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The Zahra The Shadow Flame Team Talks Indie Comics and the Need for Representation

I recently had a chance to interview the creative team behind Zahra The Shadow Flame, who just finished their Kickstarter on 06/04/2019 for issues 3 & 4 ( It was unsuccessful, but the team pushes on!) As their book provides quite a different take on gender roles, superheroes, villains, and family dynamics and I wanted to know the genesis of it all and how they made such a great book outside of the Big 2 publishers

Rakan Sindi(Creator/Writer)

Kali Baker-Johnson(Creator/Artist)

Graphic Policy: What were your favorite books/cartoons/ comics growing up?

Rakan Sindi (Creator/Writer): My all-time favorite media franchise is Dragonball Z. Where I’m from, Saudi Arabia, we were not exposed to that kind of entertainment in our youth. My older brother, who was studying in the USA, would buy VHS tapes of Dragonball and bring them back to Saudi during his vacations and that’s how I was exposed to it. 

Kali Baker-Johnson (Creator/Writer): I was a big X-Men and Spider-Man reader, a big Marvel guy in general. I learned to read from my Dad’s old Spider-Man comics from the 60’s, which I still have. And then I watched all the related Saturday Morning cartoon shows. As far as books, I read all the serialized genre stuff for kids, Goosebumps, The Boxcar Children, the My Teacher is an Alien series. And I really, really, loved A Wrinkle in Time

GP: Is there some specific creators that influenced you?

RS: Geoff Johns has been a true influence when it comes to comic books. His work on Aquaman and Justice League from the New 52 is beautiful. 

KBJ: For comics: Alan Moore, David Mack, Brian Michael Bendis. When I got back into comics in high school they were the ones I was really drawn to. Moore’s Watchmen is the best comic I’ve ever read. Bendis’ Alias is the most fun I’ve ever had reading a comic, and David Mack’s Kabuki actually changed my life.

GP: What are your primary influences which you draw upon in your work?

RS: My primary influences are Christopher Nolan, Geoff Johns, Akira Toriyama and Jim Lee. 

KBJ: For Zahra specifically, I think one of the biggest influences is the cartoon show Gargoyles. I love that show and don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. The way it seamlessly melds all these disparate genres and elements into a cohesive world, and keeps it all thematically related to a social message, that’s a big thing we’re trying to do with Zahra.

GP: I see a lot of David Mack and Art Spiegelman in your work, are they influences and if so, how big were they?

KBJ: Wow, yeah. As I said earlier Kabuki changed my life, and Maus was the book that made me get back into comics in high school in the first place. I was actually assigned Maus in English class and the idea that a comic could be taken seriously as literature really excited me. Honestly, I’m very flattered, but I’m not sure how you picked up on that. I think some of the painted backgrounds in the comic are Mack-esque, but I can’t take credit for those. That was all our colorist Michelle’s idea.

GP: What influence do your parents have on your work? What was their reaction, when you told what you wanted to do for a living?

RS: My parents are very influential in everything that I do in life. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do every day. I grew up in a very conservative country and, at the time, cinema, comic books, and entertainment in general were banned, and my parents were very supportive when I told them about my dreams to become a filmmaker despite all of that. My country has changed since then and cinemas are finally open. 

KBJ: I think my parents seep into whatever I do, along with the rest of my upbringing. And they’re great. They’re incredibly supportive. I think they realize filmmaking and comic creating are not the safest fields, but they’re proud of the tenacity I’m approaching them with. 

GP: Do you all have any film influences?

RS: Of course! Film has been a big part of my childhood. I learned English from watching movies as kid with subtitles.  My favorite film is The Dark Knight. I am always amazed at how movies can bring the characters written in books to life. 

KBJ: Oh yeah. Filmmaking is still my main focus, comic creating has kind of been a vacation from that. It’s been like fulfilling a dream I didn’t know I had. But yeah: Steven Soderbergh, Alfonso Cuaron, Michael Haneke, David Simon, Richard Linklater, Steve McQueen, Lynne Ramsay, Jim Jarmusch, Satoshi Kon, all big influences. And I like how good Michael Bay is at blowing stuff up.

GP: What was the inspiration behind Zahra The Shadow Flame?

RS: My main inspiration comes from my personal experiences and things I witnessed back home in Saudi Arabia. For instance, there was a school fire in 2002 that killed many innocent people. The main reason for it was a misunderstanding between the conservative police and the firefighters. The conservatives deemed it important that the firefighters not enter the school and rescue the girls due to the girls being indecent. We wanted to tell a story about hope, courage and the will to change the kind of idealistic thinking that can have these tragic consequences. Change them into something greater, something better, in the hopes that it could inspire generations to come. 

GP: How did you all come together? What drew each of you to the initial idea?

RS: I met Kali at Chapman University. We were both pursuing a master’s degree in Film Production. We co-wrote a short film that I directed for my thesis. We decided to turn that short film into a feature screenplay, but we realized it wasn’t realistic for that movie to be made so we decided that the best way to continue telling the story was to publish a comic book. And so we started Adam Comics in 2017. 

KBJ: Yeah. Rakan asked me to help him with the idea for his thesis film, initially it was more of a straightforward family drama. I suggested he bring some of his love for action movies into the story and he came back with this superheroic tale. And then we developed it together from there. I loved the idea of a young girl deciding to live out loud, and coming into her own within a society that wants her silenced. And that could apply to pretty much any society on Earth. And I also loved being able to dive into Middle Eastern mythology, which I am still learning about.

GP: How important was the setting to this book?

RS: For me personally, the story of Zahra is grounded in the setting that we created. A lot of the cultural relevance comes from that setting. Different cultures have different rules. We wanted to tell the story that relates to the Middle East. And to shed light on the good, the bad and the ugly of that part of the world. 

GP: How was the research? Anything you were more than surprised to find out about?

RS: One of the biggest surprises that we encountered was the law change that allowed women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Our initial story revolved around the idea that because women couldn’t drive, Zahra had to make the hard choice of driving the car to save the school. But just a month before we began production of Issue #1, Saudi changed the law. So we had to restructure the story to adhere to the new reality. Fun fact, before that rule took effect, Saudi was the only country in the world that did not allow women to drive a car. 

KBJ: I found out that a lot of Islamic cultures don’t have much of a history of representational art, which I found fascinating. We wanted to try and follow the culture’s lead on the art for the comic, but because of how images are looked at religiously there wasn’t a lot to draw from. That’s a huge difference from a lot of other cultures that I wasn’t expecting to find.

GP: How important was it to have a young female protagonist?

RS: I think it is very important. A lot of young girls feel unheard in that part of the world. We wanted to tell a story from that perspective and to influence young women to look up to Zahra, in the hopes that someday they could be the heroes that they were born to be. 

GP: What misconceptions of living in the Middle East you were eager to set straight?

RS: There are many, but for me the biggest misconception is that wearing the hijab is not a sign of weakness. Women who choose to wear it are just as strong as women who don’t, and it’s not something that anyone should be ashamed of. For those who wear it, it stands for something greater.  

GP: I see that you have taken some ancient history from Saudi Arabia and even Jordan, do you feel the world doesn’t know enough about the history? Do you feel your work is a reclamation? Will we see the book explore more legends from this part of the world in future issues?

RS: Absolutely, there are many wonderful stories that should be explored. Many of which are being forgotten. We hope that we can bring those back and make them exciting again so that they can live forever in our comics. 

KBJ: Yeah, that’s just been a lot of fun for me, researching the mythology. There’s definitely a lot more coming.  

GP: Rakan and Kali, what do you think you took from film school which has helped with your storytelling abilities?

RS: Writing for comics is very different from writing a screenplay. As a filmmaker, I had to learn how to translate words into something more visual to explain what is intended to create the film. For example, creating storyboards. That helped me in the way I wrote the panels for the comic books. I had to explain every panel as visually as possible, just like a storyboard. 

KBJ: Yeah, writing screenplays are more like stageplays, in that you avoid getting too specific about the visuals. Writing a comic script is more like sitting down with a storyboard artist. But yeah, comics, novels, films, plays, they’re all very different, even though they’re all about stories. But I think the more you learn about the specifics of one medium, the more you can appreciate the specifics of the others. One big adjustment from writing screenplays to comics is dealing with the page count per issue, and where your double page spreads fall. A lot of your pacing is determined by the pages. It’s kind of like writing for TV and having to hit your commercial breaks. 

GP: Should readers perceive Suliman as an antagonist or how the world would see these Zahra and her mother’s powers in real life? Or both?

RS: To me, the best antagonist is a character that the reader can relate to and understand where they come from. Suliman is a very complex character. He is torn between the two most important things in his life. His love of God/civic duty and his family. Two of which go hand in hand. But under the circumstances he is presented with, he is forced to choose a path that he never thought was possible. Yes, he is the antagonist of the story. 

KBJ: Yeah, but he’s definitely the bad guy.

GP: Do you think Suliman’s beliefs outweigh his love for his family? Is his thinking already outdated in the Middle East, or is it still common?

RS: I think it’s still common in many cultures, not only the Middle East. Like I said, because of the circumstances that Suliman is presented with, he is forced to act the way he does. 

KBJ: Yeah, I think there are clear analogs for Suliman and the Tidesmen here in the US. I’m hoping people don’t read the issue and only see what’s presented as some sort of foreign problem, I think this whole story could take place in the states. As far as Suliman’s beliefs, I think of it kind of like a pendulum swing. Some days his beliefs win out, some days it’s family, and like Rakan is saying a lot of it’s circumstantial. I think that’s how most people are. But I think the thing that really motivates Suliman more than either of those things is ego. He’s a bit of a narcissist. He claims to want piety from his family, but what he really wants is deference to himself.

GP: The importance of this book underscores the imbalance of gender politics, even in our part of the world, do you consider yourselves feminists?

RS: I must admit that I learned the term feminism here in the US. Growing up in Saudi the word was never used, but you didn’t need to know the term to see that women were being treated unfairly. It’s still strange to me how much emphasis is put on the label in the US. With Zahra, we certainly have always strived to write a story about women’s equality with the hope that it empowers and informs the next generation, so it would be an honor for me to be called a feminist, but I wonder if I have done enough to be deserving of the title. 

KBJ: Yeah, I would consider myself a feminist, but I feel like feminism means a thousand different things to a thousand different people nowadays. To me, it means knowing that women are equal to men, while also recognizing that we live in a society that doesn’t treat women as equals. But believing that doesn’t mean that I don’t succumb to my own privilege at times.

GP: How has the reception been to the book?

RS: It has been generally great so far. We just want more people to read our books. 

KBJ: Yeah, and we have pretty good ratings on the places we’ve made it available. But we still don’t feel like we’ve done a good job of hitting our target audience.

GP: I read that you translated to Arabic, how has the reception been there?

RS: One of my friends has read it and it moved her to tears. 

KBJ: Yeah. She is a young woman from Saudi who reached out to us and said that we captured her home with complexity and nuance. That meant a lot to me, especially because I’m very aware that I’m an outsider looking in and I want to be as respectful of the culture as possible. I defer to Rakan a lot in the writing because he knows the region in ways that I don’t.

GP: Do you have any favorite comics /books you are reading right now? 

RS: I am currently reading My Hero Academia and it is really great.

KBJ: I’m behind on monthlies, but I’ve been reading Coates’ Black Panther, Pearl and Cover from Jinxworld, and Cain’s Man-Eaters.

GP: What do you think is most important when capturing a moment in time to render in a panel for the reader to take in?

KBJ: Hmmm… I kinda feel like that’s a trick question. I think I might be referencing Scott McCloud when I say the magic of comics is in between the panels, not within them. Time passes in the margins. So it’s not really about capturing a moment in time, it’s about suggesting a moment before and a moment after. So that the panels can interact with each other. 

GP: When was the first time, you identified with a character on TV/in the movies/ or between the pages of a book?

KBJ: Wow. I honestly couldn’t tell you. I just know it was early, it might have been with Grover on Sesame Street or something like that. I feel like I’ve always gravitated towards characters and stories, and not just ones with people who looked like me or lived lives similar to my own. I will say I remember reading my Dad’s Spider-Man comics as a kid and being introduced to the Prowler, and loving that character, and at least part of my love for the character being that he was black like me, in addition to him being brilliant. I still love the Prowler.

GP: How important is representation in comics to you as creators and to your target audience?

RS: It is very important. I think that if you misrepresent the characters you will lose the readers interest. A lot of research goes into making sure the characters are real and authentic. 

KBJ: Yeah, I think it’s immensely important, but I’m wary of tokenism and of people using diversity as simply a fad or marketing tool. I think then it’s like what Rakan is saying, it’s a slippery slope to misrepresentation and inauthenticity. But I think what Milestone Comics did in the 90’s was amazing. Like that is the goal in my mind. You took people that had a genuine, personal interest in telling stories with people from underrepresented backgrounds, and they came up with original characters and stories around that idea. And they owned it. That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re writing about who we are and what we’re genuinely interested in, and we own it and we want people who relate to it to feel some ownership of it too. That’s a big reason why it was important to publish in Arabic as well, we wanted the book to feel as homegrown as possible. 

GP: What are the pros and cons of publishing a book like this independently?

RS: Pros – you are in control of what you write and create. Cons – it is very expensive and very hard to reach your audience. 

KBJ: Yeah we had the chance to work with a publisher early on and we walked away from the deal. We still think it was a good decision, but we also didn’t anticipate how much of an uphill battle marketing the book would be when we decided to take it all on ourselves. That’s been the biggest struggle with publishing independently. But we did get to make the book exactly the way we wanted it. 

GP: Are there any current artists/writers out there you admire and would like to work with?

RS: Geoff Johns.

KBJ: Oh man. Tons. Humberto Ramos, Sara Pichelli, David Marquez, Bryan Hitch, Ronald Wimberley, David Finch, Michael Gaydos, Alex Maleev, Josh Middleton, Sanya Anwar, Ashley A. Woods, Jae Lee, Chris Bachalo, Kaare Andrews, Damion Scott, Travis Charest… I could keep going. And that’s just pencilers. I also did an ashcan with another great artist, Marcelo Salaza, that I’m very proud of. It’s called “L.A. Burning” and it’s very different from Zahra.

GP: Any advice for aspiring writers/artists?

RS: Don’t be afraid to do what you love. If you have a passion for it, just go for it. 

KBJ: Yeah. Just find a way to start, and then start. And don’t be afraid to fail, that’s the only way you grow. 

GP: What do you want readers to take away from your books?

RS: Inspire, entertain and inform. We also want to bridge the gap between the US and the Middle East. 

KBJ: Yeah, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that people have fun reading it. You can have all kinds of world-changing ideas for the betterment of society, but if your story is bad and your book is boring, you failed. It’s that simple… but, of course, boring is in the eye of the beholder. 

GP: Anything you want our readers to know about Zahra The Shadow Flame?

RS: You can download the first issue for free, in English and Arabic, on our website: www.adamcomicsco.com. And Issue #2 is available for purchase as well. 

GP: What are you working on next?

RS: We are currently working on starting production of Issue #3 and #4 to complete the first story arc. We have outlined Story Arc 2 and 3. And we will be writing those issues soon. 

KBJ: Yeah man. And we’re both working on film projects as well, I’ll actually begin shooting mine in a couple weeks. Stay tuned!