In broad historical terms, it hasn’t been that long. Most people reading this article have parents or grandparents who remember a time when there was nothing like the volume of visual mass media there is today. The live TV broadcast is a few decades old. Go back a few more decades and we had war photographs and the likes of Life magazine, but even that’s relatively recent.
The phenomenon of shocking images of the world’s suffering being instantly brought into our homes is relatively new. But has the ubiquity of these images reduced their effectiveness? Have denizens of the more peaceful and prosperous quarters of the world become desensitized to the images of the suffering? (Whether they were ever truly sensitive is another question.)
The Syrian Civil War has been a tough test for this question. It has produced no shortage of shocking, touching images — like that of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy from Aleppo whose image as a shocked and injured victim of Russian air raids captured the world’s attention two years ago.
From a magazine office in Bangladesh, a 25-year-old artist has given us a new way to look at Omran, and at the other images of people suffering in the global south. What if we could see Omran as a laughing boy, reading a book of fairy tales and sporting a cute school bag? What if we could see a bombed-out city as a luscious park with colorful apartment buildings? This is the “challenge” posed by Morshed Mishu, a young cartoonist working for Dhaka’s Unmad magazine. His series of cartoons, dubbed the “Global Happiness Challenge,” has found popularity on social media. He has gained a modest Twitter following and some international media are showing interest. In Bangladesh, Mishu has already become well known, and was recently featured in the Bengali-language Kaler Kantho, one of the country’s most popular newspapers.
Like many Bangladeshis, Mishu is very proud of his nation, which gained independence in 1971 after a short but bloody war separated it from Pakistan. Speaking to IranWire, he called himself a “proud Bangladeshi” and said he has gained much from the patriotism of his family.
“My Father [Abdur Razzaq] is my superhero,” Mishu told me over a WhatsApp chat from his home in Dhaka, “I learned from him that loving your own country is more important than loving anything else. I have always wanted to do something for my beautiful country. My father is a freedom fighter who fought for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. He has done and is still doing a lot for the country. I heard my mother [Nilufar Razzaq, who he calls the Iron Lady] say that she dedicated all her children for the country.”
Born in July 1993 in Dhaka’s Ibrahimpur quarter, Mishu has been drawing cartoons since his childhood. He and his elder brother used to copy the images from comic books after reading them (his brother, Mahin, was much better and taught him a lot, Mishu insists.)
Like many an ambitious Bangladeshi young person, Mishu first tried a career in the military. Like many postcolonial nations, the Bangladeshi military is idealized for its patriotic and competent credentials. Mishu had a brother in the navy and a brother-in-law who had served in the military for what he described as “quite a long time.”
“During my school and college age, I thought joining the army would be the best way to serve my country and even die for it,” Mishu said. “But I got rejected twice and my dream shattered in pieces. I had no other dreams to pursue then and I was so frustrated.”
Mishu spoke of all his other attempts at careers. His pursuit of a degree in computer science and engineering ended in him dropping out early. Still, many in his family continued to support him, including his brother-in-law, Major Ferdous Kaiser Khan, who he calls an “idol” that inspired him to join the military in the first place. “He never gave up on me,” Mishu said.
A Mad Inspiration
After what he calls “successfully failing” in writing (both stories and poems), photography and cinematography, Mishu found his calling in drawing cartoons. In 2012, he joined the satirical magazine Unmad, hailed as one of the best and longest-running in South Asia.
Unmad is Sanskrit for “Mad.” It was founded in 1978 by a group who were hoping it would become an Asian version of the legendary American satire magazine Mad. The American Mad had been founded in 1952 and was the stuff of legend by the 1970s. At its peak, under Al Feldstein, it had a circulation of two million and worldwide renown. Among the founders of Unmad was 19-year-old Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, one of those elegant public intellectuals that the subcontinent seems to just know how to produce. Ashraf went on to get a PhD from the Ivy league University of Pennsylvania and is now better known as an architect and urban historian.
Mishu’s self-styled “guru” at Unmad was the magazine’s editor, Ahsan Habib, who is known affectionately as “Boss” by staff. Mishu, who is now an assistant editor of Unmad, calls him “one of the pioneers of Bangladesh’s Cartoon industry.”
Habib comes from a prominent family of artists and he also first pursued a different career. He holds a MSc degree in geography from the country’s best academic institution, the University of Dhaka, but he ended up editing science fiction magazines and has been running Unmad since the 1980s.
“The miracle happened when Boss gave me the chance to draw in Unmad,” Mishu told IranWire. “Unmad boosted my confidence. So my continuous failure [at everything other than cartoon drawing] and Unmad made me who I am today.”
He talks, too, of the influence Unmad has in the world of cartoons. “[The] interesting fact is, if you make a list of Bangladeshi professional and young cartoonists, you’ll find that 90 percent of that list are from Unmad. He’s also known as the ‘Cartoon Daddy’ of Bangladesh for that reason,” Mishu said.
Mishu’s touching cartoons call on the viewer to see the suffering of the world not as a perennial “other" and a subject of pity or charity — but that these are people like us who happen to be in unfortunate circumstances. The cartoons are all the more touching for the fact that they emanate from the global south.
Mishu is not your habitual token “exceptional success story.” He is the first to note all the talent and institutions that helped get him to where he is today. He lists many influences, including those mentioned above. The “Global Happiness Challenge,” for instance, can be attributed to Anik Khan, Unmad’s executive editor (not the rapper from Queens) who he calls his “mentor for the series.” Anik Khan gave the series its name and wrote the poetry that goes with the cartoons.
Perhaps one of his most touching stories of inspiration is about Arif R. Hossain, who Mishu calls “a very renowned social media activist.” One day Hossain came to his office and gave him an advanced digital drawing device.
“I was surprised,” Mishu told IranWire, and he said he initially refused to accept such a gift. "But then he said to me, 'When other artists in the world are drawing with latest device, how come a Bangladeshi artist is left behind? Take it and draw for the country.””
And that it is what Mishu is doing. “I believe Allah had bigger plans for me and it makes me feel blessed,” said the humble cartoonist from Dhaka, who has already challenged the way we look at our world.