Shahnameh Comic Books? By Margaret R. O’Leary

Shahnameh is the great Iranian epic poem written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi around 1000 AD for the Samanid princes of historic Khorasan. (1) The Samanid princes worked hard to revive Iranian cultural traditions after the Muslim Arab conquest in the seventh century AD. The Gahznavid Turks from across the Oxus River (Amu Darya), however, conquered the Samanid dynasty, and had no interest whatsoever in Iranian revivals. Ferdowsi died a pauper, but his glorious poem survived. Today it is enjoying a renaissance: Witness the adaptation of the Shahnameh into an award-winning American comic book series by Bruce Bahmani and his co-creators, Jamie and Cameron Douraghy.

ShahnamehComicBookBruce Bahmani is a freelance writer and marketing consultant who lives, writes, and works in the San Francisco Bay Area (Danville, California), USA. “Bruce was born in Texas in 1961 while his parents (Father a Persian Ghashghai, Mother German) were in University,” notes Marjan Agdi in a short biography. (2) The bio continues:

StoryShahnamehPhotoBAt age 3, Bruce came to Persia with his parents and lived there until the revolution in 1979. While in Persia, Bruce attended bi-lingual schools (Parthian and Iranzamin), and it was in Persia that Bruce became simultaneously exposed to American comic books and the “Shahnameh.” It was in 2000 when the blending of the two became apparent and the idea to turn the Shahnameh and the tales of “Rostam” into an American comic book was formed. Bruce is an active Persian community volunteer in the Bay Area focusing on promoting and exposing the Persian tradition and culture to non-Persians. (2)

A fine interview by Darius Kadivar of Bruce Bahmani is available elsewhere. (3) In the interview, Bahmani notes,

Picture4It 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 Altstaetter, a noted 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…

Picture6…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 felt 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 the vague references to previous sub plots too complicated to put down. 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… (3)Picture4a

Hyperwerks creates and publishes the Rostam series of comic books. Karl Altstaetter and Jamie Douraghy founded Hyperwerks in 1997. (4-5) The first Rostam series (three comic books) focuses on the main hero of Shahnameh, the “giant of a man” and powerful warrior named Rostam. “Throughout, Rostam shows his strength and skill as a warrior, but also his integrity and loyalty to his country, as he protects and defends it from not only foreign invading armies, but also the constant conniving and betrayals of characters such as lord Afrasiab and an under worldly demon, by the name of ‘White Deev’ (Deev-e Sefeed).” (4)

StoryShahmanehPhotoFComic books are not one of my hobbies, at least not yet. I first purchased Ferdowsi’s 900-page Shahnameh (Dick Davis’s mostly narrative translation) to try to gain a better understanding of Iranian historical and cultural traditions before Muslim Arabs thoroughly vanquished the Iranian homeland in the seventh century AD. My favorite hero is Rostam’s father Zal, who was born an albino, abandoned by his father Sam, and raised by Simorgh, a phoenix, in her nest along with her own nestlings. At first Simorgh was going to feed baby Zal to her offspring, but grew to like him and decided to raise him as a valiant Iranian instead. Rostam’s mother was Rudabeh of Zabol (southeastern Iran, not to be confused with Zabul, Afghanistan), who white-haired Zal fell deeply in love with and married even though she was, gulp, of a different faith (Islam). Rudabeh, who was yellow (jaundiced) from the effects of her post-term pregnancy, was fed alcohol to make her drowsy and less sensible to pain so that operators could deliver son Rostam via C-section. It’s all in there!

I came across the first comic book (titled Rostam and Sohrab) in the Shahnameh series at Amazon.com while looking for a copy of the original Shahnameh. The juxtaposition of the various ancient Shahnameh book covers against the Rostam and Sohrab comic book cover below them at Amazon.com is discordant, but not unpleasant. I was fascinated that in today’s testy times, creative entrepreneurs of Iranian heritage ventured to adapt an ancient and mostly unknown epic to the comic book genre to charm while educating readers about Iran’s indigenous stories, traditions, history and ideals.

Rostam and Sohrab is true enough to the content of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. The comic book paper is heavy, smooth, and glossy. The fine four-color artwork fabulously stuns, whoops and startles, catapulting Rostam and his friends and foes right off the page into a liminal space somewhere between the actual comic book and the reader’s mind. There is creative and marketing genius behind this adaptation of the epic history of Iran. The comic book story engages the mind and eye from beginning to end. Rostam: Tales from the Shahnameh is a beautifully conceived and executed literary work of the comic book genre.

There are three more Rostam comic books as of this writing: Return of the King, Battle with the Deevs, and Search for the King…Should I…?

Notes:

1. Abolqasem Ferdowsi: Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Dick Davis (translator). New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

2. Marjan Agdi: “When we met the real hero.” December 30, 2006. Available at http://www.payvand.com/news/06/dec/1324.html; accessed November 3, 2009.

3. Darius Kadivar: “Rostam super hero: Popularizing a Persian myth. Available at http://www.payvand.com/news/05/oct/1030.html; accessed November 4, 2009.

4. Hyperwerks: “Rostam: Tales from the Shahnameh.” Available at http://www.hyperwerks.com/rostaminfo; accessed November 3, 2009.