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First Comic Book Heroes Developed in the Arab World

posted on: May 16, 2008

Suleiman Bakhit’s dream of becoming the Walt Disney of the Arab world began in a Minnesota classroom full of American first-grade students.

The young Jordanian student (pictured below) was there in January 2002 to talk about Arabs and Muslims. He wanted to explain to these children that the men behind the attacks on New York and Washington four months earlier were a radical fringe, that their atrocities should not stoke fears of the wider Arab world. We, Mr Bakhit was trying to say, are not so different from you.

“Then one of the boys asked: ‘Do you have Arab superheroes? Is there an Arab Superman?’ And it hit me. There are none. So I asked myself – what would an Arab superhero look like?” Mr Bakhit recalls. “Slowly, I started sketching and thinking. I taught myself how to draw.”

In 2005, Mr Bakhit returned to Jordan. He had studied human resource development in the US, a rare qualification in the Arab world, and job offers poured in. But the question raised by the little boy in Minnesota had not gone away.

Over the next three years, Mr Bakhit not only honed his drawing skills, but he also developed his first story, a tale about a gang of Arab children in the year 2050. He became increasingly convinced there was not only a market for his stories and characters but that there was a real hunger among young Arabs for indigenous content and for home-grown superheroes who would speak to their aspirations and talk in their language.

“It got to the point where I either got started or not. It was time to put up or shut up,” Mr Bakhit says. So in 2005 he used $50,000 – some of which was from his personal savings and some from an outside investor – to set up Aranim Media Factory, the first comic book publisher in Jordan and one of only three in the Arab world.

Mr Bakhit’s business style, too, is visibly out of the ordinary. He never wears a suit and tie; his office is littered with DVDs, plastic toys and a bewildering array of exercise machinery; and he rides a big, gleaming motorbike.

The company is housed on two floors of an unassuming building in Amman, Jordan. The first thing that catches a visitor’s eye is graffiti proclaiming “The Impossible Dream”. Inside, there are huge prints depicting the varied and rapidly growing cast of heroes, villains and lovable rogues that populate Aranim’s comic universe.

There are Mansaf and Ozi, two Jordanians whose single-minded pursuit of the country’s national dishes (which the heroes are named after) plunges them into trouble. There is the square-jawed Jordanian fighter pilot, a real-life figure who died in a legendary battle with the Israeli air force. image

And there is the group of spiky-haired kids (see left) who wake up in the year 2050 only to discover that both oil and grown-ups have disappeared for good, setting the stage for a futuristic voyage of discovery.

They, and many more, are the brainchildren of Mr Bakhit. He sketches their figures and draws up the storylines before handing the colouring and detail work to a team of artists located around the world. He keeps five employees in Jordan, but most of the work is done by freelance comic artists in countries from Brazil to Japan (see box).

The choice of characters and plots must give Arab readers heroes and stories they can identify with, he says. “There is no media right now that reflects our aspirations and dreams, or that is simply targeted towards entertaining us. We are hungry for content. There is a lack of indigenous content, and a lack of content that is tailored towards the young.”

As a boy, Mr Bakhit used to devour comics from the US and Japan. But, he says, there was always one problem with imported superheroes: “I was a big fan of Superman and Batman. But I could never see myself in them. We don’t like our heroes to wear their underwear on the outside. The whole Spandex thing just doesn’t resonate in our culture.”

Although the offices of Aranim – an amalgamation of “Arab” and “animation” – seem chaotic, the company is working according to a well-ordered business plan.

Funding is secure, Mr Bakhit says, thanks to grants by the King Abdullah Development Fund, and he expects Aranim to become “seriously profitable” in the next two to three years after an upfront investment of $2m-$3m dollars.

“We have to take it bit by bit. For the next two years, my goal is to establish the intellectual property and the brand,” says Mr Bakhit. “At some point you reach the tipping point – when people really start loving your characters – and that’s when you start capitalising on that through licensing, merchandising and other sales”.

His plan is to win as wide an audience as possible for his characters, including by distributing teasers of Aranim’s comic books for free. The first big launch is scheduled for the middle of this year, when Aranim will publish three of its comic books at the same time.

Mr Bakhit plans to focus on the Jordanian market for the time being, but he believes many of Aranim’s stories will also resonate in other Arab countries, and possibly even in the west.

However, given the region’s low spending power and what he says is a traditional reluctance to spending money on books, let alone comics, Mr Bakhit believes that he cannot rely on direct sales alone to turn a profit.

Instead, he is banking on revenue from merchandising, advertising and spin-offs, such as computer games based on Aranim characters. One such game is already in the works, as is the first line of plastic toys featuring his creations. The prototype – a fearsome Arab warrior on horseback – glowers from a shelf next to his desk. He is also working on an animated television series, production of which is set to be completed in 2010.

While profits are important to the 29-year-old, Mr Bakhit says that his real ambition goes far beyond making money: “I want to become the Walt Disney of the Arab world – the guy who created all these great characters and gave so many kids hope.

“I love what I do. Even if I don’t get rich, I will be fulfilled.”

There is virtually no tradition of comic books in the Arab world, explains Suleiman Bakhit. Until a few years ago, the only cartoons that were available came from the US and Japan, and even those failed to win a wider audience.

This meant that among the biggest challenges for Aranim Media Factory was finding artists able to turn Mr Bakhit’s sketches into the finished article. He quickly realised, however, that he would have to look beyond Amman, the Jordanian capital where his company is based, to find the right talent. “One of my first artists was a guy from Brazil,” he recalls. “I was browsing the net and saw his work, so I sent him an e-mail and asked whether he could work for me.”

Since then, he has added collaborators in Britain, Germany, Japan and China to his stable. “We agree a monthly rate, they e-mail their work and then I wire them the money,” Mr Bakhit says. The speed and flexibility of the process, he says with a laugh, is akin to “guerrilla” warfare.

This summer, Mr Bakhit, plans to bring all his artists to Jordan for the first time, not least to share their expertise and skills with the budding cartoon talent of Amman.

By Tobias Buck
Published: May 6 2008
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008