‘Zahra’s Paradise’ – Using Webcomics As A Force For Human Rights

Since today is Human Rights Day — marking the anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 — I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at First Second’s webcomic “Zahra’s Paradise.” Set in Iran after the last election and the mass protests — and violent government reprisals — that followed, it is the work of Amir, an Iranian-American human rights activist, journalist and documentary filmmaker, and Khalil, a cartoonist and fine artist. Both names are pseudonyms, necessary for “obvious political reasons.”

“Zahra’s Paradise” is the fictional story of the strong-as-nails mother and blogger brother of a young protester, Mehdi, who has vanished in the Islamic Republic’s gulags. Mehdi’s brother keeps his presence and spirit alive through the use of his blog — using the Internet to help create social justice much the way the webcomic itself does.

We chatted with Amir about “Zahra’s Paradise’s” Amir about using comics to remind people about the need for human rights around the world:

MTV Geek: How did you, Khalil and First Second get together to present this as a webcomic?

Amir: I sometimes think that all of life is coincidence, or rather, serendipity. Two years ago, I bumped in Marjane Satrapi, and her “Persepolis” seemed to bring an entire world to life. She gave my generation a voice. And it was as if a great deal of the trauma in which our life stories had been frozen were finally melting away. Then, a dear friend of mine published “Prince of Persia” with First Second. I was working on a documentary film at the time but when I saw “Prince of Persia,” I just knew I had discovered my medium –the graphic novel. Graphic novel, as opposed to documentary film, was so much faster, cheaper. You did not have to worry about light, sound, camera, getting to your subject on time. You didn’t have to chase your subjects. You could imagine and invent reality, and all you need was a pencil.

The problem was that I can write and imagine and dream till the end of time, but I could not draw for beans. But thanks to Allah, God, Gaia, whatever, the Force, I had met Khalil, and it turned out that we had a very dear friend in common. Khalil invited me to his house, and the world he had created around himself, the space and emotion, just flowed with beauty, love and humor, whether it was through his ceramics, sculpture or cartoons. So it was a no-brainer. Everything was aligned except the publisher. We produced a little proposal, sent it to A.B. Sina, A.B. passed it on to Mark Siegel at First Second, and suddenly, we were in business. I have always felt so lucky, and I think if you feel lucky, luck finds you. Plus, we are doing the right thing–this is a heart project.

Geek: What has the response been to “Zahra’s Paradise” so far?

Amir: Brilliant–better than anything we ever imagined. Our readers have become part of the story — they are like the wind in our sails. Their comments are such a source of joy and inspiration, and what is even better, they share their own experiences and perceptions, and that makes the story richer. It’s very different from offering the world a finished product. We’re making this together. We’ve also had a lot of top notch journalists, human rights activists, cartoonists from Iran and around the world, people who live what is going on in Iran every day, contribute as guest bloggers.

And then, what’s really been stunning has been the response outside the US. We’ve barely started “Zahra’s Paradise” and it’s being translated into twelve languages, foreign rights are sold, so that kind of affirmation makes Khalil and I really humbled. The truth is the response to “Zahra’s Paradise” tells me volumes about how much people around the world care about the fate and future of the Iranian people, and that makes me realize that the work human rights activists have done over the years has done so much to create a global human rights culture. We are lucky to be riding that wave. And hopefully, by the time we are finished, we will have become part of the wave.

Geek: What do you think is the role and potential of webcomics and comic books to tell stories that matter and create social change and reforms?

Amir: Boundless! The potential of webcomics to generate social change is phenomenal — limited only by our imagination. And the web. Let’s face it, cartoons are a universal language and the web is the universal medium. All the traditional barriers to social change are collapsing — time, space, language — just don’t separate us any more. We can experience an event in Iran–happy or sad–around the world in a nanosecond. We can read a comic, together, around the world, at once in twelve languages.

Mark, our editor deserves all the credit for marrying Zahra’s Paradise to the power and potential of the web. I will promise you one thing — as far as social change and human rights in Iran is concerned, we will use Zahra’s Paradise to explore every possibility and we’ll do everything we can to push the limits of language, media and our imagination. Already, Zahra’s Paradise is allowing us to create a network among human rights activists and organizations. Each and every one of our readers is participating in this process, and God knows what kind of creativity they will unleash.

Discuss this story in our Comics forums! Follow @MTVGeek on Twitter and be sure to “like” us on Facebook for the best geek news about comics, toys, gaming and more!