Awan Explores Global Mythology in "Jinnrise"

Sohaib Awan is a lawyer by trade who hosts the Fictional Frontiers radio show. He's also a comic book writer whose first major project "Jinnrise" launches this week from IDW Publishing." The story of the jinn -- perhaps more commonly known as "genies" -- who may be Earth's last hope in the midst of an alien invasion, the series aims to work on multiple levels, telling a fast-paced action story while also trying to raise questions about perception, perspective and power.

Awan spoke with Comic Book Resources about the comic, his plans for this year's Middle East Film and Comic Con and more.

CBR News: Where did the idea of "Jinnrise" come from?

Sohaib Awan: "Jinnrise," I guess you could say, is the end result of many years of experience in the comic industry professionally, and is the product of almost three decades of love of the comics medium. Covering the comic book industry through my radio show Fictional Frontiers, I've really gained a lot of in depth knowledge from industry leaders with respect to all facets of the medium.

As a longtime comics fan, I felt there needed to be some voices out there which were reflective of other traditions and other cultures and other myths. I love Western mythologies. I love stories about zombies and vampires. But at the end of the day, as has been commonly said by many, there are seven or eight basic stories, and everything is a derivation from those story lines. It's really the flourishes and nuances that make a particular iteration stand out. I really felt there were these myths out there that could add much needed flourish.

Middle Eastern culture has been something of great interest to me and I felt that the whole mythology around the jinn -- "genies" -- had never really been touched on seriously in any medium, be it film or television or comic books. I thought, "Let me give it a shot." "Jinnrise" was very well received at the first Middle East Film and Comic Con, and the rest is history. We're at IDW now and couldn't be happier.

How did you end up connecting with the guys running the Middle East Film and Comic Con and debuting the series there?

If I'm not mistaken, I actually read a piece on the Middle East Film and Comic Con on CBR. I thought it was fascinating that a pop culture event was going to be held in the Middle East because so many people have misconceptions about that part of the world. There's a belief that their embrace [of pop culture] is not like ours. [After reading the piece] I reached out and started talking with the Con Director Ben Caddy. From there, I began helping them with their guest lists.

During our conversations I said, "I have this series I've been working on, and I'd love to premiere it at the event. Would you like to take a look at it?" Ben did and said this was exactly what he was looking for; something inspired by the region, but also endemic of worldwide fandom. He said he'd love to premiere the book at the event, and asked if he could use the characters in some of the official advertising and branding of the event as well. Of course I said yes. [Laughs] We premiered the book there thanks to our friends at comiXology. I can't thank John Roberts and David Steinberger enough for giving us the opportunity to have a platform to introduce "Jinnrise" to the masses at the event.

IDW saw the response. When I came back to the States, [IDW Editor-in-Chief] Chris Ryall, who is also a good friend of mine, sent me a congratulatory twitter message and said "Hey, what's this 'Jinnrise' series all about?" I said I'd be more than happy to send it, would you guys be interested because I think IDW would be a nice fit for what we're trying to accomplish. They were really intrigued, and the next thing you know, I'm releasing a book in 2013 through IDW.

The book is on sale this week and will run twelve issues in all, but is designed to be released as two six-issue miniseries, is that right?

That's the way it's going to play out initially, but I've taken a cue from George Lucas. I really feel that with world-building, what's fun as a creator is to build a world that other people can play in. So what I decided to do from the outset was create a sandbox where future creators could take the characters or the mythology in different directions.

I'm already talking to people in the comic industry and outside the comic industry, including novelists and journalists. We're going to have jinn stories set in the past, the present, in outer space, in the future. The first twelve-issue series are just the start.

Before we go any further, I should ask, what is "Jinnrise?"

International student Andrew Marcus' world is torn asunder when interstellar forces, the "Kibrani", invade earth. With all hope seemingly lost, humanity's last chance may be a long-despised and forgotten race: the Jinn -- otherwise known as "genies." But are they our hope, or greatest fear? Combining the best of summer blockbuster fare and quest myths like "Lord of the Rings," "Jinnrise" is a modern re-introduction to global myth.

The underlying theme of this work is that there's a place for everyone in the game of life. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from; there's a role that everyone has to play or is meant to play or should play. Another theme throughout is that a lot of our preconceived notions are based on our limited experience. In the end, we hope readers gains some understanding that we're all part of a larger (human) family, and that we have to get beyond the idea that 'my' world my viewpoint is the 'only' viewpoint.

Just about everyone has heard of the jinn, though many know them as "genies" and think they live in bottles. Tell us about your take on the mythology.

There are a lot of misconceptions about jinn. I think that's probably due to films like Disney's "Aladdin," but if you really go back to the Islamic view of jinn, [Muslims] believe that jinn are actual beings. They are on another plane of existence, but may not be directly in our line of vision, so to speak. There are good jinn and there are bad jinn just like there are good people and bad people. I wanted to bring this to story in "Jinnrise."

In this story, I also wanted to address a lot of these fanciful stories about jinn and wishes, the magic bottles, etc. We have actual explanations for these in "Jinnrise." We even address magic carpets!

You can go into the book with the understanding that jinn are known to inhabit bottles and grant wishes, but we're going to explain why that's just our perception but not really the case.

It's interesting because if you go back to the mythology, the jinn seem to operate similarly to the way elves or fairies do in European mythology.

I think that's a fair comparison. Again, going back to the whole idea that there are seven or eight stories and everything is a derivation of those stories, that's definitely the case with every culture. If you go to Latin America, Australia, China, they all have their specific archetypes. But these stories spring forth from our own common human experiences and interactions, so you're going to have stories about greed, avarice, hope, despair, justice, injustice, friendship, nobility -- all the weightier things that we experience on a day to day basis. The specific myths are just a way to deliver those messages to the people who are listening to, reading, or watching these stories.

You touched on this, but every culture has a creature or race that serve particular functions and aliens are in some ways a contemporary version of this. Do you play off this, and how you're placing an ancient myth versus contemporary myth in opposition?

That's a very good question and I'm glad you brought that up. As I mentioned at the outset, this story is about perception in a lot of ways; how our preconceived notions are based on limited experiences. The jinn and the aliens in this story also have their eyes opened to their own limitations. I don't want to get into any spoilers, but the core question that a lot of the characters are going to be grappling with is "What is the nature of power?" There's a common adage that it's better to be feared than loved, and I would like to address that in the story as well.

Talk a little if you would about last year's Middle East Con and Dubai.

The convention itself was an eye-opening experience. Going in, you're visiting a part of the world -- and my experiences are almost like Andrew Marcus' experiences -- you come in with preconceived notions, you think people are of a particular bent. The misconception is that the people in the Middle East are not into or receptive to Western popular culture, and I can tell you that was completely not the case. At the event, you had cosplayers standing next to women wearing burqas next to people wearing t-shirts next to people wearing suits.

That's reflective of Dubai. Dubai is a very cosmopolitan city. It's not a homogenous city by any stretch of the imagination. And again, I think it's reflective of the Middle East and North Africa, because they do enjoy our stories. If you look at the global box office totals you'll find that the top twenty films of last year were from the States or Europe. There's a reason for that, because those stories do resonate with people in the Middle East. Naturally you would think if that's the case and if they're enjoying these stories, then a convention would be embraced by those people as well. They were celebrating their love of our mythologies and stories. That they are part of the global fabric that is fandom was wonderful to see.

Any fun stories of the experience that is Dubai?

[Laughs] I've been blessed with the opportunity to travel a lot over the years, and I can say that, without a doubt, Dubai is the cleanest city I've ever been to in my life. You can sleep in the restrooms. I'm not making that up. You could actually sleep in the public restrooms. There's no city with more beautiful scents than Dubai. They are masters of scent. Everything smells wonderful. The modernity there is off the charts.

They are so forward in their embrace of technology it's almost scary. I felt like it was more technologically advanced than any city in the States. The malls were gorgeous. The airport did not look like an airport; it looked like a museum. They love modern architecture, and they're always trying to push the envelope when it comes to technology.

And as far as funny anecdotes or stories, they are fanboys and and fangirls like us. One of the most popular people at the event was a gentleman who sang the opening theme to an old anime called "Grendizer." He sang the Arabic version, and he was huge there. People were following him around, people were asking for his autograph. To me that was a nice reminder that fanboys and fangirls are, at their cores, pretty much the same. They are into every little detail about what they love. To me that was very refreshing.

Talk a little about how you connected with Tony Vassallo who's drawing the book.

I wanted "Jinnrise" to be a global myth. In my pitch to IDW, I compared it to "Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars" because I feel that those incredible stories resonate with audiences everywhere. I wanted artwork that reflected that. I wanted an artist who could really could bring to life the story in "Jinnrise" in a way that was akin to what you'd find in summer blockbuster fare. I'm a big fan of the Kubert School and I was very sad when Joe Kubert died. I was looking for someone with his spirit.

Many artists and illustrators out there can draw splash pages or cover illustrations, but I needed an artist who could convey motion without it actually being animated. I wanted art that if you took all the word balloons out, you could get a pretty clear understanding of what was going on. That's what Tony brings to the mix.

It sounds like you're trying to take that armature of an action thriller, using art that an American comic reader would recognize, but at the same time you're trying to subvert what all that means.

That sums it up so nicely. In my opinion, there is a reason why the Western way of storytelling resonates with audiences worldwide. There's a sense of motion and action that is really unmatched anywhere in the world. Taking that approach and applying it to the myths of the Middle East has never been done before. So far Tony and the other artists who have been working on the art have been bringing an enthusiasm that is off the charts. I think artists Tony Vassallo, Mark Torres, and Elizabeth Torque are going to be superstars after this. I really do. Plus, we have established talents like Omar Dogan, Matteo Scalera, Mehdi Cheggour, Eddie Nunez. And, without the amazing Tom Taylor -- who is writing a few issues of the series -- "Jinnrise" wouldn't be what it is. His efforts demonstrate why he's one of the best writers today.

So do you have any plans for the 2013 Middle East con?

I can't reveal too much but I am going to be a guest there again. Ben Caddy said I made my way up to the A-list, which is humbling and gratifying. We are talking to major book distributors in the Middle East. We let them look at the first issue of "Jinnrise" and they were blown away. They want me to come to the Middle East and talk to schools, talk about the creative process, talk about Jabal Entertainment and what we hope to accomplish.

"Jinnrise" is just the first story from us. As far as the Middle East Film and Comic Con, the only thing I can give you is that we're going to have a major announcement about our second series from Jabal Entertainment. It's really exciting because it's a story told by someone from the Middle East. The series' name? "Drawn."

As far as Jabal Entertainment, what we hope to accomplish is bridge building through storytelling. That's the mandate of Jabal Entertainment. We hope to unite artists and writers and creators from all over the world. We also want the process itself to be bridge-building. We want to tell stories that we can be proud of because I really believe we as artists have a responsibility. We have a platform, and that's why I take "Jinnrise" very seriously. We have a platform so we better make sure that what we put down we can stand behind. I think that's so understated in our industry. I don't want to lose sight of the fun, but we really do have a responsibility and I take that very, very seriously.

"Jinnrise" #1 is on sale January 9, 2013 from IDW Publishing.

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