The Eisner Award is one of the comic book genre’s most coveted awards, and has seen itself in the hands of graphic novel legends. Pinnacle novels in the medium like Sandman, Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Saga and Ex Machina to name a few, are among those who have been awarded this prestige.
It’s an award the celebrates the individuals who strive to create work that challenge the form and inspire new ways to innovate while keeping the medium alive. We too should honour and support those same individuals from our own country, who don’t have the privilege of working of a thriving illustration industry, but still aspire to succeed anyway. I’m talking about our very own Malaysians like Reimena Ashel Yee whose stellar digital comic turned graphic novel, The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya, the first Malaysian creator-owned comic book to be nominated for an Eisner Award.
About Reimena Yee
If Reimena Yee wins, she will receive the award for the Best Digital Comic and in doing so, beat out the formidable competition like Bandette by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover; Barrier by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin and Contact High by James F. Wright and Josh Eckert. So, what is this stunning creation that has been nominated in the same ranks of these stunning creators and in other categories, the marvellous works of Marjorie Liu’s Monstress, Emil Ferris’ My Favourite Thing is Monsters and of course the latest and best story arcs of the Marvel and DC comics?
Yee gives us an intricate historical romance set in the Ottoman Empire, that accounts for the cultural richness that permeates every part of the novel. Somewhat of a history buff herself, The Carpet Merchant follows in Yee’s tradition of featuring vibrant cultures in an effort to make them more accessible to the general public, like her Victorian comic, The World in Deeper Inspection.
This is the first step into an immersive fantasy world that is grounded in academic research into the actual history of the period. This is why it’s one of the first fictional comics many readers will come across that has its own supplementary text and bibliography. In an interview with The Beat, that features the best news and talent in comics culture right now, Yee has stated that the heart of her comics is in centering her stories around ordinary people, going through the unique circumstance of being in the 17th century Ottoman empire and this is perhaps what’s so delicious about her work.
History with a Little Bite
Yee’s fascination with history doesn’t just end there though. The graphic novel is a Gaiman-esque period drama of magical realism but even in its most fantastical moments, tell stories that would resonate with many of us. Zeynel is the protagonist of her novel who was meant to be an imam like his family wanted but meets and falls in love with carpet merchant Ayşe. Even though it sounds cliché at first, this isn’t even the crux of the comic. In his middle age, sweet-tempered Zeynel must deal with his unwilling transformation into a vampire (a djinni) in his older years. Even in his vampiric state, Zeynel is conflicted between his transformed urges and his gentle state and in the second volume, must now meet the one responsible for his fate 70 years later – the ancient Roman vampire known as Mora Strigoi who comes seeking forgiveness.
Some may find the introduction of vampirism into the story a little strange and unnerving but that is exactly what sets this comic apart from so many others. Not only is it exceptionally unique for many other stories in the medium (except perhaps the underrated style of magical realism), it’s satirical take on Gothic fiction is a subversion of actual historical events. On her official website, she talks about the inspiration for the comic, which goes back to the origins of the vampire in literature.
The Romantic Orientalist movement was a period that saw the success of the French and English translations of The Arabian Nights, and English poets were inspired to borrow from Eastern folklore to write more ‘exotic’ fiction. This created the long line of literary vampires that according to Reimena Yee, began “from Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, Byron’s The Giaour, and up to Stoker’s Dracula.” And this tradition is explored by Yee in the stellar The Carpet Merchant where she asks, in her own words, “One wonders: who is the real vampire? Is it Dracula, or the Englishman – who took his name, his history, and turned him into a villain?”
Yee tells a story of subversion in The Carpet Merchant and this is actually most present in her characters themselves. There is positive representation in the places characters have needed it the most – the gentle hero, the powerful heroine, the healing power that comes not from medicine but the immense love of memories and storytelling. Love is a large theme in the story as The Carpet Merchant could be described as first and foremost a love story, between a married couple, between family members and for their God as well. In dong so, Yee wants to weave in core themes in Turkish literature like that of gentleness, compassion, endurance and qadar, a night where sins are forgiven and the mercy of God is abundant. With storytelling as diverse as this, how could you resist reading this period saga, that’s only a click away?
The phrase ‘support local artists” has never been more relevant and its time we really showed our support for the web illustrators, graphic novel artists and storytellers in our community. Reimena Yee isn’t the first Malaysian artist to be nominated for an Eisner Award, with Tan Eng Huat’s nomination in 2003 for Best Penciller/Inker for his work on Justice League of America but her nomination is hugely relevant for us. It’s an inspiration for anyone whose lived and loved the graphic novel medium their whole life, a step in the right direction for the rest of us who have longed to create and publish our own works.
Even if Yee does not receive this award, her support from the rest of us should be the same words we give to every other aspiring artist: ‘We want to celebrate creators, we want to celebrate their work. We want to celebrate you.’
An illustrated self-portrait of the author. Source: The Beat.
Head to reimenayee.com to see more of her artwork.