In search of Arab comics: An exhibition at the southern French city of Angoulême

David Tresilian, Wednesday 4 Jul 2018

An exhibition of new Arab comics in Angoulême opened in January and will continue until November this year.


There was a time when comic books were mostly directed at children and scarcely taken seriously as an artistic form. Pioneers in cultural studies would weigh in with disobliging comments on the ideological conservatism of British comics or the violence of American ones. Grown-up readers would mostly stick to verbal narratives, feeling that there was something irremediably childish about comics as a story-telling form.

However, comic books or magazines containing short or medium-length narrative pieces told in graphic form have turned out to be an irrepressible cross-over medium. They have been harnessed to the needs of science fiction, crime stories, and American “superheros”. Their origins in political caricature have been emphasised, and they have been reappropriated to provide new stamping grounds for commercial artists wanting to develop second careers as comic-book auteurs.

The world of comics today is often said to have three centres, with the US producing comic-book cross-overs on an ever more industrial scale and France focusing on the bande dessinée, the comic-book or graphic novel by a clutch of often celebrated auteurs. Japan has pioneered the manga comic books that apparently make up an astonishing one third of all the books sold in the country and have had a remarkable success abroad.

Comics are also now an academic field, perhaps inevitably given the size of the industry and its global reach. However, the very size of particularly the US, and arguably also the Japanese, industries have left others gasping, retreating either to a kind of outsider intellectualism, a strategy adopted by the French auteurs, or a purely regional importance. Adult readers have wanted to see comics refunctioned to deal with political or sociological issues, while non-US readers have wanted to read about characters from their own environments, articulating their own specific concerns.

Perhaps it is the latter that best explains the success of Arab comics over the last decade and the thriving comic-book industries that have now grown up in particularly Egypt and Lebanon. Many of the features of the US and European industries can be seen in Arab comics, from the emphasis on repeated characters sometimes crossing over to different media to the underground or counter-cultural publishing and production strategies of the French auteurs.

Such thoughts may well strike visitors to a ground-breaking exhibition, Arab Comics Today, running until November at the Cité internationale de la bande dessinée in the southern French city of Angoulême. Housed in what may be one of the world’s only full-scale museums exclusively dedicated to comics, and the host of the Angoulême International Comics Festival in January each year, the exhibition has been organised in conjunction with the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative at the American University of Beirut and French Cultural Institutes across the Arab world.

It may indicate that Arab comics, drawing on local traditions of political cartooning as well as a long-established tradition of children’s comic-books, are now coming of age for international audiences. According to co-curator Jean-Pierre Mercier, writing in the excellent exhibition catalogue, European and other non-Arab readers are “almost completely ignorant” of the comic-book traditions of the Arab world despite its long traditions of particularly political cartooning and caricature.

The latter has long drawn on the common cultural and linguistic background of the Arab world, with figures such as the Palestinian political cartoonist Nagi al-Ali, who died in 1987, building up a following across the region through his cartoon character of Handala, a boy of ten, ragged and barefoot, his hands clasped behind his back, who became an Arab symbol of the Palestinian cause. Egyptian cartoonists and caricaturists such as Ahmad Tughan and Salah Jahin, also an important poet, also established significant followings across the Arab world.

However, European and other audiences, Mercier says, are largely unaware of such traditions in the same way as they are largely unaware of the “history, long and rich [and] marked by great classics, aesthetic currents and schools,” of Arab comics more generally. The Angoulême exhibition, a European first, may help to change this, he adds, particularly because it brings together the work of 40 young Arab comics artists from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia.

It may be the most comprehensive such survey exhibition of young Arab comics talent yet to have been held anywhere in the world.


Arab New Wave

Introducing the exhibition, Lebanese comic-book artist Georges Khoury (penname JAD) identifies the waves of root-and-branch political change that have swept the Arab world since the 1990s as standing behind the new generation of Arab comics.

The Lebanese comics collective Samandal (salamander), founded in 2007 by artists Omar Khouri, Hatem Imam, Lena Merhej, the Fdz, and Tarek Nabaa, soon to be followed by several others, blazed a trail, he says, not only because of its underground publishing and production strategy, reminiscent of counter-cultural comic-book movements in Europe and the United States, but also because of its cooperative character. Loosely affiliated artists sharing elements of a common sensibility and similar concerns have contributed to periodically produced albums of the same name showcasing their work.

Samandal “served as inspiration for the creation of the Egyptian magazine Tok-Tok in 2011,” Khoury says, which is the name of a periodically produced magazine and of the collective of young artists including Shennawy, Mohamed Tawfik, Migo, Mohamed Salah and Ahmad Tawfik associated with it. Other comics collectives have appeared elsewhere in the Arab world, driven by a common desire of “creating independent platforms and liberating themselves from the constraints of the publishing world.”

These include collectives such as Lab619 (created in Tunisia in 2013), Skefskef (Morocco, 2013), Masaha (Iraq, 2015), Garage (Egypt, 2015) and Habka (Libya, 2015), as well as magazines such as Al-Doshma (Egypt, 2011), Allak Fayn (Egypt, 2016), Al-Tahwila (Egypt, 2016), Autostrad (Egypt, 2011), Les Furies des Glaneurs (Lebanon, 2011) and Al-Shakmajiyya (Egypt, 2014), all of them set up by young artists in their twenties or thirties and in the years after the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions. Khoury thinks that these collectives and associated magazines took the Lebanese Samandal collective as a model, to an extent also focusing in terms of content on similar concerns.

Among the latter, Khoury says, are common features that include a shared emphasis on the “I” rather than the “we,” on local diversity, and on a turning away from Pan-Arab concerns. “Tok-Tok and Garage are characterised by the use of Egyptian dialect and local expressions, whereas Lab619, Skefskef, Masaha and Habka differentiate themselves by their use of other dialects – Tunisian, Moroccan, Iraqi or Libyan – to such a degree [that they] can be difficult to decipher” even for other Arab eyes.

Even their names indicate an emphasis on local features, Khoury says, with skefskef apparently being a kind of Casablanca sandwich and Lab619 having something to do with “Tunisian barcodes.” As a result, the new collectives have broken with an earlier emphasis on a common history, sometimes manipulated for political ends, “established since the beginning of Arab comics [for children] of choosing titles from the panoply of names common to Arabic and Islamic heritage, such as Ahmed, Majed, Ali Baba, Samir, Sindbad, Samer, Khaled, and Mahdi,” which were, or are, the titles of children’s comic magazines.

Other features of the work of the new collectives include a shared focus on the urban environment, a common autobiographical emphasis, and a remarkable gender parity. The new Arab comics take contemporary city life as their subject-matter, writes commentator Enrique Klaus in the exhibition catalogue, almost in the way that classic US comics staged Gotham City as an essential backdrop to Batman.

Characteristic urban types appear in the work of the young comics artists, he writes, “from the Cairo traffic cop to the Moroccan merda [policeman] and from the neighbourhood kids of Algiers to the Tunis taxi-driver,” helping to create a distinctive atmosphere. Individual characters are shown battling their way through the hubbub of contemporary Arab cities, drawing on the energies of urban vernaculars. Graphic styles recall the crowded frames and heavy outlines of street or graffiti art.

Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Lebanese artist Lina Ghaibeh notes the prominent role played by women in the new Arab comics. This was not necessarily to be expected, she says, given the traditionally masculine emphasis of the comics form, with even traditional comic-books for children being heavily weighted towards adventure stories for boys. However, perhaps particularly in Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco prominent female comics artists have emerged.

The Cité internationale exhibition presents the new Arab comics by region, showcasing the work of young artists from across the Arab world. Perhaps inevitably the work of some regions seems more established than others, with artists from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon showing the influence of French graphic traditions and the French auteurs. Egypt, represented by the work of the Garage and Tok-Tok collectives as well as by individual artists, contributes perhaps the strongest work, rivalled only by material from Lebanon.

Work from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Palestine may be less artistically assured, but it is also more obviously wracked by suffering. As the anonymous artist representing the Syrian collective Comic4Syria puts it in the exhibition catalogue, comics in Syria today are an underground medium, “recording everything from brutality in prisons and activities at demonstrations to the violence of military interventions.” 


This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

La Bande dessinée arabe aujourd’hui, Cité internationale de la bande dessinée, Angoulême until 5 November.

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