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New wave of comic books flourishes in Egypt

New books and magazines have revitalised the comic book scene in Egypt this year

Menna Taher, Monday 24 Oct 2011
comics
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For the last few years, the comic scene in Egypt has been static, but a recent upsurge in publications has changed that. A vast number of new comic books and magazines like TokTok, El-Doshma and Autostrade have been released this year, satirising social and political issues.

Although it might seem that the eruption of the revolution is the cause behind this movement, in fact, most of the publications were planned last year.

“The movement is part of the brimming revolutionary energy that started over the past few years and lead to the final blow on January 25,” said Magdy El-Shafei, the founder of El-Doshma, a comic magazine that is supported by the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, which fights for human rights.  El-Doshma, according to El-Shafei, is a word that the comic book writers thought meant a rock, yet in reality means a war shelter that contains weapons.

“There was already a parallel culture to the mainstream and different strains of thoughts that were seeking change,” he continued “so it is not strange that many comic books are coming out now.”

The first issue of El-Doshma was written last year, but has not yet been published. However, after the eruption of the revolution and the major political changes in the country, it seemed outdated, and another issue was created, entitled El-Doshma 2.

The bi-monthly magazine’s slogan is “Know Your Rights”, and it concentrates on political issues, aiming to raise awareness. The magazine makes it a point to use simple language that can be understood by anyone. Each story is introduced by an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The theme of out next issue is ‘I too, am a human being’,” added El-Shafei.

“You can’t address society without showing its real picture,” said El-Shafei, commenting on the importance of political satire in a society. El-Shafei also emphasised is that the comic artists who are included are not all from Cairo, so the comic does not reflect a centralised worldview.

El-Shafei has experience in this field, as he published Metro, the first graphic novel in Egypt, which was later censored because of its degree of political criticism. The Hisham Mubarak Law Centre defended his case in court, but El-Shafei was landed with a LE 5,000 fine.

For El-Shafei, one of the best comic magazines that have come out recently is TokTok, which has already gained a following among readers.

TokTok, which is named after the small vehicles used as transportation in Egyptian alleys, is in fact perhaps one of the most creative and playful experiments in this field at the moment. It has received international recognition, winning the second prize for the best independent comic magazine in the International Festival of Comics of Algeria (FIBDA).

The magazine was established by a number of art school graduates and professional cartoonists in Egyptian newspapers, like El-Shennawy, Hesham Rahma, Tawfik and Andil.

“We wanted to have a comic magazine that is close to the spirit of the Egyptian street, in easy language,” said El-Shennawy.

“The idea of the comic book in Egypt is usually associated with children,” he added, a statement generally agreed upon by the makers of the new wave of comic books, and a notion that they are trying to dispel.

After the third issue, El-Shennawy feels that the spirit and direction of the magazine is starting to become clearer.

Many freelancers, who submit their work to the magazine, emulate American superhero comics, which is not what the creators are looking for.

“After the release of the first two issues, we have added some sections, kept the ones that were popular and got rid of those that seemed to be just taking unnecessary space,” said El-Shennawy.  

One of the main inspirations for TokTok is the comic book Flash, which was largely popular in Egypt in the nineties. In its last issue, TokTok has included a special feature about Flash. 

Flash was highly popular for its depiction of the different types of characters in Egyptian society, something that TokTok is aiming for.

The comic book Khareg El-Saytara (Out of Control) is another publication that includes the works of a large number of artists. It is comprised of short stories that are less satirical and more dramatic. Each short story is introduced by a famous quote.

Rania Amin, who is behind the idea of the book, said that the main point of was to draw comics from the situations of daily life.

The mood of the book is generally different to the other publications, as many stories have taken a bleak and somewhat dark approach. Some took a philosophical or surrealistic direction, while others a more realistic one.

Although the styles and even topics are distinctively different, the stories are largely consistent in their general mood.

However, according to Amin, working in a group was not that easy as there was little general consensus when it came to deciding upon anything regarding the book. Another problem they faced was finding a publisher.

Another arguably less interesting trend that has emerged  are the comic books like El-Shaab Lama (When The People) and 18 Days that relay the events of the January Revolution which led to the toppling of former president Mubarak.

As the sole purpose of these comics is to document the events, according to Dina Said, who wrote El-Shaab Lama, the books are superficial and only retell the events without adding a story or offering any insight.

El-Shaab Lama, which was finished in February and published during the summer, gives too much glorification to the army, while 18 Days, which is slightly better made in terms of artwork, calls itself a graphic novel, although it bears little relation to a novel. It is a fast-paced retelling of the popular uprising that has no dramatic structure.

Said told Ahram Online that the idea came to her upon Mubarak’s resignation. The book, which is drawn in the colours of the Egyptian flag, is more of an illustration than a comic, according to her.

“ It is like a children’s book,” she said. “I think its impact will be seen in 20 years when children will want to know what happened during the revolution.”

“I was thinking of creating a second part,” she said, “however, as events start to get more complicated, I think I should wait a while.”

Yet, despite some of these mediocre efforts, it seems that the movement is going strong. There is already a publishing house for comic books called Comics, and Facebook itself has become a space for cartoonists to spread their work.

In the 1960s and 1970s the art of comics in Egypt reached a peak with artists such as Ahmed Hegazy, who passed away last week, Mohie El-Din El-Labad, and Bahgat Osman, yet started losing ground in the past decade. Perhaps, this new wave only confirms the idea that amid political upheaval, satire and cartoons flourish.

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