Forget Marvel and DC, the GCC has its very own powerful comic book inspired by old superstitions from the region. FACT’s Shabana Adam meets Bahrain-based artist Anna Thackray, the creative mind behind the gripping story The Chronicles of Shamal. Here, she talks supernatural inspirations and how her work is pioneering a new era for illustrators and comic fans…
“I always wanted to be a novelist, but words don’t come easy to me,” Anna explains. “And images do.” What started off as scribbles on the side of a Bahrain guidebook that she worked on, has now turned into a fully-fledged story with the most stunning visuals. In fact, we’re meeting Anna at her home studio and we can’t take our eyes off her vibrant drawings that have been blown up and framed on the walls. In case you haven’t come across it, The Chronicles of Shamal is a comic book that tells the story of a man from a different era. Awoken from a deep hibernation he finds himself in a present day metropolis.
Puzzled and half delirious, not recounting who or what he was. His only driving factor is a ravenous need to protect others in peril as punishment for being evil in his previous life. He has the power to communicate telepathically with his two loyal followers Asfar (an Arabian stallion) and Shaheen (his falcon), and is able to change the structure of elements causing them to melt.
This is the story of legends; one that is deep-rooted in Bahraini culture and is especially significant to the tales surrounding the famous Tree of Life. With a strong supernatural element and knowing that superstitions aren’t really common conversation topics in the Gulf, we’re curious to find out if Anna has faced any challenges in her research and sharing these myths through such fantastical storytelling.
She tells us: “I lived in Africa and in Europe, but it’s in Bahrain that I’ve met the most superstitious people ever. They love it! Once they open up to you, they start telling you all these incredible stories, and I even get people emailing me ‘this is another story – have you heard of it?’ – and I love that.
“I’ll listen and read as much as I can, and what I like the most is coming across characters,” Anna says. “ Like the mother donkey tale – what an excellent villain. I can pin point where people are from in the GCC because they call her different things, but the stories in essence are very similar to one another. “So, it’s been quite the opposite where the information has been streaming in,” she smiles. “What’s uncanny is that every one of the superstitions boils down to teaching kids to come inside before dark! It’s really an interesting part of the culture and I love receiving these messages,” she adds.
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the first chapter, you might want to skip this paragraph! Anna has just released the second part of The Chronicles of Shamal, which sees the protagonist arrive in Dubai in pursuit of The Donkey Lady; she has cast a spell over Asfar and Shaheen, forcing them to board a UAE-bound dhow and Shamal is on a new quest to save his friends. We’ll stop there so you can read the rest for yourself!
Even though these characters and stories are interpretations of Anna’s own imagination, being respectful of their cultural background is at the forefront of her work. “I will never present these stories as too scary or too off track,” she says.
“I like to listen and learn about them, but the stories are from my expat mind, so it’s my fiction.” Regardless of having historical fables to work with, it must require an incredible amount of creativity and fantasy to produce work that is stimulating both visually and as a narrative – how does she do it? “You know how writers have plots?,” Anna asks us. “A little bit like so, I start off with an image and create a story around that. Honestly speaking, it’s slightly obsessive – if I don’t control myself, I’ll just keep going and going,” she admits. So, how long does it take to complete these mind-blowing illustrations? “I try to do one page every week,” Anna says. “The Chronicles of Shamal actually took three years to complete. The first 24 pages I did on paper and it took around a year, and then I switched to computer software because it’s just more productive – there are so many tools and colours, and if you make a mistake, you can go back.”
Interestingly, Anna has received warm and intriguing feedback from readers in the Gulf. I’ve been to many, many Comic Cons in the region and usually I’m the only expat showcasing their work, and there are a huge number of local visitors who approach me,” Anna shares. “Firstyly, they’re shocked. They always say ‘how do you know that?’ But, I always think ‘how do people not know all of that?!’ – this is part of the culture that you should hold dear.”
On the contrary, Anna loves it when young Bahraini or Emirati children approach her and talk about the comic book. “Young kids will come up to me and they’ll say ‘oohh mother donkey, we know about her’ and I’ll ask them what they thought of the story,” she says. “Usually, I’ll get a response like ‘I read it and I was a bit scared but not too much and I liked the pictures’ – which is just amazing to hear!”
What keeps Anna excited about The Chronicles of Shamal? Just like us, you’ll be stunned to learn that, even after producing some of the most intricate and detailed illustrations that we’ve ever seen, Anna thinks: “I’m not good at drawing. I’m really bad at drawing – but the more I do it, the better I get. So, it’s lots of practice but I wish I could draw faster because it’s like you know the ending of the story but you can’t get there in time,” she explains. “So, the excitement actually comes from the end result – I have to get the story out of my head, it’s a cathartic experience.”
Anna’s reason for telling the forgotten superstitions of the Gulf comes from not only a need to provide escapism for readers, but also because she wants to ignite that spark in her audience, the one that will encourage them to do more reading on the topic – or any interest for that matter. “I also want to influence the young generation to keep drawing, because at some point, we just stop drawing, but it’s so useful in many fields,” Anna says. “Also, the main character of Shamal, he’s supposed be bad but then he’s good and I want to show that chance for change and hope.”
Anna has discovered that many hidden talents in Bahrain and the Gulf have come to light following the release of her comic book. “A lot of the time I get the feeling that it just takes one person, and in this case, a female expat, to push people into their creativity and not being so shy to share it,” she smiles. “Since I started, there has been an increase in the field and I’m looking into collaborating with a Bahraini comic book artist where they could carry on the legacy of superstition storytelling or maybe we can do a comic with lots of different stories.” Much like The Chronicles of Shamal, the future possibilities and potential for Anna, are endless. ✤
GO: Visit www.desert-comic.com for more information.