Unrest in the Middle East has become a kind of punchline when delivering news. It seems almost impossible for any media to portray the region in an equitable light. From within the region, efforts are being made by individuals to share a more balanced view. One of these individuals is Zaid Adham, creator of the Wayl comic book series, touted as “the Arab World’s first psychological thriller comic book.” Adham and his art partner, Yasser Alireza, are stepping into a vastly unexplored arena of publishing in a region that still holds traditional publishing in higher regard.

Zaid Adham

Zaid Adham

Adham was born in Amman, Jordan and raised in Dubai, UAE. After studying in the UK and Canada, he went into film production and direction, his work has been described as Lynchian in tone. In 2001, he departed the field and put his creative efforts into creating Wayl with Alireza.

Yasser Alireza

Yasser Alireza

Alireza is a Saudi Arabian illustrator with more than 15 years experience in visual communication. His vast talents include art direction, copywriting, film direction, and acting. After winning a one-to-one feedback session with Marvel’s then VP of Content, CB Cebulski (yes, that guy) in 2014, he was inspired to work on comics on his own.

Adham and Alireza will be in Dubai for the upcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and I took the opportunity to interview Adham via email before the event.

Wayl (Arabic for ‘Woe’),” explains Adham, “is the story of Sufyan El-Taher, who returns to Amman … to take over his family’s business following his father’s death. With tensions rising in the Middle East and lawlessness on the rise, Sufyan faces a city in ruins with crime and corruption as societal norm. This is a culture shock he was not prepared for, particularly when the interim CEO of his father’s company, Saleem Mahasneh, decides he doesn’t want anyone muscling in on the game … a decision that ultimately leads to the creation of a super-being: Wayl.”

The first issue of Wayl acts as an origin story, developing the circumstances of Sufyan’s return, his encounter with Mahasneh, and the turn of events that leads to the creation of Wayl.

The second issue introduces the series’ antagonist, based on the urban legend Abu Shakoosh (Arabic for ‘Hammer Man’), “a supposed uncaught serial killer who roamed the streets of Amman in the early 1990s.” Using Abu Shakoosh as an antagonist “serves to further capture home audiences’ attention through a relatable figure from urban legend.”

Issue two also gives readers a glimpse of Wayl’s destructive power and how his thirst for vengeance overpowers his need for justice. “Think Batman meets Rorschach from Watchmen,” says Adham.

The overtones of Watchmen go beyond Wayl’s Rorschach-like tendencies. There is a darkness imbued throughout the comic, deftly handled by Alireza, to convey Wayl’s increasing pessimism about his circumstances.

Wayl has been a long time coming. Adham tells me how the story came to be in the first place. “I started working on Wayl around mid-2011 or so when I wrote the script for the first issue. Initially, I was working with a pair of Filipino artists, but work was hampered by the absence of a colourist and letterer for the finished product.” Nevertheless, the initial concept artwork won the inaugural award for Best Original Artwork at the first Middle East Film & Comic Con in 2012 (MEFCC). This development motivated Adham to continue with the project.

Unlike most comics and films with Middle Eastern elements, which tend to be set in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, Wayl is set in Amman, Jordan. So, why Amman, apart from the fact that Adham hails from the city? Because Amman makes for a great setting for a superhero story, Adham says.

“Amman has a special aura to it that makes it the perfect city to host a comic book story … Out of all the cities of the Levant, there is a perfect combination of history and modernity, order and chaos, light and dark within Amman … It is this chaos that I feel is symbolic of both Wayl as a character, and of the modern psyche in general.”

Could Wayl potentially travel to other parts of the world in later issues, then? Not by choice, says Adham. “There is a possibility that Wayl may travel to other parts of the world later, but I wouldn’t see that as part of his own will to do so.”

Wayl issue 1 pg 20

The city of Petra, lovingly rendered in Wayl by Yasser Alireza

Two issues of Wayl have been published thus far, with a third on the way. Adham explains how skewed media coverage of the Arab World gave him impetus to write the story.

“What I saw as a problem in the Middle East was the same problem that was recurrent in Hollywood: the Arab persona or locale was stereotyped. If it wasn’t the fez-wearing trader in the bazaar it would be the horse or camel-back rider in the desert, sword in one hand, keffiyeh wrapped around the face to show only the eyes. There were no Arab heroes, no real issues to tackle, nothing to relate to even from an imaginative perspective. That, in my mind, was enough of a reason to create a series in a universal medium that would break stereotypes and hopefully garner appeal with readers locally and abroad. Perhaps with that, it would encourage a different outlook on comics in the region.”

Adham has clearly put a lot of thought into this series and how he wants Wayl to be received. He seems to have been destined to be a comic book writer and talks passionately about his love of the medium.

“Comic books have always been a staple of my childhood, mainly due to the fact that reading in general is one of my greatest passions. My father and his brothers opened a small bookstore in Amman, as did my aunt. It was typical to sit in either of these shops and read. For a child, comics were the easiest proxy into the world of literature. Arab-based comics such as Majid and Bassem, for example, were educational as well as entertaining. The transition from there to other genres was only natural, and I quickly learned to love other comics such as Mickey Mouse, Little Lulu, and especially The Adventures of Tin Tin.”

Anyone picking up copies of Wayl will likely be struck by its resemblance to MAD magazine. The characters are drawn in a similar caricature style–heads enlarged and faces distorted, like looking through a fun-house mirror. Adham’s comic book youth played a part in this. “The one comic that I have pursued since the age of 6 and continue to purchase is MAD magazine. Were it not for its atypical storytelling and artistic style, I may have not been as interested in comics as an adult as I am today.”

Wayl issue 1 pg 14

MAD magazine’s influence is strong here

Artist Yasser Alireza skilfully manages to reflect Adham’s love of MAD magazine in the characters. His art also does justice to the city of Amman. The detailing in his work and the colours, especially when the story moves to the historic city of Petra, is outstanding.

Their collaboration was “pure serendipity,” says Adham. “I can’t claim to be the most courageous person in the world when it comes to approaching random strangers, but I walked into Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall and headed towards the comic book section. There sat Yasser in a Flash t-shirt sifting through the single-issue section. I thought to myself, “Excellent, just the target audience I’m looking for!” So, I sat next to him pretending to sift through comics as well, then purposely struck up a conversation. [While] discussing comics together, he mentioned that he was a comic artist and showed me some of his work. I was immediately impressed and asked if he would like to show me an example of how he’d work on a page of Wayl. We exchanged contacts and began correspondence, and once we established the superiority of the art, we both knew it was inevitable that we would start working together.”

The team was in place, the book was ready. Now, to get it published. It has not been an easy journey, explains Adham.

“The challenge any comic book faces in the region–at least from what I’ve seen so far–is the fact that no publishers will take on comic books. It would appear that publishers, owing to the reputation and success of the children’s titles of the ’70s and ’80s, are under the impression that comic publications are strictly aimed at children. The lack of faith in, or understanding of, the potential of comics when targeted at adult readers, is what drives that thought process, and, in turn, the executive decisions … I feel that perhaps more media attention and support to regional authors and artists may garner more publishers’ respect, and thus more deals that can propel regional titles into the international market.”

The importance of local events is not lost on Adham. Wayl was launched at MEFCC and Adham and Alireza will be appearing at the upcoming tenth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, one of the region’s largest events. How important are events like these for up and coming writers and artists?

“They are definitely very important. Every up and coming creative artist has to have a platform from which they can display their work … It’s, of course, a dual role, and just as an event organizer can help talent, the artists and writers themselves should be proactive in seeking opportunities at home and abroad to bring attention to their creations, always in more unique ways.”

Though things have been slow going, Adham is optimistic that a limited edition of the third issue of Wayl will be launched at the upcoming Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature (March 1-10, 2018). If not, the plan is to launch at the 2018 MEFCC (April 5-7).

In the meantime, Adham has been working on a science-fiction horror series/graphic novel. “I won’t reveal any plot or titles just yet, but I’m really excited for this one, so stay tuned!”

Wayl is the kind of contemporary story coming out of the Middle East that the region desperately needs–where the people of the region are shown as regular people, flawed, but real. There is still a great deal of work to be done for comics in the Arab World but hopefully Wayl will usher in a new era of stories for the region.