On February 10, I saw Batman, Harry Potter, and Kaneki Ken from Tokyo Ghoul marching down a side lawn of the Royal Palm Golf and Country Club in Lahore, Pakistan. Cosplaying boys and girls were streaming in for the third annual Comic Con Lahore. At first glance, the convention had the vague corporate garden-party look so many of the city’s cultural events seem to relish in. It was decked out with food stalls, outdoor wedding chairs, and sponsorship banners. The look was completed by a token foreigner who had been unwittingly dragged along by his hosts to see the "other" side of Pakistan and Taylor Swift music blaring loud enough to massacre the ears.
Generic vibes aside, the event gave space to the fresh wave of comic book enthusiasts in the country. It used to be that interest in comics was limited to old editions of Archie and MAD Magazine brought over by expat Americans and Brits. But now, fueled by the Marvel and DC movie universes, anime on cable TV, and local comic book artists looking to engage in the issues and vulnerabilities that affect young Pakistanis, the comic book scene in Pakistan is having a moment.
Among those stepping into this brave new world is Ali Tariq, who left a career in telecommunications in 2016 to open Pakistan’s first dedicated comic book store, All Things Superhero, in Islamabad. “I’ve always loved comic books. I was six years old when my father gave me my first comic book. And as I have grown up, my passion for comic books has only increased,” he said. Feeling increasingly disillusioned with the corporate life, his wife spurred him on to pursue his love for comic books as a career. “Whenever I used to go on holiday abroad I would make a beeline for the nearest comic book store and collect limited edition comics and figurines. So one day my wife just said to me, 'Why don’t you open up a comic book store in Pakistan, as there is nothing like it here?' and I was like, 'Why not? I might as well be the first one to do it.'"
He has since partnered with a number of authentic distributors in the US, and everything sold in his store, from the comics to the memorabilia, is genuine. What that also means is that it's expensive, which has drawn complaints from some of his customers. Despite the necessity of premium pricing, Tariq believes that there is a big enough market out there to make a success of his store. “Everybody is now watching superhero movies and they are inspiring young Pakistanis, so we really needed something like this store. The scene as a whole is definitely picking up. I know a lot of people who read digital comic books, I know a lot of people who order comics online, and the manga and anime scene is also very much growing,” he said.
His excitement came with a note of caution, however. “There is a good side to this and also a bad side. The speed at which enthusiasm has increased has not been matched by efforts to create an organized structure to go with it. We really need an autonomous body to bring the entire industry together.”
The movement from niche interest to established industry is obviously going to take time. But for now the comic book scene in Pakistan belongs to the fans. We spoke to a few of them in their finest superhero and villain gear. They were excited to indulge us in their passions for all things geek.
"I heard there had been a comic con before, and it surprised me. I couldn’t go to the last one because of some personal issues, but I really wanted to go to this one. I found out three days before the event that it was happening. This didn’t give me a lot of time to prepare a costume, so I basically put together whatever I had in my closet. I was super nervous walking in, because I was like, I am dressed as Bellatrix Lestrange, people are going to be judging me. But everyone was super impressed. I wasn’t quite sure if Pakistan was ready for costumes or cosplay, and here I was in my big black dress.
"A lot of people wanted to take photos with me and it just made me really happy that people were so accepting. I watch a lot of anime and a lot of movies, and what I like about being here is seeing these characters come to life through the costumes of other people. The thing that has impressed me the most is how accepting everyone is. You meet different people who are like you. That is the best part. I didn’t think there were other people who were so into all of this stuff."
"I am here today just to enjoy the environment, because it is full of like-minded people who share the same geek culture. It brings us together and creates an event all of us can enjoy. The nerd scene in Pakistan is quite underground and usually limited to social media groups. There is a stigma in Pakistan around these sorts of things, which I feel is wrong, since comic books and anime are creative mediums that people need to explore more.
"I started reading comics as a kid. I’ve always read them and also used to watch different shows with my brothers. My brothers didn’t exactly get me into comics, but it was because of them I found out about these stories. DC’s main line of comics are my favorite, like The New 52, which I have followed a lot. I also like a lot of the crossover series. Events like this help us talk about and understand our truer selves. They stop us from containing who we are. On an individual level, what this gives me is a drive to pursue writing of my own and tell my own stories."
I love anime and I also like comics, but the real reason I am here today is because this is a convention of nerds. It’s my kind of place. It’s just really nice to meet with people who share similar interests and who are passionate about the same things.
"This is my fourth time here. I love the excitement surrounding the event and also the merchandise. It just gets better every year, to be honest. I am enjoying myself a lot. It only becomes apparent to me that there are other people who enjoy stuff like this when I come to these kinds of places. Yes, there are blogs online by Pakistanis about comics. But other than that, there isn’t much expression of it."
"I traveled all the way to Lahore from Islamabad for this event. I had previously been to the TwinCon, which is like a comic con for Islamabad and Rawalpindi. When I heard about this, I had to come. I took a six-hour bus here, spent the night in the city, and arrived at the event fully dressed up. I’ll be spending the whole day here and then returning to Islamabad later tonight. I got into comics at an early age. It’s the imagination that has gone into crafting these stories that really captures you as a child, and as you get older, it’s your nostalgia that keeps you coming back to them. The first comics I read were Superman, The Fantastic Four, Wolverine, The Punisher, and lots of others.
"A lot of people don’t know the comic book scene in Pakistan exists, but those who do try and turn up to these events. In Islamabad, a couple of thousand people showed up, with over 100 cosplayers. Over here you see the same thing. There aren't many different types of entertainment in Pakistan outside of going out for food or catching a movie, and events like this give millennials and other people looking for something unique a chance to connect with each other."
"I have a longstanding interest in comics, anime, manga, and a lot of TV shows as well. My favorite superhero is Batman. From the anime side, I like Goku. I have been watching anime for about ten years and have always found the concept, storylines, and characters intriguing. In Pakistan, comics aren’t as popular as they are in other countries, but obviously trends are changing as can be seen by Comic Con Lahore and the amount of interest people have shown in it. The convention has been held before, but I didn’t know about it. I saw this advertised on Facebook, and me and a few friends decided that it was something that we had to go to. All of us are dressed up and it's really good to see this happening."
"I visited the comic con last time and it was a really great experience. I enjoyed being here taking pictures with all the people who were dressed up in costume. It was also around the same time that I fell in love with Assassin’s Creed. I was really in awe of the concept of the assassin as someone who fights for freedom and free will, so this time I decided to dress up as one. I love the fact that people are coming up to me, taking pictures, and appreciating my costume. I am doing the same with other people. All of us are complete strangers and I don’t know the name of anyone, but it’s very cool that you can be weird in your own way here. No one will judge you.
"Stuff like this definitely needs to happen more often. I was looking forward to this for a whole year. Last time the event was held on February 9, and since that day I’ve been waiting for this, thinking about who I am going to dress up as, whether I am going to be the Wind Ranger or the Evil Queen or Evie Frye, so it is something that I at least have been very excited about. I am more into anime and video games, but I would love to learn more about comics, and events like this are good for that. I’ve come across lots of characters and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t know about."
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