It was in the 1980s, in Beirut, that Arab illustrators began to experiment with publishing comic books for adults. It was also in Beirut that the pivotal comics magazine Samandal was established in 2007, and it was in Beirut where the first major academic body for the study of Arabic comics was opened in the fall of 2014. (See a related article, “Arab Comics: Fit for Academic Exploration.”)
There have been original Arabic comics since 1923, when the magazine Al Awlad put out its first issue in Cairo. But comics magazines were long associated with children. It took the launch of Samandal for comics magazines for adults to spread. Now, there are TokTok, Garage, and El3osba in Egypt; Lab619 in Tunisia; Skefkef in Morocco; Waratha in Algeria; Habka in Libya; and many more.
But Beirut remains at the heart of Arab and Arabic comics production, and the comics community was struck hard on August 4, when an explosion at Beirut’s port killed at least 171 people, injured thousands more, and damaged tens of thousands of homes.
Maamoul Press—a comics-focused publishing house and literary collective based in Detroit, Michigan—was quick to respond. Less than a week after the blast, it brought out Now & Then, an e-book created by young Lebanese artists, edited by Fouad Mezher. All proceeds from sales of the book will go to disaster relief in Lebanon.
The work in Now & Then was created this spring during a digital illustration course at the American University of Beirut. The eighteen artists who contributed to the collection envision a “now” of 2020 and a “then” of 2120.
Showcasing Comics Created by Arabs
This is not a new turn for Maamoul. For the past year and a half, it has been one of the few distributors attempting to extend the reach of comics by Arabs, or in the Arabic language, in the United States. The press is based in Detroit, but its authors are also from elsewhere in the United States, Lebanon and Egypt.
The press was co-founded by artists Aya Krisht and Leila Abdul Razzaq in early 2019. Since then, Maamoul has worked to support young artists and forge new connections between artists and readers. To do that, it has brought independent comics to festivals and conventions around North America.
Worldwide, one of the big challenges with independent comics is distribution. “The thing is, with comics, most of the revenue comes from going to shows,” Krisht said over the phone. “Outside of the three or four big publishers in the U.S., I think most small presses or independent artists make their sales at comic shows.”
“One of the main problems is if you don’t have a proper distribution platform, people don’t see what you’re doing.”Mira Farhat
Co-founder of the Rusumat comics platform and app
Many of the books that Maamoul brings to shows are in English. But the press also has graphic novels in Arabic with accompanying English translations, such as Rawand Issa’s Not From Mars, as well as Deena Mohamed’s award-winning Shubeik Lubeik—an urban fantasy series written in entirely Arabic. (See a related article, “Finding the Words: Arab Writers on Queer and Feminist Expression.”)
“We wondered how it would do, whether it would sell,” Krisht said. “We had it at a show in Chicago called Cake, and it sold really well there.” She added: “There are Arabs in most big cities where these conventions happen.”
Distributing Arabic Comics Online
But since March, when large events began to shut down to avoid spreading Covid-19, comics conventions have been put on hold. At the same time, more readers have shown an interest in digital comics, according to Mira Farhat, co-founder of the Rusumat comics platform and app. “We saw a very high rise in the number of people who subscribed and downloaded the Rusumat app,” Farhat said over the phone. “During that time, there was a boost in people looking at digital material.”
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Farhat said she still values paper books. But digital comics have several advantages for Arab artists. First, they are less expensive to produce. They may get around censorious governments. And they also allow artists to achieve a wider reach. “One of the main problems is if you don’t have a proper distribution platform, people don’t see what you’re doing.”
Rusumat is both a platform and a digital comic and graphic-novel app (available on Apple Store and Google Play) that seeks to bring together comics communities from Arab countries and around the world. Farhat said Rusumat is particularly interested in helping independent comics artists reach wider audiences.
There are bigger companies in the digital space. Comixology, an Amazon.com-owned platform for digital comics worldwide, is one, Farhat said. But it focuses mostly on Western comics and manga. There is also Kotobna, an Egyptian e-book platform. But it treats digital comics like any other book, she said.
“There’s a tradition in comics and in films, where a Western savior comes to Egypt and battles some bad Egyptians and saves some treasures. Or sometimes they become reincarnated as one of the Egyptian gods.”Ahmed Raafat
part of the El3osba team
Rusumat is working to fill in the gap and to help support Arab comics artists. As part of its next phase, Rusumat is raising funds to support two new Libyan digital comics: Where Is My Son by Abdullah Hadi and Selling Dreams, by writer Mohammed Al-Nass and artist Aymen Swissy.
Rewriting Colonial Histories
Another digital project that aims to bring Arabic comics to new audiences is Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage, led by Egyptologists Heba Abd el Gawad and Alice Stevenson. The project aims to re-center Egyptians in the story of archaeology in Egypt and to the discipline’s colonial legacies. To do so, they have partnered with Egyptian “comics superheroes” Deena Mohamed, Mohamed Nasser (known as “Nasser Junior”), and the three-person team at El3osba.
Work on the project started in February 2020. On August 7, the whole group all spoke on an episode of “Everyday Orientalism.”
Deena Mohamed, creator of Shubeik Lubeik and the popular Qahera series, said she was excited to participate. She noted that much of what she’d seen about Egyptology had come less from academic sources than from Western films, particularly The Mummy.
Ahmed Raafat, part of the El3osba team, said he also had a strong memory of The Mummy. “There’s a tradition in comics and in films, where a Western savior comes to Egypt and battles some bad Egyptians and saves some treasures. Or sometimes they become reincarnated as one of the Egyptian gods.” This sort of film and comic series has wide distribution worldwide, Raafat said. “This is how they see us.”
“I thought this would be an opportunity to show a different side of things, that Egyptians can be heroes,” Raafat added. “And that the West wasn’t actually saving us; the West was taking from us.”
The comics produced thus far challenge colonial legacies, but they also speak to contemporary concerns. In one, a cartoon version of Heba Abd El Gawad explains to a cartoon Nasser Junior that Egyptian artifacts are now at museums all around the world. In response, he wraps himself up like a mummy. That way, he too can travel.
John Maher, another member of the Al3osba team, said he was surprised to see so much Egyptology-focused comics. “I was actually surprised. I never thought this was the kind of topic the general public would be interested in.”
The project is still in its early stages. But a number of comics featuring Abd El Gawad and Nasser are available on Twitter. There are plans to bring the comics to schools, cultural events, and museum exhibitions in Egypt and the United Kingdom.