Written by Syjil Ashraf
On August 24th, our friends at Rosarium Publishing released a wonderfully illustrated comic called The Little Black Fish by Bizhan Khodabandeh. Bizhan, an international and national award-winning comic book artist and writer out of Richmond, sat down with me on Skype to talk about his adaptation of an adaption of a popular Persian children’s folktale.
The original was written by Samad Behrangi, an Iranian teacher, writer, activist, and social critic who was found drowned in 1968 at the age of 29. Due to his relationships with the leftist movement, many believe he was assassinated by the Shah’s intelligence agents. The Little Black Fish was published a year after Behrangi’s death and went on to be printed all over the world in several languages, winning many awards. His story is a clear lesson on political dissent and questioning authority, something that Bizhan very much believes in.
Raised by an immigrant Iranian father and a German-Scottish mother from West Virginia, Bizhan was raised agnostic and never really discussed Iran’s politics with his father. Once he started becoming more politically involved, taking part in the anti-war movement as a protester and graphic designer after the USA went to war with Afghanistan and then Iraq, his father began to speak to him about the leftist movement during the Iranian revolution. It was then that he told Bizhan the story of the Little Black Fish as well as Sarmad Behrangi.
Since Bizhan wasn’t entirely fluent in Farsi and couldn’t read the language, he had his uncle translate it for him and based his timing and pacing for the comic book on an English translation he owned.
“When I went through the text, I would do little brackets to break up where I saw a panel would go,” Bizhan said, adding that some panels might be done of an entire paragraph while others would be of a single sentence.
As with all adaptations, he did have to make some changes so that the story would flow in a comic book medium and also serve modern audiences. Whereas the gender of the Little Black Fish has changed throughout different adaptations over the years, Bizhan made a very conscious decision to have his main character be female due lack of stories with strong women. Other changes included nixing an outdated reference to the 1969 moon landing, as well as a change from the original story in which a lizard makes the Little Black Fish a dagger.
“We have all these characters whose own natural abilities kind of push the story forward, and then all of a sudden you have this lizard who’s like hand-making daggers and that seemed like a weird shift in the dynamic of the story,” Bizhan said. Doing some research on the kinds of lizards that exist in Iran, he came upon a horned lizard that became the basis for his version of the character, which gives its own horn to the Little Black Fish instead of making her one.
Bizhan made a very conscious decision to have his main character be female due lack of stories with strong women.
“There’s something kind of beautiful about that lizard giving a part of itself to help the Black Fish’s journey, something both poetic and metaphorical about that interaction,” he added.
Making these changes wasn’t something done lightly, and Bizhan was nervous about how they would be received, particularly by Iranian readers familiar with the story as an important historical artifact of their culture.
“That was a very scary thing for me. I was worried that people who were die-hard fans of the book that read it when in the 70s and really hold it up on a pedestal… would be upet that I’d make those changes, but thankfully they weren’t,” he said.
Bizhan’s artistic influences often change, he said, and he prefers to choose what’s appropriate to the project rather than have artists who influence him at a more general level.
“I don’t like sticking to one way of approaching what I like to call ‘visual problem-solving,’ because it gets really boring for me,” he shared.
Artwork for The Little Black Fish was largely inspired by Bijan Jazani, an Iranian artist and activist and leader in the leftist movement in Iran. Jazani’s isolated shapes, similar to stained-glass windows, are echoed in the illustrations of the book.
“For me, it was almost like being able to see the retelling of the story from [Jazani’s] eyes,” he said.
Like many other radical children’s books, such as Dr. Suess’s, The Butter Battle Book, Bizhan acknowledges that while parents might understand the underlying themes of his book, children might not necessarily get it. However, he still hopes that his latest brain child, which he began working on around the same time his human child was born seven years ago, will influence their outlook.
“Sometimes when kids show dissent against me, it drives me nuts, but at the same time, as somebody who loves to dissent themselves, I appreciate that they’re questioning my authority… that’s the only way that you can learn something or start to shape your own opinion about the world that’s actually truly yours and not somebody else’s,” said Bizhan. “I only hope that my daughter, when she grows up, that she disagrees with me and becomes more radical than I and considers me to be intolerant in these kinds of things as she gets older and causes the world to progress.”
Bizhan, a silver medal awardee for comics and cartooning from the Society of Illustrators, is a full-time advertising professor at VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture and freelances under the name Mended Arrow. He also illustrates The Little Red Fish, a comic written by James Moffitt and inspired by the tale of The Little Black Fish and based on the Iranian revolution.