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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Middle Eastern hero Antar the Black Knight to take the world by storm

Dubai-based film producer Michelle Nickelson seems to have finally gathered the perfect creative team to bring the project to life.

An illustration Antar the Black Knight by DC Comics artist Eric Battle. Courtesy Mena CineFinance LLC
An illustration Antar the Black Knight by DC Comics artist Eric Battle. Courtesy Mena CineFinance LLC

The Middle East may be about to get its very own version of the Marvel universe if Dubai-based film producer Michelle Nickelson gets her way.

For years, the managing director of Dubai’s Mena CineFinance, which acquires and develops global entertainment projects, has had ambitions to build a multimedia world around the legend of African-Arab historical character Antar the Black Knight. The warrior poet is a familiar figure to most in the Middle East, but remains largely unknown to audiences outside the region.

Also known as Antar bin Shaddad (or Antarah ibn Shaddad), he was born into slavery despite being of noble birth around 525 AD, after his mother, who was an African princess, was taken captive as a spoil of war. The legend goes he eventually won his freedom through bravery on the battlefield.

The Middle East may be about to get its very own version of a Marvel superhero, at least if Dubai-based film producer Michelle Nickelson gets her way.

For years, the MD of Dubai’s MENA Cinefinance, has had ambitions to build a multimedia character called Antar the Black Knight, a warrior poet who takes inspiration from a legend that most in the Middle East will be familiar with but one that remains largely unknown outside the region.

Photo Courtesy:  Cinefinance LLC
Conceptualising Antar the Black Knight. Courtesy MenaCinefinance LLC

Antar has long been revered as one of the greatest figures among ancient Arabic poets.

His work is among the seven “hanging odes” – great works of epic Arabic poetry, which were hung on the curtains of the Kaaba to preserve them in perpetuity in the 8th century. Antar’s life, and in particular his romance with his cousin Abla, itself became the subject of a poetic saga, usually credited to the eighth-century poet Al-Asma’i. He later became the subject of paintings, poems and even a symphony by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1868.

“An Emirati friend had said it would be great if we could see more Middle Eastern heroes, and introduced me to the story of Antar,” Nickelson tells me. “He’s not a traditional western hero, but he definitely has broad appeal.

“He’s mixed race, the son of a princess but born a slave as his mother was kidnapped into slavery. He’s someone who has no idea where he stands in life, and I think a lot of people can relate to that.”

While it is one thing to carry an idea around with you, it’s quite another to make it into a reality. Now, Nickelson seems to have finally gathered the perfect creative team to bring the project to life.

An Antar the Black Knight comic book is currently in production – thanks to a partnership with IDW Publishing – the world’s third biggest comic book publisher after Marvel and DC, home to Transformers and Popeye. A feature film is set to follow.

According to Nickelson, the Middle East Film Festival and Comic Con (MEFCC) played a large part in helping her to find the superhero co-conspirators.

It was there that she met Jeff Gomez, a “transmedia” guru, and the man Walt Disney call upon when they want to maximise revenues from franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Marvel Universe. Put simply, Gomez is the man who makes sure all the spin-off merchandising from a movie is in place – from toys to comics to TV shows.

The other piece in the puzzle was Sohaib Awan – the creator of the Jinnrise comics. His company, Jabal Entertainment, will produce the initial comic for IDW. The trio met when they spoke at the Access industry conference last year at MEFCC.

Awan was also friends with the respected sci-fi and fantasy author Nnedi Okorafor, who was brought on board to write the comic itself.

It was a prescient decision – just as the team was preparing for their panel at last month’s San Diego Comic Con, news broke that Okorafor’s 2010 novel, Who Fears Death? had been picked up by HBO and executive producer George R R Martin as a touted replacement for Game of Thrones when it finishes next year.

DC Comics and Marvel Comics artist Eric Battle rounds out the Middle East superhero production team, and from the drawings we’ve seen, is well on his way to illustrating the comic.

Nickelson admits that she’s excited, and the hype generated for the comic (due out in March), is encouraging.

“It’s appealing to all sorts of people just because it’s something different,” she says. Gomez, meanwhile, has identified another reason for Antar’s broad appeal.

“When Michelle told me about Antar, I recognised some analogies to other characters I’d studied from the region, like Gilgamesh,” he says.

“These characters ... pre-date the various religions that are now dominant in the world, and because of that, you are able to tell stories that unify very large regions, as opposed to individual nations or religious groups. That’s a special and transcendent tool.”

Gomez adds that although he may be the one with the reputation for multimedia all-out assaults, Nickelson already had a clear vision of the kind of comic-then-film approach she wanted to take.

“IDW are doing the comic first of all,” she says. “And the plan is to keep developing it forward into a universe.

“We’re talking to a couple of studios about the movie already, but it’s very early days, and our main initial focus is the comics – they’re kind of like advertising for the film, but people pay you for the advert, not the other way round, so that’s great.”

Awan adds that he hopes to use Antar as an educational tool, getting the character into schools around the world to teach the history of the region, and with talks under way about developing an Antar theme park in the UAE, it looks like Nickelson’s plan to developing an all-consuming Antar brand are going well.

For now, however, all eyes are on the comic and its celebrated author. Okorafor, who is a former winner of awards including the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature (for 2005’s Zahrah) and the Hugo Award for Science Fiction (Binti, 2016) says the story had a special appeal for her.

“The Middle Eastern aspect was really striking for me,” Okorafor says. “My own work often has a lot of African influences in it, so that was a big draw, and Antar himself was half Middle-Eastern and half Ethiopian. That combination just seemed really dynamic to me.

“I love the fact it’s a real story and I have the opportunity to dig into this culture and these stories and build a really dynamic character around it.”

The team is now set to continue building the hype in advance of the comic book’s 2018 launch.

Their next big event will be at October’s New York Comic Con, and they will also be at the Emirates Literature Festival in March, where Okorafor is scheduled to appear, so they can give the comic one final push before it’s projected official global launch, back where it all began, at the MEFCC in Dubai.

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