Not just a Facebook Page
By Ghausia Rashid Salam
Imagine a room with a giant wall plastered with comic book covers. You recognise a vast array of beloved characters – Superman, Batman, Batgirl, The Mask, Spider-girl among many others. One cover bizarrely screams, “Join the sexual revolution!” To the left are two bright yellow desks, one adorned with a bobblehead, a Lego pirate ship, and a bust of Loki. Behind these, a row of shelves occupied by multiple action figures, varying in size and condition. Aside from a wind-up doll of a crawling baby, it all looks like something out of an adolescent’s fantasies, but for the team of Kachee Goliyan Comics (KGC), this is headquarters.
In two years, the brand has grown so much that the phrase “kachee goliyan” can barely be traced back to its origin: an Urdu idiom, which roughly translates to “we know what we’re doing.” Launched in 2011 as Pakistan’s very first comic book company, KGC is run primarily by Ramish Safa and Nofal Khan. Together, they established a nonprofit organisation to support the education of underprivileged children, published several comics, including a series based on a homegrown superhero, and helped establish the medium as a vital marketing tool for many Pakistani companies. All this before either of them turned 25.
KGC was born, in large part, from the passion and artistic ability of Ramish Safa. Doodling and sketching since he was young, Ramish ascribes his love of comics to many influences. His favourite comic growing up was Tintin, and he cites it as the biggest reason he started drawing comics in the first place, with dailies like Calvin & Hobbes and Cyanide & Happiness also contributing to his trajectory. He raves endlessly about Frank Miller’s artwork and art style, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Another favourite is H.R Giger, the set designer behind film franchise Aliens, who, along with his team, received the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. “My personal art style is inspired by him quite a bit,” Ramish says, launching into an enthusiastic explanation of the art style and history behind the design of Aliens. Unsurprisingly, he is a big fan of Marvel’s X-Men, because of the intertwining story arcs and overall storylines, but when it comes to DC, his favorite character is Batman. His passion for art is so obvious and contagious that the entire interview is peppered with pauses so he can show one image or another to illustrate his point. Because his talent is so central to the work they do, KGC itself has evolved with Ramish’s self-taught technique. KGC began as a simple black-and-white comic strip that was quicker to draw, and was consequently produced more frequently. Kachee Goliyan 2.0, however, has increasingly been influenced by the chibi art style, which Ramish enjoys because “they look like obnoxious, mischievous children,” despite it taking longer to draw.
The boys at KGC enjoy recounting the story of how they all first met as teenagers: “I met Nofal on my first day at university,” Ramish laughs. “He was the fat kid who tried to haze me, but laughed the whole time instead, and eventually my friend scared him away.” They became friends a few days later, when they found themselves sitting together in class and bonded over a mutual sense of humour. Their third partner, Mateen Ansari, is often found behind the scenes, but is just as instrumental in the day-to-day running of the company. Ramish met Mateen at university while showing off some sketches to a friend – dark, twisted depictions of somewhat nude figures. “I was in a state of unrest at the time, and was very defensive of my work because generally, people didn’t accept it,” Ramish explains. “When Mateen saw my sketches, he just said, ‘Good work, man!’” This was the start of a friendship, which would eventually spawn two companies, and “a crazy ride.”
The three teamed up for a business competition by Procter & Gamble in their first year of university. Despite losing the competition, working together made them realise they were a good team, and had the potential to be good business partners. They put their heads together and came up with the not-for-profit organisation Pappu in late 2009, helping underprivileged children get the education they deserve. Within a year, and on a shoestring budget, they had supported 13 children. “We started out with Rs.500, with which we printed stickers. We sold those for Rs.5,000, and spent that money producing notebooks [which] we sold for Rs.30,000.” And so the process continued, until they raised enough money to start supporting children. Ramish proudly tells me, “To this day, we have never taken a salary from Pappu.” Their venture was so successful that in 2011, the boys were invited to the Global Social Business Summit in Vienna, an initiative of Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. The organizers even waived the required fee of €35,000 for them. “That’s how inspired they were by us!” Ramish exclaims, more baffled than proud. In addition, not only do they donate free copies of their comics to disadvantaged children, but they also plan to launch a project to help develop children’s critical thinking and cognitive abilities.
“It was never supposed to be just a page,” Ramish says, when I ask about their business model. “There’s no point in doing something randomly; there has to be a bigger picture attached to it.” Like Pappu, KGC had a five-year plan and was treated, and launched, as a business. This is what sets them apart from other Facebook pages like Sarcasmistan, Mango People or Jay’s Toons. “They… are clueless,” Ramish says. While he respects artists who are truly passionate about their work online, he sees them as being Facebook pages only. “It’s akin to just drawing sketches and putting them up in your room. I get inner satisfaction from it, maybe, but to a point,” Ramish shrugs. “For us, it doesn’t end there. Being true business students, even if we poop, we want money for it.” Though KGC has accomplished more than they expected in just two years, Ramish points out that they’re still in the early stages, and promises that there is much more to come. “Give us money and we’ll do more projects!” Mateen chimes in from across the room, making everyone laugh. It is clear that, despite their jokes, KGC’s work relies on purpose over monetary return.
This purpose is more than just making people laugh, or expressing the opinions of three young men in Pakistani society. Their vision spans much further than their simple childhood dreams of creating a South Asian superhero. “The general medium of graphical illustrations that depict what happens around us in the world is something we want to make commonplace,” Ramish says. So if they’re uploading funny jokes or memes on their Facebook page, according to them, it’s because “comedy is the best medium to use if you want your work to go viral.” Within the past two years, KGC has courted clients such as agricultural giant Engro, mobile carrier Telenor and prominent soap manufacturer Lifebuoy, all of whom are trying to cash in on the steadily growing appreciation for comics in Pakistan. They hope that, in the next five years, comics are much better appreciated as a medium for everyday verbal and nonverbal communication.
From the beginning, the team treated KGC as a platform for marketing. “We’d decide to do something and then three weeks later, we’d learn about guerrilla marketing in class, and look at each other thinking, oh so that’s what we’ve been doing!” Ramish chuckles. He refers to a couple of podcasts that they recorded early on, and why this didn’t pan out into a longer series. “Back then we had 5,000 likes, with a following of likeminded people who appreciated our sense of humour. The podcasts had adult content, but were never offensive. Now, with the sort of mixed crowd we have, there are too many fans who would find adult humour offensive,” he says, with a sheepish laugh. Even though the team makes a conscious effort not to offend any group, having an audience of over 17,000 means upsetting someone or the other is inevitable. Ramish mentions a Ramzan-themed comic that said: “If she fasts the whole month, she’s too young for you, bro.” The reference to underage girls was missed by many, and the comic garnered many angry comments like “what sort of a Muslim are you?” or “what about your own mothers and sisters?”
KGC’s first major venture in 2013 was Umru Ayar, a comic book series published in both English and Urdu, based on the eponymous character from Alif Laila who battled demons and witches, armed mostly with his wits. KGC revamped him into a superhero, thus giving Pakistan their own, and re-launching a much loved character through a much more accessible medium. “Umru is an established character, and already has equity in Pakistan,” Ramish explains, adding that taking on Umru was a big experiment. With their previous effort, Kachee Goliyan Comics, featuring the everyday adventures of J.C and Sufi, they relied mostly on situational comedy for appeal. Superheroes still remain mostly confined to a niche appreciation in Pakistan, with a mere smattering of Marvel and DC fans. Umru Ayar, on the other hand, was a way of reaching out to both nostalgic twenty-somethings familiar with the story and characters, and teens new to them. “It was a double-edged sword,” Ramish admits, “but the fantasy element and complex storylines are things that appeal to everyone.”
Having been invited to comic conventions in both Dubai and India in recent years (unfortunately missing the former due to exams and the latter over visa issues), the boys seem skeptical about the prospect of organising one in Pakistan, pointing out that it is too early to expect one to happen in a country with barely any comic book culture. “Usually, comic-cons exist to promote local artists, but without any artists to promote, there’s nothing to do.” At best, he explains, a local comic con would feature a screening of the superhero movie of the season, sell a few graphic novels and t-shirts, and become a completely foreign event. Be that as it may, it still shows that KGC’s appeal has transcended borders. Ramish acknowledges that although their global presence is limited by their localised content, their new website is aimed towards changing that.
Considering how socially conscious these young men are, it’s unsurprising to hear that they hope to open up their own art school one day. “We’re not from an art school, and neither are the people who work with us, but collectively, we’re better than the kids who’ve come to us after four-year programs at art schools. They lack the basic knowledge and skills that we’ve all picked up from researching techniques and going through daily comics,” he states unabashedly, and this is why he feels the need to establish a more progressive art institute. He’s critical not of the capability of the students, but the way they’re taught. “Their vision is limited. They’re scared and restricted, and lack the element of experimentation, and in general would be better off not going to art school at all,” he says, with a hint of frustration in his voice. This apparent lack of vision of the country’s art schools is one of the reasons he plans to attend art school in Malaysia in early 2014; to learn how to teach art in order to train and mentor young artists.
We finish up the interview to chat, and I’m struck once again by just how normal these three boys are. They’re just three average guys, who share an endless love for nihari, doodh patti and Batman, but together, they’ve built something special and almost magical. What stands out most of all is their infectious, all-conquering passion. Part of a mostly jaded and cynical generation, they adamantly refuse to relinquish their idealism, and this idealism is what makes their work so effective. Whether through philanthropy or sheer creative ambition, the path these three have carved out for themselves is an excellent example for young creative people in a society that still primarily churns out doctors, MBA grads, and engineers. Considering how far they’ve come in such a short time with so much more in the pipeline, theirs is a journey worth watching.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief and newly appointed Junior Articles Editor for the magazine. She resides on the internet.