Geek culture, once an outcast’s refuge from mass culture, has become mainstream. An intense appreciation of films, television series, comic books and video games will make one quicker to befriend than shun, as growing fandoms in Kazakhstan are finding out.
The New York Comicon started the ball rolling in 1964 for multi-day, commercially-driven events for comic book fans that now fill convention centres worldwide and feature cosplay, panel discussions and new content releases. The first Comic Con in Central Asia was no exception, gathering more than 53,000 fans of the vast comic book universe in Nur-Sultan May 31-June 2 who navigated the stands of Cartoon Network, HBO, Marvel Studios, Nickelodeon, Sony Sci-Fi and Wargaming to rub shoulders with household names of Kazakhstan’s creative industry, including Ne Prosto Orchestra, Ninety One, Tengri Comics and Yuframe.
(Photo top left: Astana Comic Con. Photo credit Astana Comic Con press service.)
“Comic conventions are a real treat for geeks. It is like a concert of your favourite artist or the release of a long-awaited film. They give fans a whirlwind of unforgettable emotions and impressions without parallel. It is also very important to give people more opportunities to find people with shared interests and make new friends. In this regard, a comic convention is the best place to unite all kinds of geeks,” Geek Market co-founder Alikhan Kusnutdinov told EdgeKz.
Geek Market organised last year’s Geek Con and was a partner in this year’s Comic Con.
“Since Geek Con was the first major comic convention in Kazakhstan, it gave a major boost to the development of Kazakhstan’s geek culture and led to the initiative of holding Comic Con under the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) Akimat (city administration),” said Kusnutdinov. “Compared to last year, we saw that many more children are engaging with amateur cosplay, comic books and illustrations.”
With comic conventions becoming an annual event in Kazakhstan, Kusnutdinov hopes to invite more Hollywood stars, major film studios and media industry giants next year, given the incredible reception of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” actor Pilu Asbæk at this year’s Comic Con that caused the official website to briefly crash.
“Despite the fact that it is still developing in Kazakhstan, comic book culture has reached many people. I am sure that there is a Batman or Spider-Man figurine in almost every household,” film director, producer and writer Aidiye Aidarbekov told EdgeKz.
The demand for geek-themed products and services in the country has grown with the emergence of new films, television series, comic books and video games. People want Boris Klimov’s three-dimensional cardboard models to depict Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” treehouse, Ne Prosto Orchestra’s concert programmes to include the iconic “Game of Thrones” theme song and Geek Market’s merchandise to feature the latest Netflix hit.
“There are fandoms on which geek culture was born and bred, such as Marvel Studios, DC Comics, Star Wars and Harry Potter, among others, that have not lost their relevance and have even seen a sharp rise in popularity recently – this is very noticeable in our shop sales,” said Kusnutdinov. “Still, there are new phenomena every year that win the hearts of millions. For example, the television series ‘Stranger Things’, ‘Rick and Morty’ and ‘Riverdale’ [only] appeared recently but have managed to win universal adoration.”
Although geek culture has typically been a white, male-dominated space, the rise of more diverse casts, characters and creators has allowed for better representation of a diverse audience. Notably, Nomad Stunts’ performance in Disney’s live action remake of “Mulan” will reach Kazakh and global audiences March 27.
“Since geek culture in Kazakhstan is arguably at the stage of inception, this problem (of misogyny) has not yet surfaced in our community. In my experience, there are as many girls among geeks in Kazakhstan as there are guys,” said Kusnutdinov.
A comic convention in the country may gather more than 60 cosplayers, approximately 80 percent of whom are women, who come to perform, socialise and compete for cash prizes. It is hard to miss cosplayers like Tais Tukanova, who created her signature Wonder Woman costume with EVA foam, paint, varnish and leather.
“My mother and I made my first costume for an event in 2010, where I cosplayed my favourite character from a very cute anime who I was similar to in character and appearance. It turned out pretty cool, so I continued. The important thing was that I found a bunch of friends. For an introverted teenager, this was very important,” she told EdgeKz.
Tengri Comic’s “Ermek Batyr” and its spin-off series “Brothers” also reached an international audience after their release on Amazon’s digital comics distribution platform ComiXology.
“As a director, I have an immense interest in adapting comics to film and hope to do so with Tengri Comics (in the near future),” said Aidarbekov on collaborating with its creators Bekzat Murzakhmetov and Madibek Musabekov. “We have a rich culture with many deep and fascinating myths and legends. This is our legacy and I believe that we can best convey and show it to the whole world with comics.”
As “a visual art with elements of storytelling,” comics allow Aidarbekov, Murzakhmetov and Musabekov to show, not simply tell, Kazakh folk tales to readers of all ages.
“A child may not be able to read yet, but just by looking at the pictures, will be able to partially understand the meaning that the author wanted to convey. And, of course, comics are colourful and beautiful,” he added.
If Marvel Studio’s “Avengers” reached the “End Game” stage this year, things are only getting started for Tengri Comics’ comic book universe, which will see more genres, timelines and crossovers of “Ermek Batyr,” “Golden Warrior” and its spin-off series, “Tomiris.” The creators conduct archival research and consult with historians and aksakals (community elders) to ground their fantastical characters and plot “in truth and reality so that readers can delve deeper into the story and its atmosphere,” noted Aidarbekov.
“Our comics primarily centre on an original, authentic story,” he said, pointing to global audiences’ hunger for authenticity and the consequent success of Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther.” “Nowadays, with globalisation and instantaneous access to information, it is difficult to find something truly interesting and unique. Our comics and culture are not familiar to the general public and, therefore, appear interesting and novel.”
The trailblazers of Kazakhstan’s creative industry are young and resourceful. Kazakh readers may now see themselves in superheroes in Tengri Comics’ Kickstarter-crowdfunded comic books that are sold at Geek Market stores run by a Nazarbayev University student. Yet, Kazakh comic books could reach wider audiences nationally “with state support under the Ruhani Zhangyru (Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity) programme and the article ‘Seven Facets of the Great Steppe’,” notes Aidarbekov, one of the country’s 100 New Faces.
“When I presented the comics of our publishing house in the United States and saw U.S. readers’ reactions, including how
enthusiastically they read, carefully considering each page, not simply flipping through but lingering at some points, I was convinced that we were on the right track. After all, we do not want to create a product for one-off consumption. We want our work to make us think and be instructive and informative,” he said.
“I believe that the situation will soon change for the better,” he added. “After all, we, ourselves, are changing it.”