By Rob Cave
If you've never been there before, Dubai can appear a very peculiar place when you first visit. It's a very modern metropolis in a Muslim country (the United Arab Emirates) in the very heart of the Middle East. It is desert city that is home to an indoor ski slope with actual snow, the tallest towers in the world and it's rapidly becoming a major air transport hub. And yet, it is a city that is also very keen to retain its own traditions and identity, most evidently in the form of the national dress; (mostly) white kanduras for men and (mostly) black abayas for women, that many locals wear in their daily lives.
And while Dubai superficially resembles any number of other large cities around the world, it also contains many subtle differences that become more apparent, yet harder to fully describe, the longer one lives there.
So, it is perhaps fitting that the most recent pop culture event in the region, the IGN Convention Dubai, is also a little hard to describe in simple terms. Part of that difficulty lies in the range of interests it covers; it pitches itself not so much a comic convention as it is an *everything* convention, with celebrity signings, comics, cosplay and most importantly, videogames. But range is very much what the entertainment web mega portal IGN, a site that started with videogames, but has since expanded its horizons, is all about.
This convention, organised by their Middle East branch (me.ign.com) reflects that larger range, with videogame tournaments and previews of upcoming games taking centre stage.
IGN are not the first to organise such a convention in the region, that honor falls to the Middle East Film and Comic Con, about which I have written here, but they are the first to attempt to create a regional convention franchise, with IGN events taking place not just in the UAE, but in nearby Bahrain and Qatar, too.
As a western expat living in the UAE, I'm very glad to see more of pop cultural conventions happening. Perhaps even more than back home, here they serve as a valuable meeting point for all manner of individuals with similar or overlapping interests to become, like the TV series, a community. Without such conventions, we'd be isolated, unable to share our passions and tips on upcoming events and the best places in town to get the stuff we want, be that classic videogames and equipment, comics, manga, collectables or whatever.
So it was that after the metro reopened at 1pm following its traditional shutdown for Friday morning prayers, that I made my way through the 30C/85F November heat to Dubai Marina, the same place that served as the venue for the first two Middle East Film and Comic Cons.
As you might expect from IGN, there was also more of a gaming focus. The top guest was voice actor Troy Baker, who now voices the Joker in Batman: Arkham games and Joel in the excellent The Last of Us. Baker was joined by Champion fighting pro-gamer, Ryan Hart, who happily wiped the floor with all who challenged his Street Fighter/Tekken mastery. Folks from NVidia and Microsoft, and local games distributor Pluto, were also in attendance, showing off their latest hardware and software. There were even some lower-tech board and card games, proving that whether analogue or digital, IGN had game.
But despite all this equipment, the event itself was a relatively small and intimate affair when compared not just to bigger American cons, but also to previous Middle East Film and Comic Cons. This was by no means a bad thing for attendees, who could easily move around, chat to the exhibitors and get hands on with all the games they wanted.
The few problems there were – Wi Fi difficulties preventing a DOTA 2 tournament from happening, and Game of Thrones' Kris "Hodor" Nairn being replaced last minute by Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, "The Mountain" from the same show – didn't really detract from the enjoyment of most of the people I talked to. Far more important was the discovery that the UAE now has two comic shops, both in attendance at the event. Momentous news indeed, for comic readers in the UAE.
Comicave, located in the Outlet Mall, near Dubai's Silicon Oasis is a graphic novel shop with a strong line in collectables, and at times seems more like a geek museum where you can buy all the exhibits. Seriously! I visited it the next day and they have a full-scale Iron Man Armory, and you can buy the armour statues! Meanwhile, Comic Central, located by the Jumeirah Lake Towers Metro stop has much more of a focus on manga. While neither establishment is receiving weekly comics deliveries from Diamond at time of writing, both are keen to do so once logistically feasible, and I am keen to see how both these places develop.
While no comics creators or publishers from outside the region attended, the work of the local and locally-based artists on the dozen or so table that made up artist's alley had plenty to offer, including an interesting insight into the artistic influences in the region. Chief among these was manga and anime, which was dubbed into Arabic and widely shown of TV in the UAE in 1980s and 90s. That said, western comics are making inroads, as evidence by the work of Maryem Alzaabi, a big fan of Cameron Stewart and Becky Cloonan.
Meanwhile, new sequential work was in evidence in the form of the Arab-language manga-style graphic novel, Alaa the Bounty Hunter, a publication that was backed by the Abu Dhabi Government and the work of Shihab Aldeen. And there was Shamal, a supernatural thriller set in Bahrain created by Anna Thackray, a South African expat currently residing in the Gulf nation.
As the sun went down, a fresh crowd arrived, and events continued on stage and throughout the venue, with the first day of event finally winding down around 10pm.
Overall then, I had a great time, and I didn't seem to be the only one, but much of my enjoyment probably came from the fact that I like both games and comic, and am always keen to see the work of local artists. And it certainly helped that the convention brought together a lot of sellers and collectors of graphic novels and pop cultural merchandise in what is historically an underserved region.
That, for me, made the whole con worthwhile. Would I enjoy a bigger event, with more guests, particularly more comics publishers from outside the region coming to visit? Definitely. But I'm glad IGN are investing in the region, putting on these shows and bringing everyone together.