UAE’s first dedicated comic book studio launches

As part of its 10-year AED 30 billion Culture and Creative Industries Strategy, Abu Dhabi has plans to develop a regional comic book industry that could “ultimately” compete on the world stage; and step one is the launch of Sandstorm Comics – an all-new purpose-built comic book studio located at Yas Creative Hub.

Sandstorm aims to address some of the challenges facing the MENA region’s nascent comics industry, including a lack of industry support and infrastructure.

The studio is inviting proposals from aspiring comic book creators in the UAE (and not just the emirate); Sandstorm will select the most promising ideas and provide expertise, support and professional guidance, including “mentors from world-famous studios”, leading to publication locally and (hopefully) internationally.

Mo Abedin (right) has been appointed as head of Sandstorm. He’s something of a serial entrepreneur, though mostly in food retailing; with his wife he runs Saucebeast, a Youtube/Instagram channel for foodies – lots of restaurant sampling, chats with chef interviews, and passion for food – and he also co-owns (with his mum) a rather good Thai restaurant in Jumeirah Village Circle.

But he’s also written a fantasy/superhero comic called Raiiken (“merges the worlds of Japanese and Roman mythologies … A dark tale of omens, prophecies, and the struggle to alter destinies”) and he says he’s excited about the arrival of a dedicated comics studio in Abu Dhabi. “I have met incredible local talent who cover the full spectrum of the comics industry but lack industry support.

“With Sandstorm’s inclusive ecosystem and the local and regional community’s potential, the future of Abu Dhabi’s comics industry is truly promising. We cannot wait to show the world what our creative community is capable of.”

His title is Head of Sandstorm Comics and he says it’s a dream job for him, “one that I have worked towards for pretty much my entire professional career”. We did the ‘what makes you think you’re qualified to work here’ question, and he answered well: “many people think that being an avid comic book reader, fan, author, or comic book artist instantly qualifies them for such a role, which cannot be further from the truth. There is a lot more to Sandstorm than just the creative side, that’s just the surface. Dive deeper and you’ll see that what we have developed here with Sandstorm requires a lot of careful planning and understanding of the community, business, and industry.”

There’s also the delicate question of ensuring Sandstorm can sit comfortably within Abu Dhabi’s Creative and Cultural Initiative. “This is critical for getting the support to allocate the right resources that will directly contribute to building the comic book industry in the UAE.” It seems Sandstorm is a standalone entity rather than part of DCT Abu Dhabi (“we’re supported by and working closely with a network of collaborative industry partners including DCT Abu Dhabi”) so some institutional negotiating skills may be required too …

Sandstorm is still in start-up mode, which means the current team is small. We don’t know the exact numbers, but suspect you wouldn’t need many fingers to count them. They do include Mohammad Alshaibani as Creative Director of Sandstorm; he’s an Emirati comic book artist himself who holds a Master’s in Sequential Art.

Two impressive comic-industry veterans have been signed up as content advisors. Matt Hawkins has been in comic book publishing since 1993 and has been working as a creator, writer and business executive for over 20 years – during which time he’s created over 30 new franchises for Top Cow Productions and its parent company Image Comics.

And Kuo-yu Liang is a global pop culture advisor who has held executive roles at Penguin Random House, Diamond Book Distribution (he launched this book trade arm of Diamond Comics), and ReedPOP (where he was responsible among other things for developing the Comic Con brand and setting up Comic Cons around the world). A year ago he set up Ku Worldwide, a publishing consultancy aimed at helping companies with “a focus on anime, audiobook, book, collectibles, comics, distribution, events, games, graphic novel, manga and webcomics”.

Sandstorm at Comic Con Middle East. To the right are the key players: Mohammad Alshaibani (centre), Mo Abedin (third from right), Matt Hawkins (second from right)

We asked Mo Abedin about the scale of Sandstorm’s operations and ambitions. How many comic projects would he be looking to take on in year one? “We haven’t set a limit on the number of projects we want to take on this year,” he said. “it’s really driven by the submissions we get at this early stage.

“For the time being, every submission will be assessed on its merit. So we are not setting quotas on how many comics will be created, but we’re anticipating around five to 10 great-quality projects for our first batch.”

The application process seems pretty open. “Creators first need to submit their pitches for comic books or graphic novels spanning any genre, theme or style. We typically ask for a logline, plot summary, up to five concept artworks and some additional background information to apply.

“Once we have approved a project, we will assemble and appoint a creative team consisting of world-class writers, art directors, artists, colourists, and letters to work with the original author to help bring their concept to life in a big way. Our endeavour is to support the author to truly create a high quality comic book that is on par or even better than the international standard..”

We also wondered exactly what successful applicants got from Sandstorm and for how long. It’s clear that the development of skillsets is an important first goal – “selected candidates will have the opportunity to work alongside specialists such as writers, colourists, letterists, artists and editors, as they see their concept fast-tracked into a high-quality comic book” with “critical feedback and support through our international content advisors”.

Sandstorm will also cover the costs of content production fees, materials, time, travel and research, to enable the authors to create their comic books. But clearly there’s no stipend or fee for the comic book creator; this is not a job appointment.

The financial rewards, if any, will come from finding a publisher. So will Sandstorm act as their agent? It would seem a logical position for Sandstorm, which otherwise does not have a clear revenue stream; there’s no indication that it will be publishing its own books, for instance. Mo Abedin was somewhat non committal here; “essentially, Sandstorm is an enabler. Our programme extends an open invitation to UAE-based original storytellers, and we will work with them to propel their content forward to reach the standard for international publication”. But he didn’t say what “working with them” would mean in contractual terms.

The first open call cycle of the commissions programme is accessible via the website, and any UAE national or resident can apply. Applications must include a logline, a concise plot summary (max 300 words), and three to five concept images; it’s a requirement that the project must already be in development “in some form”.

Acceptance, we’re told, will be on a rolling basis, though applications will be closing “shortly” because of the number of submissions already received.. They’re good, too – “we’re very pleased with the number and quality of submissions we’ve already received, with some really diverse and original ideas on show”.

More information here.

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