Long before Superman, here's how Arabic comics dominated the region

Abu Dhabi exhibition delves into the history of superheroes, Japanese anime and the artists who brought characters to life

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In pop culture, comics from the West and anime from the Far East dominate. However, an Abu Dhabi exhibition is celebrating the surprising history of Arabic comics.

The Cultural Foundation’s Comic Craze Vol 3 takes a trip back to the past, as 49 artists from the UAE pay homage to renowned and forgotten names and characters.

The exhibition aims to explore the history of comics in the region as well as the influence of Japanese anime shows, particularly the ones which were dubbed into Arabic and broadcast during the 1980s.

It also informs the public on a variety of Arabic publications created and distributed across the region from the late 19th century until today.

“When we talk about comics, we know about western comics but we don’t know anything about Arab comics,” curator Sumayya Al Suwaidi tells The National.

“When we did the research, we found that the first Arab comic art was actually from Egypt and its first artwork was published in 1899. So I wanted to highlight as many milestones in the Arab world in the comics field as possible.”

The first two volumes of Comic Craze in 2017 showcased and highlighted talents from the UAE through different mediums, including animation as well as traditional and digital painting.

Works from artists Abdulla Al Mansoori, Anas Numair, Mariam Al Binali and Maitha Al Mansoori are on display at this year's event.

Pieces include Al-Awlaad, an original Arabic comic magazine first published in Egypt in 1923; Lebanon’s first comic magazine The World of Events from 1955; and Egypt's Miki Magazine from 1958, which introduced Mickey Mouse to the Arab world.

The reinterpretations of these historically significant publications and the information regarding their context and content are presented alongside the art works.

These include Little Lulu, a Lebanese monthly magazine from 1956; Majid magazine from the UAE that launched in 1979; and more recently Azzam the Nature Knight, co-created by Emirati comic artists Ali Khammas and Saeed Al Hebsi.

“This show brings a sense of nostalgia that people are looking for from the characters of the comics and shows,” says assistant curator Aysha Al Aseeri.

“People can also see the creativity that artists bring to their works. They can see different perspectives, different ideas and styles in every artwork. Some of them are digital, some are painted – you can see the difference between each artwork and the identity of the artist.”

The Japanese animated shows featured in the exhibition add an interactive element. Small screens play clips or title songs of a variety of dubbed Arabic shows, all of which aired in the region during the 1980s.

These include The Adventures of Sinbad, a 52-episode series based on the Arab sailor from Tales of 1001 Nights; Ask Labiba, the educational series that delved into science and technology; and Kimba the White Lion, a popular manga turned TV series about a lion’s adventure in the jungle.

Al Suwaidi is keen to see visitors relive some of their favourite memories and learn more about the history of storytelling in the region.

“I hope that the people who see the exhibition will leave with the concept that Arabs are as well advanced as the West,” Al Suwaidi says.

“Comics started it a long, long time ago for us and this was a shock for lots of people who came in to see the show. They didn't expect this.”

Comic Craze Vol 3 is running at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi until August 31

Updated: August 12, 2023, 3:06 AM