Taking The Turban Back From The Taliban ~ Exclusive Interview

SikhNet got a chance to speak with the co-creator of the new Super Sikh Comic....

Recently SikhNet had the chance to talk with both of the creators behind the new Super Sikh Comic series. Eileen Alden wrote the screen play which turned into this comic. Read her exclusive interviews here:

Sikh Comic Changes a Life pt.1

Sikh Comic Changes a Life pt. 2

Supreet Singh Manchanda was the seed for the project which, it turns out, is really a big part of him.

SikhNet: Your co-creator Eileen Alden told us that the process started when you showed her a video of Peter Singh, a Sikh Elvis impersonator a couple years ago. I have a feeling the inception for you was long before that.

Supreet Singh: Actually I live vicariously through Deep Singh. During the process of brainstorming about the Super Sikh screenplay, I was thinking about what to do with this whole bullying thing. I don’t know - when I was a child, I used to get bullied a lot. After the Sikh Coalition bullying report came out at the same time, I was was like, “We gotta do something for kids.” When I talk to a bunch of Sikh kids and they say, "We don’t understand what’s going on in the Gurdwara. When we try to ask questions - the old people try to shut us down. They don’t care about us.” To me, it’s just a horrible scene and I wonder how do we approach Sikhi in a way that will get them interested.

So post 9-11, I went back to my childhood and reflected on what influenced me and comics influenced me a lot. I grew up with TinTin and Asterix and there used to be a superhero called The Phantom and I thought, “Hey, the kids need an everyday hero.” Relatable and still interesting. I grew up in Africa, I grew up multi-cultural. So we made an African connection with Deep Singh as well. It’s a little more exotic.

An African connection!

Yes, his parents were working as doctors in Africa and they disappeared. We were trying to do something that is not typical Punjabi and we had to give him a good story. So where do you get the best stories? You get them from your own history if it’s interesting.  

Well, you have been known among friends as the "most interesting man in the world" (inside joke).


Heheheh, there you go.

So you were a Punjabi Sikh child raised in Africa who got bullied a lot and derived a lot of inspiration from comic books?

Because they worked on contracts, my parents traveled a lot. My sister and I had each other but I didn’t really have many friends because every 2 or 3 years we’d always change cities or countries. So the comic characters became more my friends.

You had all these expatriates who had come from the Unites States or Canada or England who worked over there and when they left they sold their stuff. So one time, my dad showed up with this giant box full of comics he got from one of his friends returning back to England. Non-digital versions. There were British comics so I got into that. Then there were the French comics and there were books - so I sort of grew up living vicariously through books and comics. Especially comics, because comics really help fuel the imagination. As a matter of fact, I still have with me some of these comics from way back when. They’re my only keepsakes from my life in Africa.

Comics had a big affect on you as a child. As a minority you have had challenges wherever you go, so I’m guessing the seeds for this comic came from way back?

Yeah, I mean this goes back to when I first came to college here in the US in the 80’s. I always thought it would be so neat. I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing fiction myself with Sikh characters as well because I think that enriches the culture when you have that level of diversity. How many characters do you have that are caucasians? So many you can’t count. How many do you have from different cultures that have already been represented? In the process of our research we discovered that there only about 7 Sikh characters and they’re mostly bad.

In a post 9/11, I’ve always questioned, How do you keep kids from abandoning their faith because they’re being bullied? You’ve got to create the positive foil that says, “Wait a minute, we can be just as badass as anybody else.” It’s only in the United States, mainstream media culture is very American dominant. If you came from a British commonwealth country or from Britain, Sikhs are very common place. They are common place in the military. They’re normal fixtures in the police forces, as shopkeepers, as cabbies etc. Sikhs are very much a part of the fabric of society - very positively well known. How many stories are there of the cabbie who finds the wallet and goes to return it rather than keeping it? That justice streak really does exist. We want to manifest that in the media culture we have here where, post 9/11, every person wearing a turban has been branded as Taliban.

I think the Taliban have done a huge disservice to us because they’ve hijacked the turban. It has stood for wisdom and goodness for so long. Remember the three "turbaned" wise men in the Bible as an example. 

 

That brings me to another question. The comic does feature the Taliban. You have Deep Singh with a modern style turban and you have him fighting the Taliban who have a different style of turban. Why did you put the Taliban in the story?

Because no one goes out in the media saying, “Those crazy Christians did something” or “Those crazy white people did something.” But when you have a SIkh or someone with a turban, there is always a religious association or cultural association. I really wanted to show that there are good guys in turbans as much as there are bad guys with turbans. Evil does not discriminate. Evil exists in all cultures and all walks of life and so does good. Good exists in all cultures and all walks of life. The most interesting part is that Sikhs have always been on the side of good, always been guardians and, as defensive warriors, always protected freedom, women, art, knowledge even to the level where we have died to protect other peoples right to worship as they please.

The story that people always forget is the Muslims who invaded India -

-And this is an important note. I’m especially not saying Muslims are bad. It was the invader, the Mughals, who were tyrannical. We know many Muslims who are fantastic and have great values. As a matter of fact, when western civilization was going through the dark ages, Islam protected all the knowledge. The fanatical whabbist stream that we seem to be visited by, (most extreme case being ISIL and the Taliban), they are turning their back on their reputation as the guardians of knowledge. Now they have sadly become the destroyers of knowledge.  

-Anyways Sikhs, we came up as a reaction to kidnapping of women, rape of women, pillaging etc. It was really important that we stood firm ever since our inception 500 years ago that we will not let this pass. Even though we are such a uniquely small minority we have an unusually high impact wherever we live because we don’t allow this baloney to happen. We are very much about honesty, living a good life and treating everybody very fairly. We have and continue to be the guardians.

 


That’s why we have the dichotomy of Deep Singh, a modern Sikh. We also made him human. We didn’t make him into a preachy type. He’s normal. As we grow the character, he may even have conflicts within himself. We wanted to show both the good and the conflict points. If you don’t have a counterpoint between good and evil, the story isn’t interesting. Here it just so happens that Deep Singh with his gang (Gurpreet Kaur and company) are saving schools and stuff against the bad guys who are busy destroying schools and causing mayhem.

We consciously took into account what happened to Malala Yousefzai on the way to school and the kids massacred recently in Peshawar Pakistan. These are institutions of education. The two places that were protected from violence for a long time. It was that one never attacked schools, or churches, mosques or temples. That’s holy ground. The Taliban have especially broken that compact because they are busy attacking people everywhere. It’s one thing to go to war with nations but when you pick a fight with children and the helpless, that’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. That really aggravates me.

Did you know in India women prefer to get a cab ride with a Sikh driver because they feel safer? They know they’ll be protected by the Sikh cabby, they won’t be attacked. Do you know that during the partition of India, when there was a lot of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, the Sikhs were where the women went because they were never ever hurt by the Sikhs? So we wanted to bring those values out.

These values are really universal. They are similar to American values, about fairness and equality and sharing and caring. (I also really liked a lot of old west comics and novels like l'amour)

This comic seems to be intended not just for Sikhs or American Sikhs but for Americans in general?

We don’t want to be preachy. We wanted Deep Singh to be modern. Many times, our audience is kids in the diaspora and now with the internet global. They need a positive role model. Through the Gurdwaras they get a lot of stories of the warriors of old but they don’t have any modern figures. Also, we want to appeal to kids everywhere, in Malaysia, England, India, Canada and here. He’s a crossover character. We don’t want it to just appeal to Sikh kids. He’s a hero. He just happens to wear a turban. He’s going to appeal to all kids whether they’re Sikhs or not - he’s doing good, he’s fighting the bad guys and he loves Elvis. We didn’t want to give him super powers. There’s enough super power characters. We really wanted to show kids that this could easily be them. It helps unlock their imaginations.  

You and Eileen are both multi-cultural. What an interesting team you are?

She was coming at it from a different angle. When you’re born in the Punjabi culture, you take for granted all these stories that you’ve heard from your family and grandparents. For her, it was totally new. When she met me, I was just a guy with a cloth wrapped around his head. Now she even knows the distinction between what Sikhs wear, what kind of turban. We spent almost 2.5 years in making this come alive. It's been a long time.

She had mentioned that she wanted to do her own research rather than just ask her Sikh friends?

She never asked me anything.

What did you tell her?

I would tell her stories. The whole thing about her doing research and learning Gurbani, I didn’t even know till recently. Would you believe it - I only found out earlier this year. We were at the stage where we were looking for artists. Here we are picking out an artist and she was like, “Oh by the way I do all this stuff in Gurbani.” I said, “Gurbani? What do you do in Gurbani?” Then she rattled off some words in Punjabi. I asked, “When did this happen?” She said, “Oh, I’ve been doing this for more than a year. I’m a Sikh now.” I couldn’t believe it, “You’re a what!?” I thought she was yanking my chainn, but she was serious, “I’m not joking, this is real.” See we always joke around so that’s what made this scene funny, I didn’t believe her. I have even more respect for her now.   

Picking an artist took us a long time because we didn’t want to compromise on quality. You’ll notice the artwork is quite sophisticated. What was really interesting, it was like making a movie script. We create the character, we create the action of the character, we create the background, we did it almost like cinematography rather than making a comic. We talked about what does the set look like, when he’s in the plane, what does the plane look like, who’s sitting in what chair, what does the girls school look like, how do they dress… We did a tremendous amount of research to make the story rich. You don’t notice it until you realize we have got all kinds of hidden things that are mysterious in the background.  

Amit Tayal our artist has won ComiCon India award many times and he is really great and did I mention funny. 

 

Are either you or Eileen really fans of Elvis?

Yes, of course I’m a big Elvis Presley fan. I grew up listening to Elvis music. Thank you, thank you very much! (switching into an Elvis impersonation)

It also partly came from what music I listened to growing up but I thought Elvis is such an iconic character that everyone can relate to. I thought having a cross over character, he has to appeal to the western audience as well the eastern audience. I sent Eileen a video of Peter Singh who is the first Sikh Elvis impersonator. I just thought it would be so cool. It started out as a joke and then it became real. I just liked it so much.

Have you had any negative feedback at all?

We’ve had some feedback from people who talk about, “You have a guy with a turban and a gun…” and if we are reinforcing the stereotype of guys in turbans with guns. All Sikhs are defensive warriors, but you cannot bring a knife to a gunfight, especially if the bad guys are using bazookas, because you are just ensuring your own destruction. He is a reluctant warrior but he is standing up for his rights. He's protecting education for girls in a part of the world where they don’t have a voice, giving them a voice. It’s really important to realize he’s a real warrior. He is using the required tools because he’s really beating the bad guys.  

Some people will ask why we manifest the stereotype, and I say it’s time for us to stop pandering to other people’s expectations of us that we shouldn’t be people who will carry weapons. This allows kids to really say that they can serve in the military, “I have the right to stand up for what’s right and just .” fight for it and not be a second class citizen.  

If we accept the media sterotypes, then we shouldn’t have these images. Then we are self imposing someone else's stereotype on ourselves. That’s the worst, if we become scared of standing out, than they’ve won before we’ve begun to fight. So we’re not going to stop there. He’s a super hero and he’s properly trained and sanctioned by Interpol etc. . He’s a cross between the James Bond & Jason Bourne characters. Meet Deep Singh a badass warrior and yet a gentle good hearted man who treats kids well. Think about that.   

The next character will be his cousin Gurpreet who’s a super scientist who makes all the weapons for him. She is also a ninja master in her own right. We’re trying to break the stereotypes. She’s an empowered woman, educated, sophisticated warrior.

Do you have any insider items that you give to artists like Bhagat Singh, Pen-Tacular-Artist, Vishavjit Singh with SikhToons etc. who are doing special covers for you?

They were all excited to work with us. Yes we will, it will be coming, we don’t want to let the secret out of the bag. There will be something for super fans. If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret. That’s why I talked about the whole background, if people pay attention to our comics, somewhere in the background will be the clues to go to the secret website. That’s the hint I’ll give you.

There’s a secret website?

He’s a secret agent… you gotta have secrets and secret websites.

Indeed.

Your kickstarter originally started as a goal of $5,000, it’s now over $17,000. Did you expect that kind of response?

Wow, no we were floored. Actually the first day we got so excited because in the first 4 hours we hit $3,000 and we were completely, completely overwhelmed with the response because that first $3,000 came out of 20 people. We thought we were gonna get people giving the token support of $1. No $1 or $7, it was all people giving $200 and up. We had people signing up and saying “How do we sign up for two of these?” We were blown away. It was a great validation that we are on the right track.  

Come to http://bit.ly/SuperSikh and help us reach 20K and make all four comics in one go.

 


I’m sure as time goes on you’ll see even more how it’s on the right track.

Well, we hope so. We are trying to get to a lot of people. Neither Eileen nor myself are taking any money from this. This is a SEVA (Sikh concept of Selfless Service). The more money we raise, the more comics we will print, the more we’ll give away. I’ve been working with different people to get it translated into Portuguese, into Spanish. I’m looking into Mandarin and French. Once we get the physical comics, then we’ll work on the digital version which I think will allow for a lot more expansion.

We originally thought we would go to kickstarter for every one of the comics. This allows us to not have to go back as much. It’s a very democratic process. Everybody gives what they can and what they want to and they’ll be able to get all kinds of perks.

We really debated a lot about if this should be digital or paper. I always go back to that one thing that in my one box of stuff I still have comics from my childhood. These become even more important in an age when you have so much digital stuff. It all goes past your eyes too quick, you never remember. So I wanted to give something that will become a keepsake. Hopefully kids will cherish it. Of course there are collectors, so we also have a soapstone figurine, we’re gonna have stickers, t-shirts, we’re hoping some of these items will become collectors items. We are hoping to get to make a figure that can move around, a real manipulable toy.

At this point we’re just thrilled that people are supporting us at this level. I think this is where all the hard work in creating this story will come out. We want people to participate, we want this to become a collective interactive thing between our audience and us. We don’t want to just be us doing it.

You have spent years making this and it’s like a non-profit comic. I’m not sure how many comic book creators do not take any money from their work.

I think it’s because we’re blessed that we have regular work. This is something we’re doing on the side, this is not our bread and butter. If we were artists it would be different but we’re artists in another way, we really think of the kids and the joy we bring. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video we have of the kids when we ask them, “Do you want to see a Sikh superhero?” and their faces just lit up beaming. That’s what we do it for.

If I can stop one kid from being bullied because they developed the courage to be able to stand up for themselves I think we’ve won.

Supreet & Super Sikh

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