'With comics, we can re-imagine the world': artist Magdy El-Shafee on Cairo Comix festival

Névine Lameï, Wednesday 4 Oct 2017

The third edition of the Cairo Comix festival welcomed 80 artists from Egypt and the world. The festival's director, comic artist Magdy El-Shafee, talks about this year's edition

Magdy El Shafee
Magdy El Shafee

The third edition of the Cairo Comix international festival for comic books, which was held at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Tahrir Campus, has just come to an end.

The festival is an annual celebration of the art form in Egypt, the Middle East and North Africa.

Al-Ahram Hebdo: The third edition of the Cairo Comix was held under the title Al-Mogammae (The Complex), to designate this meeting point for comic artists and the public. Was this title chosen in reference to the administrative building known by the same name, located in Tahrir Square a few steps away from AUC?

Magdy El-Shafee: On the contrary, the Cairo Comix “Complex” is open to the rest of the world. It is welcoming and symbolises change and freedom of expression. The term Mogammae here is used in reference to the event’s ability to gather people from multiple professional backgrounds (comic artists, editors … ) and from various parts of the Arab and Occidental world (Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, the United States, France, Spain … ), a few steps away from Tahrir Square, which is a symbol of the Egyptian Revolution.

Thanks to the selling booths open in the AUC gardens all throughout the festival, comic fans could either buy the available works, or simply take a look at the novelties. Through Cairo Comix 3, we emphasised comic books’ ability to rethink the world, and overcome any obstacles.

This third edition was held in memory of comic artist Hegazi, who was commemorated in an exhibition entitled Tanablet El-Sobian (The Little Pupils). What was behind this choice?

Each edition of the Cairo Comix highlights an Egyptian comic artist’s work. Last year, it was Mohieddine El-Labbad and his character Zaghloul. It is a way of providing a well-documented history of comic books in Egypt.

This year, the spotlight was on Hegazi and his work, Tanablet El-Sobian, which was published during the 1960s, by Al-Hilal publications. The story follows three lazy boys, Shamloul, Bahloul and Tanboul, who find themselves caught up in strange looting adventures. Despite the fact that this series is now over 50 years old, it remains modern, preserves the freshness of its colours and its ability to impress, several years after the death of its creator.

The surprising thing about Hegazi’s works is their anticipatory nature. Through those three pupils, he somehow predicted the Infitah policy, which was established under former President Ansar El-Sadat’s rule, 20 years before its emergence. We are currently in talks with Shahira Khalil, editor-in-chief of Samir magazine, to recreate Tanablet El-Sobiane. 

Why choose to explore the Spanish school of comic books this year? What are its characteristics?

Comic books in Egypt are more similar to the French and Belgian style, infused by everyday life events. The Spanish school is rather particular, in that it often highlights sociocultural issues of the 1980s, which have also inspired filmmakers like Almodovar, as well as comic artists with intense, realist and rigorous styles.

Hence the idea of another exhibition dedicated to Spanish comics, which was held as part of the Cairo Comix 3, under the title Massarat (trajectories), and organised in collaboration with Al-Fanar Foundation.

The exhibition showcases the works of 10 Spanish comic artists, mainly those of Alfonso Zapico whose style was simple, revolutionary and liberal. He is known for his black and white album, Cafe Budapest, on the foundation of the Hebrew state. The story thus begins in Budapest in 1947.

The exhibition also showcases the works of Spanish artist Paco Roca, whose graphic novels also address societal issues; and the works of Juan Canales, known for his series of mystery comics featuring animals as characters, Blacksad.

The Artist@work section revealed the behind-the-scenes work of the comic books industry. How was this section brought together?

We organised daily intensive workshops, an hour and a half each, which allowed for interaction between amateurs and professional comic artists.

Among the participants were Egyptian artists Mohamed Salah, known for his science fiction comics; and Tunisian artist Seifeddine Nechi, who was awarded the Best Digital Publication prize at Cairo Comix 2.

Furthermore, since writing is a very important aspect of comic books, we invited American author Josh O’Neill and representants from the Locust Moon publishing house, known as the flagship of alternative comic books in the United States.

We invited Golo, who lived in Egypt for a very long time and often talks about this time in his comics. The French Institute in Cairo has been a great help since the first edition of Cairo Comix.

The number of candidates aged 25 or less who applied for the festival, surpassed that of the preceding editions. Even the number of participating artists increased, from about 20 artists, to about 80.

In 2008, your comic book Metro was confiscated because it dealt with corruption, poverty and injustice. Now, you publish your works outside of the country. Is this to avoid censorship, or because there is no market here?

In my recent works, I have a penchant for dark humour. The works address the quest for meaning within existence. I publish them abroad in international, independent reviews like Zenith (in Germany). I do not have the means to finance my publications. Previously, I published in Egyptian reviews like Alaeddine and Al-Dostour, which made my works rather popular. Now, we no longer have that option.

Dark comics and sarcasm are quite popular on the international market. Arabic language comics mostly opt for a forced sarcasm, inspired by social events and human emotions, balanced between the marginalised character and the superhero.

In Lebanon, the most popular comic is always the most experimental one. In Algeria and in France, there is a preference for the literary comic, with sarcastic, witty content. In the United States, people prefer fiction and action comics.

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