While Dubai has claimed many superlatives over the years, from the tallest building and the tallest hotel to the largest man-made archipelago, it is not at all known for its comics and cult film scene. The emirate, the second largest in the United Arab Emirates, lacks even a single comic shop, as does the country as the whole and, I am reliably informed, the wider Middle East. Which makes the sprawling city-state seem an odd setting for a film and comic convention, but if the world's first Middle East Comic Con has demonstrated anything it is the particular hunger for comics, movies and all things geek in the Middle East.
For those who have never visited the Arabian Gulf, Dubai's climate is best described as "hot". Even in April, the temperatures are usually in the 90s (or the 30s, if you are European). Fortunately the organisers of this inaugural convention chose the Dubai Marine Club, with its shaded grassy gardens and views of both the islands of the Palm Jumeirah and the city's impressive skyline, as a perfect setting for an event that at times resembled a music festival. Outside there was a large open-air stage hosting all manner of performances from geek-interest themed dancers busting moves, audience participation cosplay competitions and an ebullient Max Landis, screen writer of the film Chronicle.
All the other elements traditional to US/European con were in place, too, of course, from screenings to workshops and the presence of big-name entertainment brands including Nintendo, Sony, EA and Marvel promoting their films and videogames with stars from cult series Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead on hand for signings. There was even a beer garden, not something I was necessarily expecting.
As an expatriate comic fan who has recently moved to the UAE, I was particularly glad to see some US-based publishers at the show, with Archaia and IDW particularly prominent and The Darkness artist Jeremy Haun manning a table for Top Cow. Their attendance certainly seemed to strike a chord with other fans, too – IDW almost sold out of their supply of Kill Shakespeare before its creators could even appear on the panel scheduled to promote it.
Without comic shops, and with distribution of single issues to supermarkets erratic at best, bookshops are where comic fans in the UAE grab their graphic novels in print, and two of the best in the region, Kinokuniya and Jashanmal, took up prominent positions on the main floor of the con. Their stalls were constantly busy with a eye-catching mixture of UAE nationals in their thawbs, kufiyas andabayas, various stripes of cosplayers (I was sure the girl dressed as mystique was going to melt in the heat), ex-pats and other visitors to the region in their geekiest finery. My personal highlight was bumping into a friendly Darth Vader in an abaya and being threatened with her Force powers!
Chatting to the fans and exhibitors, I managed to piece together something of an oral history of comics in the Middle East. In the UAE, at least, American comics first became available around the early 90s, with a greater influence of the manga aesthetic coming to the region via Japanese anime dubbed into Arabic. The result of this is that locally based artists, both Emirate and expatriate (and there are more expatriates than there are Emirati-nationals living in the UAE) are more likely to draw their comics influences from the East than the West. The best-organised fan community in the UAE certainly seems to be the Anime Club. The manga influence is also something you can see in the work of local artists on sale, be it Qais Sedki's Original Arab Language manga Gold Ring (which is also available in English) or Eesar, Saudi Arabia's first indigenous manga magazine or Comic Pro, a new UAE publishing venture promising manga with an Emirati accent and ThinkUp, a community set up to nurture artistic talent from across the Gulf region. Abeer, one of the girls in the ThinkUp crew, was particularly emphatic "I've been waiting for this convention since I was sixteen!"
Abeer's boundless enthusiasm was typical of the response I saw over the course of the weekend, for which the event's organisers, Ben and Aarafat and the rest of their crew at Extracake PR, should feel justifiably proud. I'm certainly looking forward to the next Middle East Comic Con, which I am sure will continue Dubai's superlative tradition of being bigger and better than the one that came before.
Rob Cave is a writer and editor currently based in Abu Dhabi in the UAE.