February issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Published 12 years ago

In my initial email exchange with cousins Muzamil Hasan and Hammad Haroon of the online comic series, Secret Achaar Society, I asked them to tell me a little bit about themselves and they immediately notified me that both are very cute. Duly noted, and now we can move on.

Secret Achaar Society is just one of the many Facebook-based comics that have emerged in Pakistan in the past couple of years and the popularity and abundance of such comics indicates that Pakistanis are starved for humour and satire with local content. While some of these comics feature simple stick figures, others have meticulously drawn characters. Some focus on political themes, whereas others avoid them altogether. Some are good and some are not. Either way, the comics are a welcome addition to our pop culture landscape and of the many Pakistani comics out there, three widely popular ones are The Desis,Jay’s Toons and the Secret Achaar Society.

The Desis is the creation of 19-year-old, A-levels student Faizan Raza who, in the summer of 2011, decided to start the series to combat boredom. When he first started the comics, his parents and friends told him, “Pakistanmein comics ka scene nahin hai,” but less than a year later The Desis has more than 7,000 likes on Facebook — a thousand of which were received in just one day right after he posted a cartoon on the TV serial Humsafar. The comic series employs simple stick figures that Raza found online and the content is inspired by real life events involving his friends and family. From Dr Aamir Liaquat to local cooking shows, the cultural references are easily recognisable and since many of the cartoons deal with easily relatable, everyday conversations between family members and friends, it is not surprising that Raza has a large online following. When asked if there are any themes he avoids, Raza says, “This is a hobby not a commercial venture so I just do what I want,” and reveals that political themes are generally the most popular. To keep up with current affairs, he follows renowned journalists and politicians on Twitter and in his recent work, Raza has addressed Imran Khan’s rally in Karachiand the ban on school concerts in Punjab.

Jay’s Toons, created by Jahanzaib Haque, also often delves into politics and Haque is not afraid to broach taboo subjects such as sex and religion. “My cartoons basically cover topics that I think are missing from mainstream discourse,” says Haque. The first cartoons he posted on Facebook around two years ago were part of the series ‘My Failed Relationship With a Feminist,’ which he made after he got dumped by his then girlfriend. These cartoons were mainly intended for family and friends, but became so popular that Haque decided to continue posting cartoons on Facebook. While Haque’s jabs at feminists in the ‘My Failed Relationship…’ series might not go down well with ardent feminists, the content of his comics is mostly progressive: from a cartoon about the difficulty gay people face in coming out of the closet to another about the chilling ambivalence with which many Pakistanis talk about rape victims. These are all tricky topics but Haque handles them deftly and as web-editor atThe Express Tribune, he has considerable insight on the latest news and how online audiences respond to different issues.

Similar to The Desis, Jay’s Toons employs stick figures, which expedites the process of posting new cartoons on Facebook. The Secret Achaar Society — a name derived from a childhood game of the creators — however, has a very different aesthetic that reflects its quirky and irreverent content. The scenarios depicted in their cartoons often take unexpected turns and, to mirror that, the visual style also often radically changes from one panel to the next. For example, in one cartoon depicting an encounter between a doctor and his patient, the figures are composed of brightly coloured, basic geometric shapes. But then for the last panel, to emphasise the unexpected response from the doctor, they switch to a Marvel superheroes comic style. Secret Achaar Society (SAS) has a particularly dry sense of humour and some of their punchlines seem to be deliberately anti-climactic — to the extent that they even have a series called ‘The Anti-Climactic Adventures of Rashid the Choosy Beggar.’

It must be noted that while some comic artists, such as the creators of Kachee Goliyan, are making their way down the commercial route, the three we interviewed all view their work as a hobby — at least for now. Raza, who is currently juggling studies with making comics, has no plans to make a living off these cartoons yet, but he plans on studying graphic design in college and would like to be able to continue making comics in future. Haroon and Hasan are open to making SAS a commercial venture but only if they can continue to pick the themes and content of their choice. They have already turned down three offers because they did not want to compromise their artistic freedom. Haque, however, says he has no interest in making money and people are welcome to share or use his cartoons as they please.

Since Raza, Haroon and Hasan are all students and Haque is at the Tribune office for nearly 12 hours a day, it makes sense that they would all hesitate before committing to commissioned work. When Raza first started the comics, he used to produce them on a daily basis. But once the summer was over and classes began, he had to cut it back to two comics per week. Raza also recruited people to help him develop his content and before publishing his work on Facebook, he shows it to a team of three people. Haroon and Hasan have divided the workload — Haroon, a student at Beaconhouse in Karachi “is the worker bee” and Hasan, a student at FAST, Islamabad, is the “driving force.” Jay’s Toons is a solo project, although in the past Haque did work on an ambitious, collaborative comic project that he eventually abandoned since it was “threatening to take over (his) life.”

While all three have a large fan base, not all reactions are positive. Jay’s Toons often attracts negative feedback for its jokes on sex and religion. Haque, however, takes it in stride and has even made comics inspired by his exchanges with his detractors. SAS too attracted some negative feedback when they made a joke about a disabled person doing stand-up comedy, but the duo insist that the joke was not intended to ridicule people with disabilities and they simply wanted to pun on the word “lame.” But for every occasional negative response, these cartoonists have their moments in the limelight. “Doing comics is sexy now,” deadpanned Haque. And he went on to relate an incident at a bloggers’ conference. When his name was being announced, six women at the back of the room suddenly screamed in anticipation — all this while his fiancée was seated in the front row. Raza’s moment was when the director of Humsafar, Sarmad Khoosat, made Raza’s cartoon his Facebook profile picture.

These three comics are only a handful of the many that exist online. The Kool A’s, Pappu, The Epic Fail Duo and many, many others make up this mushrooming comic community. And the popularity of this multitude of comics stems from the fact that they all comment on local issues and themes, ranging from Maya Khan’s date-busting adventures in public parks to the idiosyncrasies of our politicians. As Raza puts it, “With the dismal situation in our country, people really want to be able to laugh at things.”

Click on any photo to begin slideshow:

Comics by:

(1) Secret Achaar Society, (2) The Desis feat. Sarcass Stick, (3) Jay’s Toons, (4) Jay’s Toons, (5) Kachee Goliyan, (6) The Kool A’s, (7) Epic Fail Duo, (8) Alid Art, (9) HS Comics

This feature was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “The Comic-Kazes.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.