mouth could easily lead the convention to have almost twice the number of people next year. It really opened my eyes to how big a desire there is for comics in the region and how quickly the demand is rising. I encourage creators and publishers to start thinking about the Middle Eastern market as a viable market to grow their audience. And hey, as a Canadian who only experiences about three months of beautifully warm weather in his country, how could you not like the fantastically sunny weather?
Anthony Del Col is the Toronto-based co-creator and co-writer of IDW Publishing’s Kill Shakespeare.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.