Eileen Alden has completed a successful Kickstarter for Super Sikh, a kid friendly comics that delivers high actions and an important message about the cultural complexity around post September 11th identity politics. I got a chance to speak with Aiden about this unique project as she closes in on delivering the final issue to backers.
JC: This comic clearly challenges to a post September 11th mindset that demonized Muslims through an exploration of Sikh culture and circumstances. Why create a character like Deep Singh?
Alden: The widespread Islamophobia and hate that emerged after September 11th has had a profound impact on the Sikh community and it hasn’t stopped. Turban-wearing Sikhs are singled out because they are misidentified as Muslims and so both Sikhs and Muslims both are caught in the racist net of Islamophobia. There are constant verbal and physical attacks, and violent hate crimes like the massacre at Oak Creek. Studies show Sikh kids are bullied over three times the national average. Between media stereotypes that depict everyone who wears a turban as a villain, and almost no widespread knowledge of who Sikhs are, the U.S. in particular has been an incredibly hard environment for turbaned Sikhs.
So when my Sikh friend Supreet Singh Manchanda suggested I write about a Sikh protagonist, at first it was unusual and intriguing, so I started running with it and exploring it. But it quickly became clear to both of us that a Sikh protagonist had the potential to help shift perception and educate people. It also could become a positive image for Sikh youth – a story where the character in a turban is actually the hero. So then the question became what kind of story and what kind of hero.
I was inspired by how entertainment can change perception. I thought about the way Blaxploitation and Kung Fu movies of the 70’s shifted perceptions by creating larger than life non-white heroes. And I also thought about how Normal Lear helped educate whites by bringing specific stories and relatable characters of other races right into their living rooms, disarming people with humor. So ultimately what seemed perfect for Super Sikh is that Deep Singh would be this bad-ass hero with an unexpected funny side, where he is also a big Elvis fan. So you can admire his fighting skills and charismatic persona, but he’s also relatable with his quirky taste in music. Deep Singh was very intentionally written as a character who uses his ingenuity, training, technology, and skills, with no magic or superpowers, for two reasons. First, as Sikhs it’s important to us to avoid superstition and to emphasize that every individual has the power to be a hero. Sikhism emphasizes the idea of soldier-saint, that individuals must stand up and truly live their values, uphold justice and protect the innocent – everyone, not just those who happen to be from another planet or get a radioactive spider bite. Second, we didn’t want to lead white readers down a path toward – this is not yet another story of some magic guy with a turban, and there will be no flying carpets, snake charming or mysterious magic incantations.
JC: Your story and characters re-contextualizing the effect of terrorism and clarifying the experience of other Muslims in the Middle East. The shift in emphasis creates opportunity to comments on things like gender, politics, and power. What are your goals in telling this story from this perspective?
Alden: Sikhs consider men and women as equals, so gender was something we wanted to address from the start. Dr. Gurpreet Kaur, Deep’s cousin, is a female scientist who makes all his gadgets. This was a particular choice for two reasons. First, we wanted to see a woman in a STEM role, and second because we want her to step in and take the lead as protagonist in subsequent issues.
Politics and power are themes running throughout the series. In India and Pakistan as well as in the U.S., we show Deep Singh trying to do good wherever he sees injustice, just judging the situation based on the actions a particular villain is taking. But as someone wearing a turban, when he travels to the West he not only faces the challenge of battling villains but also faces bias and racism. So we also show the difficulty he has to actually be a hero and live his values when the very people he is trying to help are discriminating against him.
In fact, we try to draw some subtle and not-so-subtle comparisons to other variations of hate and racism, all perpetuated as a means to oppress and marginalize some group considered “other.” On one page we may show the attempts of a Taliban group trying to take away the rights of women and use fear to seize power in areas of Pakistan, and then a few pages later we may show a parallel with the U.S. religious right-wing attempting to take away the rights of people of color, using fear-mongering to seize power. We think it’s important to bring this type of critique and encourage looking past the stereotypes, to see that people are not good or bad based on a group affiliation, there are only good and bad actors, and villains come in all forms. It’s something we feel is very relevant right now, particularly in today’s political climate.
JC: Every issue of the Super Sikh features information on Sikh culture in various forms. Clearly education is a major touchstone for Super Sikh as a project. What would be one goal for teaching people about Sikh culture that you hope comes through in this project?
Alden: The comic is not propaganda or a Sikhism primer, really the goal is to inform the reader about Sikhism as it relates to our hero’s motivation. Hopefully by showing a modern hero who defends the innocent and is inspired by his Sikh faith, it naturally leads the reader to have a little better understanding. It’s the chance for a reader to see the world through the lens of a Sikh person in the U.S. One single character can’t represent every Sikh’s experience, but certainly for someone who has never met a Sikh, the journey and experiences of our hero Deep Singh can at least be an eye-opener, bringing more awareness and sparking discussion.