Rostam Super Hero: Popularizing A Persian Myth..

Article By Darius Kadivar, published 10/4/05I had the opportunity to read a Comic Book in English based on the Persian legendary hero Rostam, and was delighted by what I discovered as a bold and successful attempt to render Ferdowsi’s legendary script into a visually stunning story accessible to every age group.

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© Hyperwerks, Karl Altstaetter, Bruce Bahmani

I think one of the best consequences of exile has been that for the first time in our history, Iranians have been forced to confront their culture to a foreign critical eye. This has been the case for our national Cinema hailed in film festivals worldwide but also for other Persian art forms. It is a challenge to try and convince an alien culture to understand and eventually absorb our personal or collective vision and understanding of our world. Behrouz Bahmani’s Rostam Comic Book published by Hyperwerks meets this challenge in that it breaks the traditional visual renderings of Ferdowsi’s Epic story often illustrated in Persian miniatures or in the often kitch illustrations of Mahmoud Farshchian by offering a more modern look of its heroes while respecting the historical accuracies in respect to the costumes and sets. The result is a journey through Persian mythology that reminds me very much of Peter Jackson’s faithful film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s « Lord of the Rings » shot and produced in New Zealand.

Below is an interview of Bruce Behrouz Bahmani on the genesis of his Comic Book…

Darius KADIVAR: When did you come up with the idea of adapting Ferdowsi’s Epic hero into a Comic Book Super Hero ? What were your Comic book references ?

Behrouz BAHMANI: It was about 6 years ago while working on a commercial project in San Francisco, for the Chinese chamber of commerce that wanted to do an anti smoking campaign for teens. We were tasked with producing a comic book story, and as a result we hired our good friend Karl Atstatetter a noted and established comic book artist, to help out. One of the samples that Karl sent looked almost exactly like I had always envisioned Zal (Rostam’s father and the original hero in the Shahnameh). The whole idea of a comic book adaptation of the Shahnameh flooded my brain after that.

Growing up in Iran during the seventies, we spent hours reading American comic books. At school we were taught Persian literature and of course, the Shahnameh and Ferdowsi were required. So the 2 somehow got combined years later, here.

DK: It must have been a challenge to boil down a 60,000 couplets Epic Poem to a comprehensible storyline?

BB: Challenge? I would say impossible is more likely. First off I would just like to make sure your readers know that this comic is an adaptation and an interpretation. There are a lot of liberties I had to take to make it a readable comic. The actual text is very difficult to condense down to the 32 page required format, and some of the vague references to previous sub plots too complicated to include. Ferdowsi spins an incredibly complex web that I will argue no one person fully gets.

In advance of the project I went to several experts for advice and interpretation and I found they often disagreed with the meaning amongst themselves. So I abandoned the idea of referring to anything as an official interpretation standard, and worked from translations combined with my own reading of the work in Persian. Then I had to boil it down to 32 pages of mostly balloon text! My head is still spinning…

DK: I noticed the use of some interesting onomatopoeia’s that for a change seem to be derived from Persian such as “SHATARAGH”? That too is a breakthrough in the American Comic Book vocabulary, I mean the WIZ, POW etc …

BB: I wanted Iranians to see familiar sound effects like Shataragh!, or Voy Naneh!, or Sheytoon!, or Deheki!, common Persian slang. It has not been done before so I thought it would be fun. So that there would be kind of this secret code connection between us. A lot of readers have caught it and told me that is their favorite part.

DK: Let’s talk about the drawings; you did a great deal of research on the costumes, the armory or the historical context what were your sources? Did you take some liberties?

KarlAltstaetterBB: Absolutely, before we started I sent Karl, all the traditional miniature samples to look at. Then he called me after a few days and said that he understood the style and thought he could easily replicate it. I told him, NO! I want you to do something completely different! All of the armor, clothing, architecture, weapons and such are completely new and fresh and only inspired by the traditional. We felt we could take this liberty because the original Shahnameh was not illustrated. That came afterwards. So the very first illustrated copies were also interpretive creations by the illustrators of the time. At that time the miniaturist style was popular and it has somehow become associated with traditional Shahnameh illustration. I am frankly tired and bored with the traditional miniature genre, nothing against it; it’s just not my taste. And I feel it certainly doesn’t work with this kind of American style comic book.

DK: How many people worked on Rostam? How did you get to convince Hyperwerks involved into this project?

BB: Hyperwerks is Karl’s comic book publishing company and has a great reputation in the industry. We originally pitched it to him as “Hey, if you ever need a cool new concept to consider, give us a call.” And that was it. Guess what? They eventually called!

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DK: What is interesting in your version of the story is that you have given a human dimension to your characters. Rostam and Sohrab are greater than life characters but both have their doubts and weakness’. Rostam for instance doubts in Kai Kaovous King of Iran to whom he has pledged his life and sword?

BB: As I read the original over and over again trying to decipher Ferdowsi’s meaning, it became clear to me that one inherent message of the Shahnameh might be that Ferdowsi intended that Rostam was in fact an embodiment of the Iranian people in the form of a hero. If you think about it, as a people, we are all defenders of Iran, and it’s greatest heroes. We are often ruled unjustly and brutally, yet our love of Iran and our reluctance to stop defending her, never wavers. I like that metaphor a lot.

Rostam becomes occasionally angry and impatient when the king, who of course fears Rostam’s power, often questions his loyalty. Rostam can take power from the king whenever he wants, but of course never does. Does that sound vaguely familiar?

Sohrab is the classic story of what each of us has undoubtedly felt personally, and that is the desire to live up to the expectations of our parents, and to earn and deserve their respect and love.

Behrouz Bruce Bahmani at a book signing session in San Francisco of his successful comic book adaptation of Persian Epic hero Rostam © Hyperwerks

DK: The Father-Son conflict in the tale of Rostam is very similar to that of King Arthur and his son Mordred in the Celtic legend. In both cases it is a tragic story, what is Ferdowsi trying to tell us in your opinion?

BB: I would challenge anyone that the King Arthur version is more likely to have been taken from the Shahnameh! To me the message is clear. I think you need to be a bit insane (in a good way!) to come close to understanding a lot of the Shahnameh, because it helps! But what I get from it is that Ferdowsi is clearly warning us all to be aware of and consider our future. To think about it and plan for it. To not be so consumed with our present and ourselves and past greatness and glory. The use of Sohrab as the metaphor of the future and to have the tragedy that unfolds occur, is a dire warning to us all. That if we do not heed it, will result in us possibly not having a future. Pretty deep if you buy it. I’m not saying that is what it says, I’m just telling you what I think it means. I could of course be completely wrong.

DK: Is the Shahnameh a tribute to the Persian Kings? (Or like Shakespeare in British literature, a metaphor on the ambiguous relationship between those in power & the common man)

BB: I think the Shahnameh is exactly what it is advertised as in the very first verse. (… basi ranj bordam… etc.) which essentially says that in order to preserve your heritage you have to work hard at it, and that it is occasionally fraught with a great deal of sweet pain. That it is sweet makes it worth doing. I think he really wanted to preserve what was pre-Islamic Persian heritage, and had to contend with political issues in order to get away with it. And somehow found a creative and brilliant way to do it. The whole poem has this ongoing double meaning and a way to truthfully deny that what is being said is not subversive and in fact innocent. Very sneaky and brilliant indeed!

DK: How many people worked on Rostam?

BB: Each comic book is made up of several major steps/functions. The illustrator who draws everything by hand in pencil. This was our luck to get Karl Altstaetter, an industry icon in comic illustration. The inker, who takes the rough pencil illustrations and makes a final clean black and white illustration. The colorist, who after scanning the illustrations into a computer color all of the panels. We did it on computer because it is a new trend and gives you better color range and overall results. Next it is the letterist, who put all of the bubble text on the pages, and the production artist who puts all of these things together and gets the files ready for press. And finally, we should not forget the the writer and editors, I was the writer and our team did the editing.

DK: Will the Comic Book be a trilogy?

BB: I do have the next 2 stories locked in at this time. I am trying to keep the metaphors going. The next book “Search for the King” illustrates the example of how the current generation can work with the younger generation to protect and preserve the concept of Iran. I think this is a very good message on the heels of the first book, especially in the current situation of Iran having a lot of young people who feel increasingly disconnected. Kind of another warning. The third book is about not heeding the warnings and what happens when things go really bad! That’s all I’m going to say for now!

DK: Thank you Bruce Looking forward to the next episode …

BB: Thanks for taking the time. If anyone wants to talk to me about it, please have them email me at: bozkuhi@yahoo.com