Award-winning graphic novelist Sabba Khan on conveying important themes, messages and emotions through a unique literary medium

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Sabba Khan is an artist, author and architect. A born and bred East Londoner, she trained as an architect at Central Saint Martins and the University of Westminster. Sabba frames her minimal architectural comics through the lived experience of her working-class, second-generation immigrant upbringing.

Sabba’s debut graphic novel The Roles We Play has won the Jhalak Prize 2022 and Broken Frontier’s Break Out Talent 2022. Nominations include the Ignatz prize, Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, British Book Design Awards and AOI’s World Illustrations Awards, as well as being nominated for best books of 2021 in the Guardian. Collaborators for Khan’s comics work include the British Council, SOAS, NHS, London Borough of Newham, JCWI and The British Library.

Hi, Sabba. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you became a graphic novelist and artist?

I trained as an architect at university because at the time it felt like a socially acceptable job worthy thing to study. I was born an artist, though something I couldn’t justify studying, being one of the first in my family to go to higher education. Whilst I was studying architecture I discovered self-publishing fairs and I fell in love with the possibilities of it. The sheer gumption and radical energy of making your own books, not needing to wait for external or industry validation, and the immediacy of it was really addictive. It became my escape out of the rigidity of studying architecture. This is where my illustration, and my visual storytelling practice began. I did this for years, using comics and self-publishing as an escape from the ‘proper’ job and the ‘real world’ I found myself in… until of course it got too much and I needed my escape, my passion, my fever dream to become my daytime reality and my reason to get out of bed. 

How would you describe your illustrative style? And how do you adapt your style for different projects and audiences?

I don’t think I have a ‘style’ as such, it depends more on what is trying to be conveyed in the story. When I’m capturing things that are expressive and full of emotion I try to allow myself to draw free flow, scratchy, layered up to reflect the moment I am trying to capture. Likewise, when I am trying to convey critical pieces of information or data I use contained, neat linework that becomes almost like data visualisation or infographics.

Also, since I never studied visual arts or illustration, I’ve never gone through a process of finding my ‘style’, which I think frees me up to just do what comes innately to me. And since I did study architecture and that was how I was trained, I think this is where my linework ends up quite minimal, constrained and composed.

Which graphic novelists and comic artists inspire you?

A recent read: 

Lizzy Stewart’s Alison graphic novel is brilliant, ranging from passages of delicately written prose to pages of silent wordless comics, it offers brilliant range in just one single book. 

A not so long ago read that has stayed with me: 

Mira Jacob’s Good Talk defies what it means to be a graphic novel – using repeated character motifs, photographs as backdrops and speech bubbles to pull the story along, we are given an insider’s look into some of the conversations she has with her interracial, interfaith family. 

A read that inspired my own book: 

Una’s Becoming Unbecoming was the graphic novel I read that really helped me shape my own story. The combination of lived experience with wider social issues of the time was a brilliant approach to showing how the personal is indeed political. And you can see this in my own book too. 

A timeless read that I come back to time and again: 

Anders Nilson’s The End is one of my favourite graphic novels of all time. Again, genre bending and all about ideas and emotions as opposed to action and sequence. Here the author explores grief, loss and coming to terms with their partner’s parting. It makes me ache.

Your debut graphic novel The Roles We Play explores themes of identity, belonging and memory within the East London Azad Kashmiri Muslim diaspora and tackles issues of race, gender and class. How do you think the form of the graphic novel changes the way readers respond to and are impacted by these topics in comparison to other formats and mediums?

Graphic novels are a real psychological rollercoaster, especially the way I composed The Roles We Play. The words are suggesting something, whilst the visuals are not necessarily simply representing the words, but give their own interpretation to what is being conveyed. This means it is left to the reader to bridge the gap between the words and visuals. Even the question of whether to read the words first then the visuals or one after the other, or how to scan the page? All these micro decisions, plus the reader’s own background, what they want out of the book, how much they are willing to read into each of the pages, all of this makes for a completely unique and immersive experience. That’s why graphic novels are a rollercoaster, they look like a book, but they are consumed much like a film. That’s what makes them brilliant. 

One of my friends once took a picture of a page in my book, sent it to me and told me she had broken down crying once she’d read it. From that I knew she understood what I was trying to convey, so we ended up having a full-blown conversation on just that one excerpt. The excerpt itself spoke about how uncles can become father figures, and how cousins (extended family) can become sisters, and though that sentiment itself doesn’t feel too tear-jerky, what I was really talking about was how the closer relationships (the father and the sister) have broken down, to then make way for extended family to offer a substitute. Some may find that beautiful and empowering, others deeply tragic. It is both, and so much more when you have experienced the dichotomies of extended family living. My book invites the reader to bring their own backstory whilst reading mine. It’s a dialogue on what it means to live as a migrant.

Can you describe the process behind creating your graphic novel, and what parts of the process you particularly enjoyed or found challenging at times?

My process begins with a feeling I want to convey, and that feeling has often been triggered by an event or a series of events.

I will then begin by writing what has happened and what has been felt. This writing will be loose and akin to automatic writing, simply writing all the things that come to mind. I then begin to rearrange the words in a way that would work for a narrative. A very quick thumbnail storyboard accompanies the text. I start to replace some of the text with visuals. I then start to think about the key moments in the story that need to be bigger or have more presence, others that can be short and sharp. The words start to negotiate with the visuals. My drawings at this stage are scrappy, rough, very very loose and indicative. I then take the words that I’m left with and I type them out on an InDesign document, and I roughly map out the panels on the page. This gives me an idea of how much space I have for the drawings and what I need to keep clear for the text boxes. I draw first with a pencil, overlay with a fineliner pen and erase the pencil. I scan in the artwork, place it into the InDesign document and then add colour digitally. For some of my other commissions I have started using Procreate on an iPad – this is purely for efficiency and speed, I still prefer my hand linework over a digital line. 

In terms of my preferences, I work from a state of anxiety. I am anxious throughout the whole process, and only really start to enjoy it toward the latter stages of when I start putting it all together digitally. It’s because it is only at this stage that I can see that the piece is working as a narrative that readers can follow. And yes, I never hit it the first time round, I usually need to make several tweaks and updates to the story in order for it to convey what I want it to.

What advice would you give to aspiring graphic novelists and comic artists?

Graphic novels are a hard medium, they take years to compose and yet get consumed within hours. I think this is where seeing graphic novels akin to films, seeing yourself as the director, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, helps to grapple with the huge undertaking. Take it slow, be the tortoise, not the hare, give yourself the time to make your masterpiece. 

Get funding, build a support network around you, though you may be at the centre of the labour and the production, you will need friends and people whose opinions you trust to help guide you and keep you sane. 

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.