25  05  2009


The Comic Book Fever

If the cradle of the 9th Art is Belgium, France - the cradle of cultural exception - is as good as its neighbour. The country of adoption of comic books counts as many styles and creators, recurrently celebrated by a fair number of events. Some have become major institutions: the international festival of Angoulême celebrates its 35th episode this year.

Versions of novels, thrillers, fantasy, educational works, political satire… All categories are there to allow anyone to access a world of bubbles without being qualified as immature… Comic books seem to have come out for good from the underlying childishness that readers from other countries confer to them, still failing to appreciate them. The children who grew up with fanzines have grown and now form a multitude of comic book lovers that make the 9th art prosper. It has never been so thriving. To the extent that its emblematic characters, Asterix and Obelix, were turned twice into a film. As for Tintin, the first episode of a trilogy directed by Steven Spielberg will be released in 2001…

At the cinema, for that matter, there seems to be a tendency to revive this art in the Middle-East. We note a new generation of Mediterranean artists that dip their nibs in fresh and pertinent ink to originate some peculiar visions of the world. Waltz with Bachir by Ari Folman conquered the Western public. It has just won an Oscar for best documentary scenario and was released as a graphic novel. Apart from the controversies resting on a unilateral view of the Sabra and Chatila massacres, there’s general agreement on the fact that this new graphic art questions the political and social order in an original and appealing way. So is the comic book, classed mainly as “teen literature”, witnessing a new age among our Oriental friends? From the part of the readers, how do they perceive these works that are increasingly overcoming conventions for the urge of expressing their art?

The 9th art: birth or renewal?

Around the Mediterranean, several countries still confine comic books to the simple role of entertainment. The image of childishness is still glued on its cover… Of course: books with drawings are for kids! Arab countries make no exception. The graphic novel is considered a minor art, essentially meant to distract young readers. Or better, it can be used for educational purposes. This doesn’t necessarily promote its progress… Though it may be true that it draws its origins from teen magazines, the caricature - widely used in Beirut and Cairo in particular – is also a renowned ancestor. And it’s precisely in these cities that a new wind is blowing.

The creators, from their part, have figured out that neither the drawing nor the text contained in a strip illustrates the one or the other, but rather complement each other to increasingly seduce adults. Today the trend is set by the graphic novel, and Mediterranean countries are not outdone by this genre. The latter seems to have found masters in this field, who make it increasingly harder to debate on its distinctive features. The original comic book format and the constraints that were once imposed by magazines aren’t suitable anymore. Aimed at adults, generally in black and white, each graphic novel invents its own genesis with each turn of a page. The reading doesn’t only give meaning to the drawing, the one and the other mix to form a visual and narrative architecture that reinvents the meaning of the bookish space.

It’s no accident that such pure freedom is captured to give life to the private emotions suppressed every day. What can be more exciting and puzzling at the same time than a white page? It’s the starting point of any work, the place that gives a poetical sense to subjects that can be sometimes serious. But at what cost? “As long as comics won’t aim at an intelligent public, where the author’s aesthetic choices let themselves be revealed, treating significant subjects that are still taboos – in the face of a press aware of the richness of this art -, no real trend can be set."

The sad saga of the first Arabic graphic novel makes this remark obsolete. Metro, by Magdy El Shafee was elected “best African comic-strip” by the UNESCO in 2006. Shihab, a young engineer from Cairo decides to break into a bank to pay off a debt loaned from corrupt officials. A politician proposes a deal, Shihab hides his loot in the Metro and the case is stifled. But the adventures of Shihab and his friend Mustafa in the steep alleys of a chaotic city, keep the reader in a tension that reflects the real face of the capital, too often portrayed by the media with bewitching exoticism… Form and content tackle displeasing subjects such as the corruption, the social and financial insecurity felt by many Egyptian youths…

The publishing market, which imposes several moral regulations, is not inclined to take the risks involved in this unconventional and much too nonchalant art. The work was published by El Malameh. This young alternative publishing house founded by Mohamed El Sharkawy is renowned among dissident bloggers. Following to an accusation by a lawyer presumably of the Hisbah, Saleh al-Derbashy, it was searched in April 2008. The graphic novel fell under article 178 of the Egyptian penal code that criminalises the printing or distribution of publications that “infringe public decency”. The copies of Metro were confiscated and book shops were summoned to take them off the shelf. The editor – who is not new to experiences of this kind – and the writer both risk prison. “This novel mentions homosexuality. Furthermore, the authors accuse the police by showing that it doesn’t respect people’s rights. Metro is a call for anarchy”, explained the lawyer to the newspaper The National. Whether it’s the only love scene (it takes place under a blanket), or the far too informal tone, any excuse is good to keep the young disenchanted Egyptians from identifying themselves with this fictitious hero whose adventures uncover a truth that should be kept silent… On last 4 April, the author and the editor, supported by several associations, were trialled. The court’s judgement will be pronounced at the release of the report on May 23rd.

Young Lebanese have it easier. War contemporaries invert the trend by portraying a child’s view on a world that exceeds the adults. The works of Zeina Abirached, which recall the universe of Marjani Satrapi, evoke her childhood memories in a city devastated by war, with a newborn sensibility. As for Mazen Kerbaj, his humour is scathing. The innocence of his tone makes you smile tenderly at first, to then turn into a caustic irony that makes you laugh uproariously before chilling you to the bone…

In this case, it’s not the children who learn about adults through a comic. They hold out a mirror against their elders, who become aware of the absurdity of their world through the daily life told by the young.

Still in the Lebanon, we note the creation of Samandal, a specialised magazine focused on publishing comics from all over the world, that suitably deal with social, political and religious subjects. Located in the capital, it aims at becoming a platform for all young Arab speaking creators that have practised their art as mere amateurs up to now. To gain international influence, its publications can be downloaded for free on the internet. Each work is translated in Arabic, French and English with a layout respectful of the work's identity. Its popularity is warranted by its reduced prices, it cannot pretend to live off its commercial products yet. However, due to its reliance on vital public cultural funds and the risk of censorship in some countries, the magazine’s life is still fragile.

With a completely different style, the US seems to reach out to Egypt with Cairo, created by G. Willow Wilson, a young journalist working in both countries. Some clichés are there, like a flying carpet or a water pipe with a hiding jinni that can fulfil three wishes…But it is chiefly a message of hope and peace portrayed through the meeting of a journalist, an Israeli soldier, a young activist and an expat. When will it be translated in Arabic and French?

Another collaboration between the two continents has had great success in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, and will be published in France in the month of June by Raï Média. The 99 was launched in Kuwait by Naïf al-Mutawa. It narrates the adventures of 99 characters that personify the 99 names of Allah. Gathered around Ramzi Razem (a UNESCO psychologist and historian), their mission is to recover the 99 jewels that symbolise the power and wisdom of the civilisation of the Bagdad Caliphate, destroyed by the invasion of the Mongol barbarians in the middle of the 13th century. Far from being a comic book for children with Orientalist clichés, its success rests on a good mix of the committed and powerful values of Islam represented by characters reminding American superheroes coming straight out of a Judaic-Christian imaginary. Though The 99 borrows from the tradition of American comics (the cartoonist, Dan Panosian, comes from New York’s Marvel studios), it doesn’t bask in a longing for Arab cultural identity: it updates and questions Arab cultural globalisation.

All things implied, if we consider the competition running between France and Belgium since the 60’s, or the success of mangas and comics since the 70’s, they certainly don’t leave much space for local initiatives, but their absence wouldn’t have allowed these young talents to emerge. They grew up on the particularities coming from Europe, America and Asia to enrich cultural diversity. This also brings to light the daring and determination of some creators such as Magdy El Shafee, who dedicated 5 years to Metro and for whom we wish all the freedom of expression needed to convey his talent… For a long time!*

Camille Soler -