In the universe of superheroes, anything is possible.
It’s where ordinary individuals, with remarkable abilities are suddenly positioned in a world that needs their talents for its own good. These characters are strong because they struggle, and inspiring because they persevere. But more importantly, they possess uncanny abilities to transcend limitations imposed by culture, society and sometimes the very nature of reality.
It’s in their stories that we find practical and tangible life lessons that may help people overcome the poverty of mindset.
And it is this ‘poverty of mindset’ that spurred Umair Najeeb Khan, a 25-year-old visual artist from Karachi, to create a band of quintessential Pakistani superheroes with unique powers and abilities, who hail from the length and breadth of the country.
Through his comic book series called PaakLegion — the first of 12 slated for release this month — Khan wants to highlight modern life in Pakistan by representing different cultures and ethnicities. Through his characters and their stories, he aims to show a side of the country that has always existed, but is only now emerging in the public eye through authentic voices.
The story will explore their lives, their struggles, their journeys and their adversaries.
According to Khan, “The first thing you think about when it comes to superheroes are Superman and Batman, but they look a certain way and they fit a certain criterion. And if you think about a Pakistani superhero, a ‘Pakistan Man’ comes to mind; it’s not only an obvious choice but an outdated one too.”
PaakLegion is currently available to pre-order online and will start shipping the first issue on December 18. Khan says he has received over 400 orders so far.
With 12 characters on his roster, or what he fondly refers to as his ‘team’, Images sat down with Khan to unearth Pakistan’s next superheroes — and the man behind them.
Fighting crime and challenging stereotypes
What initially started as a pet project quickly gained attention on Twitter when he posted his first sketch of Marvi, a Sindhi woman who is a teacher by day and a vigilante by night. Marvi, depicted as a dark-skinned woman who wears a cutwork dress and carries a stick, doesn’t just appear unconventional but also exudes confidence and strength.
Khan says, “While I was working on her I was thinking of what [the characters] would do when they’re not fighting crime, because that would make them relatable. And that’s where her being a teacher comes in. And that will be reflected in her story and ties her origin with her profession.”
Khan first approached two of his Sindhi friends to show them his initial sketches of Marvi and get their suggestions and feedback because he wanted the character to have a genuine voice.
“I really wanted my characters to be inclusive and genuine. And in representing people from across the cultural spectrum, I wanted to challenge stereotypes.”
Powerful women and why we love them
It’s not only the gender-balanced aspect of Khan’s team that makes PaakLegion all the more appealing, it’s also how well he’s been able to weave cultural symbols and elements into the personalities and garb of his strong female leads.
Take Divya, a Hindu woman from Thar, who is a highly-skilled combatant and stealth fighter with the ability to generate and manipulate portals, allowing her to travel with ease.
Surprisingly, Divya doesn’t wear a belted leather-suite with a mask — you’ll find her in a traditional Thari attire: a swirling ghagra, white bangles up to her arms (a sign of being unmarried) and a veil.
Her story is like this: “Found in the middle of nowhere by the villagers, Divya is a woman with unusually radiant eyes, lost in the deserts of Thar. With no memories of her past and an unstable power to create portals, she is now on a quest to find herself.”
Then there’s Afsoon, who’s an oddly quiet and mysterious shape-shifter from Gilgit-Baltistan with an ability to morph into a markhor. Named Protector of the Mountains in folklore, Afsoon is a local legend who has existed in many different forms over the centuries.
While her origin story will be revealed in the comics, she had been missing for years and has now returned because something has brought her back. After being gone for years, she has resurfaced to take down her archrival one more time.
Meet Samaa, a Hazara girl born after a couple of generations with air manipulation abilities. Samaa’s character is even more curious because her introduction remains vague.
Khan unveils a peculiar fact about her: “People may not have noticed it, but the wings that she wears are not real wings. I tried to show the strap on her dress. She’s learning to fly through the wings she has engineered for herself.”
A child born after generations with wind control abilities in the family, Samaa is an engineer who is burdened by the expectations of her people. After years of reluctance, she has finally given herself wings and is ready to carry the legacy of her tribe.
But it’s really Haajar’s character that brings forth the power of female representation. A full-time mother of three, Haajar would literally crush crime on the streets of Lahore with her team about a decade ago.
Haajar’s character is a tribute to all mothers, and according to Khan, especially his own. He says, “The mole that she has on her chin, my mother also has that. I really wanted a character that mothers could relate to.”
He says after a long hiatus, Haajar is back in the game to lend a helping hand to the other characters.
He continues, “In her, we have a plus-sized superhero. There’s a stigma around dark skin, so we have dark-skinned superheroes as well. It would be really cool if people grow up looking at that and seeing themselves in these characters. And know that it’s okay to look a certain way.”
A perfect blend of the old and new
Khan has tried to maintain a balance between the old and the new, the young and the old — including the sensitivity with which he explores the modern and the traditional. Through characters like Omran — an old man called back to duty — and Sofian — an old-young man who has time-travelled from two centuries ago — that Khan explores themes of time and age, space and place.
Meet Omran, a seasoned Baloch swordsman from Quetta whose family heirloom gives him the power to manipulate earth.
Omran had retired from his duties and passed on the baton to someone else, but he has to pick up the mantle of his responsibility in the hour of need. Angry yet wise, he is a 61-year-old sole successor to the legacy of ancient earth-manipulators.
As a contrast, there’s Sofian, a lowkey nawab and a crimefighter, and like his name, he is a sandstorm. He has travelled centuries in time to come and save his city.
Khan says, “In the case of Omran, Baloch people usually wear white shalwar kameez but because the character has the power to manipulate the earth, I really wanted to go with earthy colours for him. And the Balochistan landscape is dry and mountainous, so that is also reflected in his mannerism and get-up. Similarly, Sofian’s character is from Bahawalpur. It’s a really dry place so I wanted that to reflect in his personhood.”
He continues, “But we’ll find out why he has travelled so far, because that’s a really long time distance for him to travel.”
Khan says a lot of inspiration came from their culture, some folk stories and from their surroundings.
A tribute to the lost
Aazam is a happy-go-lucky healer from Kashmir and has the power to manipulate plant life.
A healer and a poet, Aazam had spent his life being despised and called a “freak” by the natives of the forest — until a catastrophe occurred. Using his abilities, he must now help not only his people but also his land, in dire need of healing.
Interestingly, Khan says Aazam is based on a Kashmiri friend based in Indian-held Kashmir. Khan hasn’t heard from him since the curfew on August 5, 2019.
He says, “They also share the same name, so there’s this emotional attachment there.” Through Aazam’s character, Khan will explore nature and issues of the environment.
Young girls with a big role to play
Bazira, the youngest member of the team, has turned out to be quite a fan favourite, according to Khan. “Almost everyone loves her,” he says.
Bazira is a quirky Pakhtoon hacker from Swat. Some might say, that in itself is enough for a comic book series. Bazira is as funny as she is smart, but what really sets her apart is that she can foresee the future.
Bazira, with her short hair and oversized glasses, looks effortlessly calm and composed. Whether it’s those neon headphones or that backpack carried with purpose, one knows not to cross her.
Khan says, “People have looked beyond her being a Pakhtoon, and that’s what I really wanted, for people to see each other in spite of our differences.”
Bazira’s character dedicated to all the girls who were not allowed to go to school. And more importantly, she has a very important role to play in her comic-verse.
City-dwellers, cut from a different cloth
Last seen over a decade ago, Balaj was a hero from Karachi who possessed the ability to control matter and objects with his mind.
He has been missing for years from the winding streets of the city fallen into darkness — desperately in need of its saviour. Khan says, “I’ve deliberately created mystery around him, that’s why I haven’t shown him in his complete attire. Balaj is basically missing right now. He was last seen in 2009.”
Balaj’s story will be in the distant future.
Khan will begin the series with Long Lost Brothers, featuring two of his most recent characters, Shahvez and Shahnawaz. Reckless and short-tempered, the twins harbour an extreme dislike for each other and have the newly-discovered ability to manipulate electricity, which is beyond their conscious control.
These hot-headed twins from Islamabad and Rawalpindi with electrokinetic power are entirely dependent on each other. One is a positive-charge and the other a negative-charge.
Together, they’re called Raad — which means thunder in Urdu.
Khan says, “The Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi characters were a little difficult to work with because urban cities usually do not have the kind of a culture which you can represent with ease. So, these characters are uplifted through their stories because ideally, all of their stories are very interesting, but the way they are portrayed will be influenced by their cities.”
The creators behind the craft
Khan, who has been drawing since he was young, is no stranger to design, illustration and animation. He has worked on publicity design for films, worked on campaigns like the Clean Green Punjab, UNICEF, a child abuse campaign for the EU and Ministry of Human Rights and illustrated children’s books as well.
He says his aim is to try to incorporate local materials in his work and create a different kind of content. Before Paak Legion he worked on a personal series called Bayaban, that unfortunately fizzled out. It showed Pakistan in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future.
He first started working on PaakLegion in August this year, and since then, has amassed a following on social media. He wants to stay loyal to the medium that was a launching pad for his ideas.
“Social media is the biggest tool for me and luckily my work has been received very well so far. I’m going to be self-publishing the comic series. I just don’t want anyone else influencing my content.”
He continues, “While I am getting in touch with a few bookstores and places where the comics can be available, it will primarily be available online to order from my website. And we’re going with English and Urdu both, so the audience can read it in either language.”
When asked what enthusiasts should be looking forward to, Khan says, “I think both me and Iman [Sultan, PaakLegion's co-writer] are really excited about how the characters will engage with each other. Because that’s where the work starts. Initially they are all in their comfort zones, and then they will have to leave it as events unfold.”
"I think the superhero franchise and concept is global and can be applied to so many different contexts, even though principally it's seen in the West," says Sultan. She adds that their collective vision is focused on showing a diverse array of characters and a Pakistan that is "authentic and diverse through these superheroes," and uses Pakistani history and culture to form a storyline for a realistic superhero comic book.
"I think there are so many Orientalist depictions of Pakistan in the mass media, and with us Pakistanis taking our voice back and doing something that's local, it's important that this comic book series is made and that people read and look at themselves in it."
"But the series is not going to be just about social issues," Khan clarifies. "every character has their own story and their own fight. Issues that they will individually deal with. Initially it will be their origin stories, but when they all come together we might see a super villain."
As he writes the stories with his co-writer, not all the characters will be black and white. There will be grey zones, just like reality. And he hopes the audience will grow along with the characters.