Eileen Alden and Supreet Singh Manchanda hold a poster of Super Sikh they created to support their KickStarter campaign.

Meet the new superhero on the block: Super Sikh

on February 3, 2015

In early January, Eileen Alden and Supreet Singh Manchanda sat in front of a computer, opened a Kickstarter account and wrote: “Have you ever asked yourself why there are no Sikh superheroes? Isn’t it time to see a hero in a turban for a change?” They set an ambitious goal for their project: to raise $5,000 to produce a comic book with a Sikh hero.

The campaign took off and was even selected as a KickStarter staff pick. In 27 hours, they raised the funds to produce the first issue of Super Sikh, a comic book that will star Deep Singh, a Sikh super agent—highly-trained, multilingual and an Elvis fan—who will fight the Taliban.

Manchanda, a venture capitalist and one of the co-creators of the story, said that characters like Batman and Superman were developed nearly 50 years ago and their stories have been recycled. But kids nowadays don’t have heroes that look like them, and because of this, they might not develop an affinity for them. “The population has become more diverse, there is more integration, and we’ve become more global. So we think that it is time to modernize the characters,” said Manchanda.

“Kids are all different, and so I think what’s needed in terms of diversity is just opening up the imagination to other possibilities of: What does a hero look like?” said Alden, an Oakland-based investor strategist and comic book script writer.

Sikhism is one of the youngest religions in the world. It was founded in the Punjab region of South Asia in 1469 by Guru Nanak, and continued by the nine prophets (gurus) who succeeded him. The followers of this religion are called “Sikh,” which means disciple or student. After the Second World War, many Sikhs emigrated from India and Pakistan to the United Kingdom and the United States. According to United Sikhs, a non-profit development organization, there are 24 million Sikhs worldwide and over 500,000 in the United States. Sikhism doesn’t recognize race, class, caste or other distinctions between people; they recognize men and women as equals in all aspects of life.

A Sikh’s long hair is one of the five articles of faith (or the five K’s) they must wear at all times. The unshorn hair (Kesh) is an act of commitment and acceptance of God’s will, and the turban (Dastaar) symbolizes a crowning gift from the Guru. The other articles of faith are: Kangha, a comb to keep the hair groomed and untangled; Kara, an iron bracelet that symbolizes the commitment of a Sikh to God; Kirpan, a sword that symbolizes the struggle of Sikhs against injustice and Kachhehra, cotton underwear that represents the commitment of a Sikh to monogamy.

Alden and Machanda’s goal was not only to bring diversity to the comic book world, but also to reverse the negative imagery they feel Sikhs have in America. “People in turbans mean the bad guys,” said Machanda, who is a Sikh himself. He said that all around the world, especially in Britain and former British colonies, the Sikh are seen as positive role models and are known as a good community. But here in America, they are often mistreated and stereotyped as violent people.

In fact, according to a survey of more than 500 Sikh students conducted by The Sikh Coalition in 2014, over 50 percent endure school bullying. The study called “Go home, terrorist: A report on the bullying of Sikh children in America,” shows that the numbers are even worse for kids who wear turbans: over two-thirds of them have been bullied or harassed at school.

Machanda said that he was bullied himself when he was a child, and that was one of the reasons he co-created Super Sikh. He also said that he grew up in Africa, and that his family was constantly traveling, so comics were his constant companions. “I’ve always wanted to create a character that was a Sikh, but I never found someone who could write it and conceptualize it,” said Machanda. “What I needed was Eileen.”

Alden had experience writing screenplays, and had adapted her last screenplay into a comic form, so she was willing to try the medium. “When I met Supree and he suggested I write a story with a Sikh protagonist, it seemed like a cool idea because it was unusual and a challenge,” she said. Machanda said that the comic book came to life thanks to the merger of Alden’s ability to write and his ability to visualize how a Sikh would behave.

But bringing a comic book to life is not as easy at it seems. Alden said that comic book development has four stages. The first stage is writing the story—usually each issue of a comic book tells one complete story arc. The second stage is developing the characters. In this case, Alden is working hand-in-hand with Amit Tayal, a Comic-Con India award-winning artist that they selected for this project. Tayal will draw the panels using the storyline and dialogue Alden and Manchanda have created. Together they decide the characters’ physical characteristics, personality traits and even choose their wardrobe. “You know how in the movies you have to do auditions and get the actors? In this case with the artist you are basically creating the actor,” said Manchanda.

After the characters are created, Tayal drafts the pages in pencil and Alden gives him some notes on, for example, a character’s facial expression. After all the changes have been made, Tayal hands in the final draft. The last stage is to hand the sketch to a second artist, a colorist who will take the outline, fill it with color and do the lettering.

In this case, the entire project has been done digitally. The finished comic book will have a print version that will come out in March and a digital one that will come out four weeks after the print version’s release. The only way to get the print version is through the Kickstarter campaign, although they plan to launch the digital version for a bigger audience later this year.

One of the pages of the comic book featuring super agent Deep Singh

One of the pages of the comic book featuring super agent Deep Singh

In the first issue, we will see secret agent Deep Singh heading to his vacation at Graceland—but agents of the Taliban, who he’s fought before, are following him, intending to kill him. “The story is the old story: the fight between good and evil,” said Manchanda. “But by changing the characters, it allows the children in different places to feel more like: ‘This character belongs to me.’”

That familiarity was exactly what Alden used when she created Deep Singh. She didn’t want the hero to have a mutation or alien powers, or be a result of what she describes as “twisted faith.” Deep Singh is a skillful, smart and very well-trained British Special Air Service agent and an Elvis fan. “I think it is something in between Batman and Jason Bourne,” said Alden.

Super Sikh isn’t the only comic book project trying to add characters from different ethnic backgrounds to a traditionally white superhero world. “I think comic books are trying to move towards a little more diversity,” said Conrad Moungviengkham, a salesman at Collector’s Heaven, a comic book store in downtown Oakland. “Comic companies like Marvel and DC are happy with the audience they already had for a long time, so sometimes they don’t try hard to reach out,” he added, “but they are trying to introduce more diverse characters as far as background now.” Moungviengkham said that some examples of this trend include the new Thor, who is a female character now; the younger version of Spiderman, who is half-African American and half-Latino; and the new Captain America, who is now African American.

Moungviengkham said that KickStarter is a great way to fund a comic book. “There are a lot of new ways for people to create their own stories and comics,” he said, “and so that allows people more freedom without being controlled by the bigger comic companies.”

Thanks to the Kickstarter campaign, that ends this Wednesday, the Super Sikh project already secured over $19,000, which will guarantee at least three issues of the series. “We don’t have to create this marketing where we have to second-guess our audience. Our audience is demanding stuff from us,” said Manchanda.

Once the paper comic book gets funded, Alden and Manchanda plan to launch a digital version of it in English, Spanish, Panjabi and even Mandarin. But their ultimate goal is for Super Sikh to serve as a tool for children’s personal lives. “We want to create the spark that will fuel that flame of children’s imagination, that will help them build some confidence and strong values on their own personal character,” said Manchanda.

 

You can learn more about the project on its KickStarter site: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eileenalden/super-sikh

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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