One Provo native is putting the “hero” back in superheroes.
Illustrator and graphic novelist Evan Michael Carpenter is the creator of the comic book series “The Black Sari,” which follows a victim-turned-vigilante in India who rescues sex-trafficked girls.
The backstory of Meena, the Black Sari’s alter ego, is a brutal one: Kidnapped as a child, she grows up in a brothel.
To tackle such problems, you need someone obsessive, impatient, wild and probably a little mean. The Black Sari delivers. She’s the most angry, kick-and-punch yet selfless hero to come along in a while. But is she actually going to accomplish something?
“She’ll try. And a lot of good can come from that,” Carpenter said.
Meena takes her idea for The Black Sari from the superhero comics she read as a child. Her father schooled her in religious morality tales, and her favorite hero is “The Fakir,” a man who travels on a floating orb and is immune to pain.
The vigilante’s mentor in the series is a cranky Buddhist monk, and she studies multiple Eastern fighting techniques and the ancient Tibetan skill of lung-gom: air running. But once she dons the Black Sari mask, a different reality awaits her.
“As far as how it really pans out, she realizes it’s not as clear-cut as in the comics she read growing up,” Carpenter said. “But this isn't a tragedy. It's a superhero story.”
While Meena is a long way off from the millionaire and billionaire comic book superhero alter egos that fans are used to, her sense of justice for right gives her a power that can be more powerful than the gadgets and toys of traditional superheroes.
“She tries when nobody else will,” Carpenter said of his creation. “She’s on a journey and she just keeps doing things, risky things, and she keeps making it out alive. So the things get bigger and bigger.”
There have been many superheroes written as critiques of superheroes, including “Watchmen,” which questioned if superpowered protectors that enforce their own rules are essentially fascists. In “The LEGO Batman Movie,” Barbara Gordon gave an anti-Batman speech stating, “We don’t need an unsupervised adult man karate chopping poor people in a Halloween costume.”
“I laughed so hard at that part in the movie because even though I love Batman, I had been saying the same thing for years.” Carpenter said. “Maybe that’s why I wrote Meena to be the anti-billionaire playboy.”
“The Black Sari” has been a longtime labor of love for Carpenter, who studied anthropology, researched his thesis in India and has spent 20 years making documentaries — many of them focused on social issues.
“I did two short films in India about these different women,” Carpenter told the Deseret News. “One was about an HIV-positive widow. In a culture where AIDS is a sign of sin and highly stigmatized, this lady went on a popular talk show and eviscerated the audience for how she’d been treated. By the end they’re crying and cheering for her. Everyone told her not to do it. But she risked it. And from there she grew in popularity and really made an impact over time.”
Carpenter has worked on this series for years and is now crowdfunding the comic books, which are based on an idea big studios would never touch. It’s not a smooth path ahead, so when he says “the important thing is to try,” I know I can believe him.
In real life, accomplishing something like reducing crime or stopping trafficking is like that, by which I mean slow or impossible.
“Well, it doesn’t happen in a few minutes. You can’t stop the nuke and go home,” Carpenter said. “It’s the slow, methodical commitment to try and challenge something that’s much bigger than you. In real life, people have been trying to ‘solve’ trafficking for years. But now we have as many or more slaves on the planet than ever.”
Meena’s story is told in three books. The first one is available for a limited time on Kickstarter.
Jared Whitley is an award-winning writer who comments on the intersections of politics and culture. Reach him on Twitter @whitleypedia — or don't, since Twitter is stupid.