Dubai’s third annual hosting of the Middle East Film & Comic Con is where fans get to meet - and be - their heroes
Darth Vader greets you in Arabic, a new generation of Middle East superheroes challenge America's comic book domination, and Marvel's legendary artist Stan Lee makes an appearance to show his appreciation for his legions of fans.
Welcome to Comic Con Dubai.
With the emirate city state's World Trade Centre and Burj Khalifa as a backdrop, excitement and anticipation hung in the air as what has been called "the MENA region's most anticipated pop culture event" kicked off on 7 April.
Dubai's Comic Con 2016 was bustling with enthusiasts eager to see their favourite characters (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
Excited children carrying Comic Con goodie bags and people dressed as comic book heroes formed an unusual sight in Dubai’s business district.
'Spiderman' - 'Wolverine' and 'Rorschach' are in character for their fans (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
Inside the world of Comic Con
Inside, the exhibition hall was dominated by big names: Marvel, MBC2, IMG Worlds of Adventure and Geek Nation. As people bustled between booths and gaming stations, above our heads were screams from a zip wire as would-be superheroes took to the wire and made like Spiderman.
Young children to adults of all ages were wearing their favourite superhero outfits and stocking up on comic memorabilia from fan art to models and original pieces by artists and designers.
The IMAX Cine Club line was roped off with fans lining up eagerly to see sneak previews of movie trailers and the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Scheduled for the evening slot at the Cine club was the event everyone was waiting for; a live broadcast session with Marvel comic book legend Stan Lee.
"Professional" Cosplayers - people who dress up as their favourite comic book characters - are always a popular fixture at Comic Con, and were dotted around the event posing for photographs with the enthusiastic crowds. I met Chun Li, a Philippine national representing Kuwait as a Cosplay competitor - with hopes of winning the top prize of 5000 AED ($1360). But it was not just about the money for Chun Li. “It’s kind of my hobby, it flows in my blood and I just love it,” he said.
A view from one of the main exhibition halls (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
A Star Wars fan group, the 501st Legion, whose members had visited Comic Con around the world, said that “Dubai’s Comic Con is getting bigger and better every year and there is a lot of love here.”
Galactic Empire leader Darth Vader said farewell with a very Arabic, "Salam," stopping patiently every time someone asked for a photograph.
The Star Wars fan group '501st Legion' poses with Shereen Malherbe (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
For more memorable and original photographs, "MBC Meets the Stars" provided the opportunity for fans to get autographs and photographs taken with their favourite celebrities. These included Summer Glau, Christopher Lloyd Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Veronica Taylor and Randy Orton.
MEE spotted Jonathan Bolerjack, one of the international artists of Comic Con who had spent the last year working for Stan Lee. He told us that he was the “guinea pig” for the first Middle East Comic Con.
When asked how it compared to others, he said, “This convention is better than some I have been to in the States, but I think the more important thing is not how different it is but how the same it is. The fans are exactly the same. That is what I appreciate the most.”
International artist Jonathan Bolerjack was happy to smile for a picture (MEE/Sheren Malherbe)
MEE asked him about how Stan Lee felt about coming to Dubai. "He is a little too old to make the trek but he wanted to."
The artists formed part of a close-knit community at the event, conversing with each other whilst selling samples of their artworks and making sketches of potential future comic characters, as well as commissioning pieces to sketch there and then to be designed as their very own unique hero.
The inspiring atmosphere provided a platform for local and international artists and entrepreneurs. It was filled with stalls from the UAE’s university students, start-ups and digital content businesses, all hoping to sell and catch the eye of an industry professional ready to launch their careers. Aghnia Mardiyah, a student of Leeds College of Art, had flown in the previous Tuesday from the UK to showcase her art while hoping to “connect with professionals and network”.
Artist Aghnia Mardiyah poses with some of her work (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
Local Emirati artist, Khulood al-Janahi was also there to exhibit her work. “This is actually my third year. Fan art sells better but it is good to have originals because professional companies have asked for my portfolio."
Local Dubai artist Khulood al-Janahi was sure not to miss Comic Con (MEE/Sheren Malherbe)
If you wanted the opportunity to perfect your craft, you could join experts in the workshop rooms from Comic Book Panel Phasing, to Improvisation, to Anime and Game Design, scheduled throughout the three-day event with regional and international guests sharing their expertise.
MEE heard unique and personal stories like that of Jeff Gomez, who talked to the audience about how he grew up in the dangerous Lower East Side of New York to later become "the world’s leading transmedia producer of blockbuster entertainment franchises".
Middle Eastern flavour
Traditional Emirati dress formed part of the crowd, and local art groups and fans from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar as well as the UAE expressed their feverish excitement about comic art's inclusivity and the opportunity to have an outlet for their passion.
Hani Ghaith, co-founder of Magnoon Magazine, said the appetite for comics and Arabic superheroes was increasing. “There is definitely a hunger for it,” he said whilst discussing how the demand for their magazine had meant it was now available in print.
Other expats living in the Middle East had blended stories and myths they had heard from their local Arabic friends into a unique representation of Arabia in comics such as Anna Thackray’s, Shamal Comic Books.
A celebration of the emerging Arabic superhero market was summed up by the exclusive screening of Bilal, an animated story about a superhero with its roots in the region that is tipped to be a breakthrough blockbuster for Dubai. The fans who saw it were in agreement that it marked something special about the entry of Dubai into this popular market.
Leaving behind the hectic and linear exhibition area, the convention continued outside. With the sun beginning to set, the atmosphere shifted to a much more chilled out festival vibe, where picnic style tables and upturned drums provided casual seating. The area surrounding the main stage was ringed with food trucks. Guests sat chatting, recharging and refuelling whilst theatre groups took to the main stage; an area "where geeks can shine" and show off their skills.
Characters 'Joker' and 'Bane' plot their next crime among the busy crowd (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
It was a platform open for anyone to jump in and have a go. But do not be fooled, these did not look like ad hoc performances. They were well-scripted, well-rehearsed and screens on either side lit up with graphics to complement their performances. With the backdrop of the sun-kissed city skyline, people started moving inside for the much-anticipated session with Stan Lee.
An exclusive with Stan Lee
The session opened with a media blackout (strictly no-recording) whilst we were given exclusive viewing of some documentary footage of Stan Lee behind the scenes, proudly presented by Max, his assistant of 10 years. His team wanted to gather feedback as well as allow Lee a way to share his experiences, from his beginnings as an artist serving in the military, embarrassed to put his real name to the comic books he was sketching, to present day interactions with his doting fans.
Stan Lee addresses MEFCC fans live from his home (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)
As the crowd chanted his name, Lee was then connected to us live via video from his home. He told us: “I love the fans. I love the fact that they care about the stories I’ve done. I want to pay them back for their enthusiasm and to give them what they want.”
It is hard to believe his beginnings; perhaps that is where his genuine love and appreciation for the fans come from. They believed in him when no one else did. “I love everything about conventions, they are always interesting. I love meeting everyone and they have always got something to say and I enjoy hearing it.”
Lee’s comments reminded me of why people come to these events; the fan base here is a vital part of the industry. There is no elitism in the comic world; it is not just for the pros. The industry knows that they need this loyal base as much as the fans need their next fix of comic superhero stardust.
The main entrance to MEFCC 2016 (MEE/Shereen Malherbe)