Updated September 19, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical errors and to address formatting.
Dr. Khurram Mehtabdin and Dr. Omar Mirza are doctors by day, comic book creators by night. Their series, Zindan: The Last Ansaars, is the bestselling comic book in Pakistan through CFxComics. Since their 2014 debut, they’ve seen a 150% increase in sales at United States Comic-Con. A saga of South Indian superheroes and supervillains set in the 17th century Mughal Empire, it focuses on two orphans who struggle with their traumatic pasts as they recapture evils unleashed from the prison Zindan. I interviewed the creators at New York Comic Con 2016. Sheltered from the crush of Harley Quinns, Deadpools, and My Little Pony cosplayers, we sat in their red exhibition tent and discussed feminism in Muslim culture, Pakistani immigrant identity in the context of 9/11, and which preteen YouTube sensation they most identify with.
Tell me a little bit about your origin stories.
Omar: My origin story started as like a very stereotypical American kid [in] a very middle American city. Growing up, people [who are Pakistani like me] would say, “Oh, you’re quite whitewashed.” It wasn’t until college that I started to really explore my own background because I started to notice the finer differences in cultural upbringings. Being a Muslim, it’s hard for me to go and pound beers with all the other people in college. So very quickly, I felt a little bit out of place. That’s when I started to really read and watch more films about my culture and start to think like “This is actually kind of cool.” Because when you grow up, anything your parents do, you feel like is really not cool. I was influenced by my father [who is a doctor] to go into medicine…and always collected comic books as a kid. So when I got to medical school I left all that stuff behind to focus on medicine, be an adult. Khurram and I moved in together and started our adventure in New York [at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine]. And towards the –
Khurram: Second year of residency
Omar: We started playing around with the idea of making comic books. I didn’t have the expertise in terms of the historical background and I wanted to make a historical fantasy. Khurram has a degree in Middle Eastern studies and this is right up his alley so I said, “Look let’s get together, and let’s start doing this.”
Khurram: I love this question. I feel like I’m in X-Men right now. I grew up [in] upstate New York. Same kind of middle American town where everybody had a pickup truck. I was a huge X-Men collector – collector cards, comics – Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That was essentially my life. But I also had a huge passion for history, culture, and religion – not that I was super religious, but just appreciating the history behind it and how that transformed the culture itself. I think after 9/11, having my skin color, having my name, having my familial background from Pakistan, it was kind of like thrust upon us that this is my identity. You can’t deny it, so you gotta roll with it. And if you’re rolling with it, you should know everything about yourself because you’re going to have to micro-defend yourself almost in every single case, with every single interaction you have.
Omar: One of the things [is] that as an immigrant…we all struggle with this idea of conforming to what it means to be American. And for us that were born here, we really didn’t have that challenge as we were growing up because you didn’t notice it. I’m American. That’s the only place where I’ve ever been born, the only place that I’ve ever lived.
Khurram: [Laughs] The only place where I’ve ever been born!
Omar: [Laughs] I mean, realistically, I have been born in two countries. We’ve been raised with cultural values from a different place. There’s this tension between, “Am I more like what my parents have raised me, with these values from home?” or “Am I more…American?”
It’s really fascinating that you talk about value systems because again you mention your history of growing up in the US, having a lot of American values instilled as well as having to navigate other cultural waters. [In Zindan,] you’re going back to 17th Century India and they had very different values. [At the beginning of Book 0,] you mention Shah Jahan, about their more liberal attitudes. Why return to that time instead of doing something in more modern days?
Omar: Through that lens of history, and the distance of time, we’re able to critique a lot of things…that people might [otherwise] not be responsive to. Originally, it was kind of like, “Oh, let’s create a story about a doctor in New York who doubles as a superhero.” But then it seemed very narcissistic. And honestly, that wasn’t really too diverse. All the characters are in New York or Chicago, in the stereotypical Gotham City. And they usually have a split identity, some sort of playboy or successful person by day and then obviously some sort of vigilante by night. We figured let’s change it up a little bit, and the golden period for our ancestors and our history is in Mughal India where the empire really flourished and there was this emphasis on arts and creativity and pluralism. Unfortunately, you don’t see that from that part of the world right now. We wanted to return to some of the beauty and the romance of the region, and use that to also critique.
Khurram: Our story is about two orphans, Zain and Timur, who have a questionable past, questionable history. And it’s a story about self-discovery…through their adventures. So there’s a lot of our life experience that we’re seeing in the characters that we’re writing about, but different time frames. It was a way to tell our story, tell our background, romanticize it a little bit because most of the stories that you do hear about take place in Western civilization. We thought it would be good to have some people of color that would be superheroes as well and why not make them brown-skinned just like us? Because we were little Brown kids growing up in these all-American cities and it’s very hard to find a superhero that we could relate to.
You’ve mentioned wanting to tackle some taboo topics in this part of the world that Zindan is set. What are some of those taboo topics?
Omar: How women are treated. On one hand, we don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that women in that part of the region are treated poorly because that’s far from the truth. But there’s definitely room for improvement in the way that women are treated. And there are also some very ugly things that happen to women. One of the things that we specifically highlighted was this very ugly practice of attacking women in…honor killings and acid attacks, which happen in Pakistan. We wanted to try to address this idea that they are property…owned by men. We really want to support the independence of women and so we created some very strong female characters. And also we want to try and attack this idea of…religious conservatism and dogmatic practice, and we want to promote more of a spiritual and pluralistic kind of worldview.
Khurram: Which is one of the contrasts that you’re seeing in history. As you mentioned earlier, there was Shah Jahan’s era of Mughal India which was very liberal, very pluralistic, a time when culture and poetry and all of these things flourished. And then you contrast that immediately with the reign of Aurangzeb which was religious conservatism, spreading the empire by the sword [and persecuting] religious minorities.
Omar: We’ve been getting a lot of **** for that, by the way. People are very touchy.
Khurram: [Laughs] We’ve already gotten a lot of bleep for that. But these are the topics that we want to hit, we want to be controversial. I think it’s more appropriate coming from us to do it from within than anyone else doing it from an external sense. So if you see problems within your community, if you see problems within your own history, I would rather address them so that we can fix the future.
You also mention some female characters. You have one female character that appeared in Issue 1, Tara the Temptress, and she fits the classic role of the voluptuous villain. How was she developed?
Omar: Tara is on the surface a very sexualized character and I think that one thing that we wanted to try and do was really explore the subtlety between sexuality – which I think is normally not addressed as a strong and positive characteristic – and her independence. A lot of people assume that if she’s dressed like that, that she’s being victimized or objectified. We wanted to emphasize that she chooses to do this, and it’s really her expression of herself and there’s no single look for a feminist. So we call her the King Crusher, the Widow Maker. She’s a very strong character in her own right and she’s going to be wreaking havoc over most of the story. I think her strength comes from the fact that she doesn’t need men. She knows how to use them. And she uses whatever tools that she has – not only her looks but also her smarts and her ability to navigate these different political spheres – to make sure that she’s always going to be coming out of the situation on the top. It’s going to be difficult definitely because I’m sure a lot of people are going to have a lot of opinions about the way she’s dressed, especially from this sort of culture. We have a different character, who’s going to be her opposite, the yin to her yang, who’s going to be more modestly dressed and almost the opposite yet still strong in her own way. Noor is the light of our book and she’s gonna represent idealism and she’s going to be the sense, the wisdom in our book. It’s a work in progress and obviously inherently there’s going to be a bias as men writing a female character.
Khurram: We’re trying to bring more females into our team to have that perspective, especially living the experience of a woman from the East or a Pakistani woman. They’ll have a much better perspective than we would as men in this sort of thing. Our main editor for our series [Tanya Hameed Butt] is a female. Omar’s wife Sayeda is also one of our main editors. We have Sabine Rich [who] was the first person to draw Tara the Temptress.
South Asia has had a traumatic history with colonialism, and the two brothers in Zindan are orphans and former slaves. How do you talk about trauma in this comic?
Khurram: There’s a very strong brotherly feel in this comic between the two characters [Timur and Zain]. Both of them have a hard time dealing with their past, not knowing who their parents are, not knowing where they came from.
Omar: As a psychiatrist, it didn’t escape me that I’m going to be inserting a lot of pathology in this book. I really wanted to emphasize the trauma [and] I’ve written a few scenes where I’ve tried to subtly place some symptoms of not only depression but more than that PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Zindan is going to house these very interesting hyperboles of various psychiatric pathologies. We’ll have the manic, we’ll have the depressed, the borderline and the psychotic even. And so we’re going to explore that and try to create maybe the first heroes with mental illness.
Along those lines – both of you are men, brothers in some ways I’d imagine. What unique qualities do each of you bring to writing this book?
Khurram: [Laughs] None. We have no qualities. There are no qualities whatsoever in us.
Omar: I think we are really good metaphors for – or rather the characters are metaphors for us, really. One is more idealistic and impulsive. The other one is more reserved and maybe analytical. One is sometimes more emotional, the other one is a little more stoic. Khurram’s got all the details and the historical background that really, really brings depth to the story. And I would say that I just bring this sense of impulsivity that sometimes creates good ideas.
Khurram: All the time creates good ideas. This entire tent is because of this guy right here.
Omar: And at the same time, Khurram’s very measured and he’ll say, “Look maybe we don’t need to do all that. Maybe we can get the same effect from a little bit less.” And you need that, you need somebody to always challenge you. Like the brothers, we’re going to have one that’s really gung ho, jumping in the action and want[ing] to fight every battle. And the other one’s going to say, “Let’s pick our battles. Let’s think about this.” And so that kind of constant back and forth between them is very much like the sort of relationship that we have while writing this.
Khurram: I can’t really top that. [Laughs] Let me put it to you this way. When it comes to deadlines, when it comes to organization, when it comes to reaching out to our artists, when it comes to just implementing the day-to-day structure of this entire operation, the buck stops with Omar.
Omar: Sometimes you need that person, that ride-or-die, bad boys for life and Khurram’s that person for me.
Khurram: I think we’re each other’s ying to our yangs when it comes to these sorts of things.
Omar: He’s the Rosie to my Sophia Grace.
I also wanted to ask you about how you broke into the comic industry, what the process is like coordinating everyone because you have illustrators, you have pencillers, you have colorists. And how [do] you find the time to do everything as doctors?
Omar: To address the idea of like how we burst into the comic book scene, we really forcefully burst into it. There was no welcome, there was no, “This is how you get started.” You basically have to just claw and kick to get into it. You just have to start saying, “Okay. We’re going to be comic book writers today and that’s it. And we’re going to make our comic book and we don’t care if somebody’s going to let us into this or not.” The internet has really helped out in terms of allowing people to publish digitally.
Khurram: Before our book was even ready or anything…we first came [to Special Edition, the spring version of New York Comic Con] just handing out posters and then six months later, we had our first book.
Omar: We made lots of mistakes along the way and we continue to make tons and tons and tons of mistakes. There’s so many times you want to quit and you go like, “The day that I have that book in my hand and I can look at it, thumb through it – that is going to be the day that it’s gonna be worth it.” Thankfully, we have 3 of those now so that’s nice. As we’re finishing fellowships, [Khurram in nephrology at Northwell Health and me in psychosomatic psychiatry at Mount Sinai West/Saint Luke’s], it’s been very, very challenging but thank God for the internet.
Khurram: We have an awesome team that kind of guides us through everything. Our team is worldwide. You got us here in New York, our main penciller and inker are down in Florida, our colorist is in Venezuela, we have another colorist in Paris. We’re everywhere. The power of the internet has helped us so much with just coordinating everything, meeting our deadlines.
And what’s the financial situation behind all of this? I mean it takes a lot of work to pull something together, to even find a publisher, and to coordinate all of these people.
Khurram: Me and my wife eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. [Laughs]
Omar: Fortunately, we’re blessed that we have another career. Trying to do this as your primary source of income, I can imagine, is incredibly, incredibly hard. So we really respect the guys in Artists Alley and the self-publishers who are doing this completely on their own. We’ve been taking whatever we have in our salaries [and] funding this entirely ourselves. It’s been pretty expensive. But if you’re committed and you’re willing to try to put in the time, I think it can be rewarding.
Any plans to seek other publishing opportunities to widen distribution?
Omar: Originally we thought going with a publisher would be a good idea and there is the temptation because that’s how you “make it.” But I realize that as we move forward in the digital age, that’s not necessarily how you make it. It’s nice, but we can do that on our own and it may be harder, it may be a longer road, but I think that at the end it’ll be more rewarding. We are working with [Jabal Entertainment to translate] this to other media…a possible television series or maybe a movie and maybe games. There’s a lot of opportunities with the IP [intellectual property]. So that’s where we’re going to be looking for some help. But in terms of the comics publishing, we’re going to do that on our own.
How about distributing to other countries?
Khurram: We’re in the European Union, we’re in the United States through ComiXology which is an Amazon company. We partnered with Indian app company two years ago after we launched Issue 0 called HuHuba for digital distribution there. We’re originally from Pakistan and now the comics scene in Pakistan has really flourished just within the past two years. We linked up with…the Comic Con Foundation of Pakistan and I…was able to give a talk to university students at Bahria Univerity in Karachi about creating a comic. With that, we were able to meet people from a company called CFxComics, just recently featured in Forbes, which is now the largest digital comics distribution company in Pakistan. We’re actually now the top selling comic in Pakistan through this app, which is a huge blessing. It’s pretty cool to see [that in a] home country back where our parents came from, people are picking up our book and reading it, and recognizing that we’re representing a lot more than just our experience.