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Kobra Olympus by Bijhan Agha
Kobra Olympus by Bijhan Agha

Kobra Olympus: A Trans Muslim Superhero Comic Pushing Boundaries

Kobra Olympus is a bilingual masterpiece that introduces us to a remarkable trans Muslim superhero. Authored by an autistic American Muslim trans woman and brought to life through the vibrant illustrations of an Indian cis man, this comic breaks barriers and opens up new horizons for readers around the globe. With the Kickstarter campaign in full swing, we had the privilege of sitting down with the talented author to delve deeper into the creation of this extraordinary work.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself for those who don’t know you?

My name is Bijhan Agha. I was born in Seattle, USA, on land belonging to the Duwamish people. My mother’s family was from Denmark, and my father is from Iran.

I always loved science fiction and fantasy as a child. I read comics, watched cartoons, and loved both Star Trek and Star Wars. Even as a very small kid, I would write stories about dinosaurs and invent board games based on my favorite books.

I moved to Uruguay a few years ago to escape the persecution of the United States. As a Muslim who is also queer, I was feeling pressure from queer advocates about being Muslim, from Muslims about being queer, and from Christian right-wingers about being either. Other English speaking countries had very strict immigration laws regarding Americans specifically, but Uruguay was a beautiful country with relaxed immigration laws. Besides which, I already spoke some Spanish.

My partner and I moved here with our cats, and have loved being here ever since! We’ve made lots of friends, and begun lots of fascinating work as artists and creators.

Now I’m working on a Kickstarter for a comic I’ve written, called “Time Wars: the Adventures of Kobra Olympus”, about a trans and Muslim superhero.

What inspired you to create a comic about a trans Muslim superhero?

A common phrase among writers is “write what you know”. If you don’t know anything about being Russian, for example, then you have no business writing about what it’s like to be Russian. Since I am trans and Muslim, it simply made sense that my first superhero should reflect what I most intimately understand about my own life.

It also follows in the steps of the great masters of the comic industry. Stan Lee wrote Spider-Man as a penniless New Yorker with constant girl problems because that’s exactly who he was. When Héctor Germán Oesterheld wrote The Eternaut, he set the comic about an alien invasion in Buenos Aires, because that was his hometown. Certainly the science fiction and fantasy elements are limited only by our imaginations, but by grounding the work in a Human reality, we can say more about what it means to be Human.

Finally, I think it is more than time enough that a queer Muslim character was written by a queer Muslim author. We have had a handful of Muslim superheroes in the past, but their primary authors were white Christian or atheist men. We have had a handful of queer superheroes in the past, but they are overwhelmingly white and implied to be Christian. We have enough queer Muslims in the world, that we deserve one of our own to join the pantheon of modern demigods.


 

How did the collaboration between an Uruguayan studio, an autistic American Muslim trans woman, and an Indian cis man come about?

When I moved to Uruguay, I was immediately struck by the amount of art the country has to offer. While there is certainly some common graffitti, the majority of the city is covered in beautiful murals of pop culture icons and important Uruguayans. Some of the first friends I made were artists, and I wanted to support them.

So I co-founded a studio here, with a handful of friends, called Jamsheed Studios. It’s a zero-profit organization where all the money we collect at Patreon.com/JamsheedStudios is sent to our artists and creators so they can buy the hardware and software they need to create their artwork. Then, once the art is finished, the artist owns everything. The studio does not retain any ownership of the work. Therefore our patrons can be certain that 100% of their donations go toward creator-owned media.

We’re currently working on a video game, and a tabletop RPG, both set in the “Time Wars” universe, where Humans are locked in an eternal war with Vampires, and time travelers from the distant future come back in time to rewrite history.

When I was struck with the inspiration for Kobra Olympus, I wanted to produce it with Jamsheed Studios, but all of our staff artists were busy working on other projects. Therefore, I knew it was time to bring in new talent to join the studio.

I was so happy to find SwapTrap, an Indian commercial illustrator who has been working consistently for years. We connected through a subreddit about art, and we quickly discovered how compatible my vision was with his experience. He had done all kinds of illustrations, like hip hop album covers, and logos for businesses, but he loved the art of midcentury comic book masters, like Jack Kirby and Bill Everett. That was perfect for my vision of the comic.

We worked together on a thick document which outlined all of the inspiration we wanted to draw. I took samples from my comic book collection: how Kirby drew fists, how Harry G Peter drew lips, how Everett drew motion, etc. We used this as our “holy document” to make sure the art stayed consistent throughout the process.

It was so wonderful working with SwapTrap, who is @SwapTrap on Instagram. He is always very professional, but easy to get along with. I never had an issue communicating with him and working out problems with the art. I highly recommend that if you have any illustrations you need doing, you go to him.

Can you tell us more about the main character of the comic and their journey?

Kobra Olympus is, in her heart, an incredibly average girl. She’s sweet, kind, brave, and generous – just like most women in this world. If she was able to be the author of her own life, she would probably spend her career being a web designer, and doing gymnastics as her hobby. But, that’s not the life she’s been given.

Time Travelers from the 161st Century have identified Kobra as being in the unique position of being physically gifted, as well as being perfectly placed in history to make a difference. Therefore a Time Traveler came back to Kobra’s young adulthood and conscripted her into the Time Wars. She was given a secret app on her phone with a million spy functions. Now her phone can also deploy a web of nanites which create a powerful costume around her in the form of a niqab. This way she can take on the role of the superhero Agent Tha and battle the Vampires in her city.

How do you hope this comic will contribute to representation and diversity in the comic book industry?

Conventional wisdom regarding comic book heroes is that they need to be straight white cisgender men, and that if we deviate from that “norm”, we must do it in small increments. A straight BLACK cisgender man? A triumph of diversity. A straight white cisgender WOMAN? Everyone loses their minds.

I want to create a new normal: people will buy comics about anyone. The story isn’t just about a trans Muslim superhero. It’s about a first date. It’s about misunderstandings. It’s about a monster made out of blood. It’s an exciting adventure that everyone can relate to and find enjoyment from.

What challenges did you face during the creation process, considering the intersectionality of the character and the diverse team behind it?

In other projects in the past, I’ve had a lot of issues with getting an artist to successfully draw a character who is very much unlike the characters they’ve drawn in the past. For example, I once worked with an artist who was not very good at drawing fat people, which was a problem for drawing the RPG character Ondi Bedan. Another artist had a hard time drawing people of color – they simply came out looking like white people with brown skin.

But with SwapTrap, we had none of those issues. He’s been working on drawing characters for all kinds of commercial purposes for so long, that he had mastered every issue I had encountered in the past. He can draw people of every shape and size, race and gender – I mean, he even drew an amazing gelatinous monster.

I think the thing that I did best to make the project work was use lots of reference photos. I scoured the internet for different clothing, body types, facial structures, and made lots of notes. I tried to do everything I could to make SwapTrap’s work easier for him. He deserves a work environment where he can focus on the artwork, and I’ve made as many of the creative decisions as possible.

How do you think readers will connect with the story and the characters?

The beginning of the comic is about a first date which is going really well, which is then badly interrupted. Then Kobra has to go on a death-defying adventure.

I think this is really relatable. While few people go on death-defying adventures, I think everyone has been having something really wonderful happen to them, only to be interrupted by something upsetting.

In addition, I think Kobra is a really genuine and fun character that people will enjoy. Our favorite characters from fiction are like old friends, whose lives become a part of our own. In my opinion, Kobra is ready to be friends with the world, show people her humanity, and go on wonderful adventures with everyone.

What message or themes do you aim to convey through this comic?

Issue #1 is a fun little adventure with a sweet romantic story and a big bad monster to fight. The only message I want to convey with this first chapter is that Kobra is a fun and relatable character whose adventures will bring a smile to your face.

If this Kickstarter is successful, we have five more issues of comics planned out. From here, they will get more explicitly political. We will introduce more characters, each representing a different way of life or philosophical perspective, and have them interact with Kobra in ways which will challenge her view of the world.

Ultimately, I want the Kobra Olympus comics to be about a normal girl who just happens to be trans and Muslim, who has to face a world full of adversity, with the help of friends from every walk of life.

Could you share some insights into the artistic style and illustrations used in the comic?

Personally, I have always loved the comics of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The artistic style was bold, crisp, and evocative. I didn’t want to use a more contemporary artistic style, which is often overloaded with lines and grit. I also didn’t want the characters and settings to be lost in meaningless details.

When making the style guide for SwapTrap, I took a lot of examples from my own comic collection. In particular I sampled mostly from Bill Everett’s “Namor the Submariner”, Jack Kirby’s work on “The Fantastic Four”, and Harry G. Peter’s work on “Wonder Woman”, all from around mid century. This was an era when fine details made by the pen could be turned into shapeless smudges through the printing process. Therefore the art was made of strong, thick black lines and striking block colors. While we were not technologically limited in that same way, we wanted to act as though we were to create a more classic look.

SwapTrap was already intimately familiar with the work of Jack Kirby, which was one of the reasons I wanted to work with him. I had a great time sharing with him what I had learned from the other artists, especially Harry G. Peter whose work had a strong influence on the way Jack Kirby drew women.

In my opinion, the comic looks entirely unlike its contemporaries. While most comics of today are focused on big splash panels with tons of detail, we wanted the artwork to tell a story first and foremost. The characters are expressive, the action is clear, and the story moves along at a brisk pace.

In what ways does the comic explore the experiences of being an autistic American Muslim trans woman?

In the first few pages of Issue #1, Kobra is having a wonderful date with a woman named Dorothy, but then Dorothy says something which makes Kobra think that Dorothy doesn’t know that Kobra is trans. This sends Kobra into a tailspin, where she tries to make sense of things in her head while still holding a conversation.

This is something that has happened to me many times. Someone will say something that takes me totally off-guard, and I have to continue having the conversation while my mind is doing interpersonal calculus. Whether it’s about religion, gender, sexuality, or my autism, there will be times where inside I’m doing backflips, but on the outside I have to just keep calm and act like nothing happened.

If we get a chance to make more comics, I want to continue this tradition. Each comic would include a situation which is deeply rooted in my experiences as an autistic person with an unusual gender and uncommon religion (in my country, anyway).

What role does cultural and religious identity play in the comic’s narrative?

Kobra is motivated strongly by the ethical beliefs of Islam. She doesn’t believe her own future belongs to only her. She needs to share her abilities with the world, and that means sacrificing some control over how her life plays out. Like I’ve said before, she would be happy to just be a web designer during the day and a gymnast in her spare time. But Islam teaches us that everything God gives us, we must use to further the glory of His kingdom. For Kobra, that means using her physical and mental gifts to fight for a better future.

How important is it to address social issues and raise awareness through the medium of comic books?

Literature, both graphic and textual, is the most punk rock medium we have available to us. Punk is the language of the disenfranchised, those forgotten by society. In punk philosophy, art doesn’t belong to the powerful. Instead, we should democratize art by supporting creators who are working without the support of institutions. That’s why punk music is stripped-down. It’s made without intricate knowledge of complex techniques, and without sophisticated technology, so that it can more freely express the wisdom of the streets. In this way, I would personally consider most hip hop to be under the punk umbrella.

Now I say literature is punk, because it costs nothing to make, except your own time. I didn’t need to buy any technology or learn any sophisticated technology to draw stick figures in boxes. SawpTrap had already invested in an art station for his job, and didn’t need to buy anything new to make the illustrations.

If we wanted to make this same story into a film, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. We would need actors, sets, costumes, cameras, special effects – even food for all the workers and insurance for the stunt performers. Cinema isn’t the medium of the working person. Cinema is the realm of the bourgeoisie.

But with comics, we can tell the exact same story, with beautiful illustrations, for next to nothing. That means we don’t need to worry about studio interference, producers wanting things to be “palatable” for the “average” reader. We can tell the story we want to tell, exactly the way we want to tell it, and deliver it directly to you, the non-average reader.

However, we can only succeed with your help, so please remember to search for “Kobra Olympus” on Kickstarter.com

Can you tell us about the Kickstarter campaign and the support you’ve received so far?

This Kickstarter campaign is specifically to print Issue #1. It’s already written and illustrated, and we’ve even done a test printing of it to make sure it came out correctly. Now we’re just raising funds to make the printing happen!

The test run provided us with some absolutely beautiful comics. The paper is thick and sturdy, the inks are rich and beautiful, and the cover is coated to protect it from the elements. The pages were perfectly cut.

For $2 USD, backers can get a digital version of the comic. For $6, you can get a physical version shipped anywhere in the world! From there you can get more and more comics for a lower and lower price.

The biggest reward is at $100 USD, which means you not only get two comics, but also one of the rough draft pages I drew for the comic, shipped to your home. That way you can have a piece of comics history to keep forever!

The support has been wonderful! We are already on track to meet our goal, and if we surpass it we’d like to start a sub-project making Kobra Olympus posters to send to everyone!

You can either search for “Kobra Olympus” on Kickstarter.com, or follow this link:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jamsheedstudios/kobra-olympus-issue-1-battle-of-the-blood-golem-0

How can readers access the 13-page preview of the comic? What can they expect from it?

The preview of the comic is available on the Kickstarter page, immediately below the video. It shows a picture of the comic with a blue arrow pointing toward it and it says “Click Here”. Just click it, and the PDF will download!

It is the exact artwork and story that will be in the comic, we’ve just left out the climax so that you can still be surprised by the ending when you get the comic! It starts with a date between Kobra Olympus and Dorothy Diamond, which is unpleasantly interrupted by a message from the future. Kobra has to cut the date short to go on an adventure which will involve a creature which can only be called a Blood Golem.

What are your hopes and goals for the future of the comic, both in terms of its reach and impact?

More than anything, I want the opportunity to continue telling Kobra’s story for five more issues. I would love to have Kobra Olympus’s adventures fall into the hands of young people everywhere, and make common the idea that queer Muslims are not only normal, but heroic. There are queer Muslims all over the world who need to know that they’re not only okay, but amazing. If I could have a hand in helping them see that, I would be able to be very proud of myself.

Are there any other projects or ideas you’re currently working on that you’d like to share with your audience?

At Patreon.com/JamsheedStudios we are working on several big projects, all also set in the Time Wars universe, just like Kobra Olympus.

Time Wars: Time Corps is a tabletop RPG where you take on the role of a time traveler, working together to go on missions to the deep past to change the future. The 1st Edition is currently available for free on Itch.io (https://jamsheedstudios.itch.io/time-wars-time-corps). We are working hard on a 2nd Edition, which will have beautiful artwork by staff artist Asmoot.

Time Wars: Infinity Runners is an endless runner video game which is in a late stage of development. The game has been programmed and is available to be played by Producer-level Patrons. Right now we’re working on new sprites by artist Ceci Foti, as well as expanding the number of playable eras.

To keep up with all news regarding our studio, pledge just $1 USD to our Patreon. For $10 or more, you’ll also get early access to our work, like demos of the video game, rough drafts of the 2nd edition RPG, and more.

In a game-changing interview, Bijhan Agha revealed the story behind Kobra Olympus, an extraordinary comic series. This groundbreaking work, created by Bijhan, an autistic American Muslim trans woman, challenges norms and embraces diversity.

With Kobra Olympus, Bijhan aims to break barriers in the comic book industry and empower marginalized communities. Through her collaboration with talented artists and studios, she has brought to life a visually stunning and authentic representation of a trans Muslim superhero’s journey.

We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to Bijhan Agha for her insightful interview and sharing her remarkable journey with us. Thank you, Bijhan Agha, for your invaluable contribution.

Kickstarter:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jamsheedstudios/kobra-olympus-issue-1-battle-of-the-blood-golem-0

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