The Arabic comics scene is creatively rich, yet it requires industry support to reach its full potential. This was the message from a session at the Frankfurt Book Fair, dedicated to discussing the growth of the art form in the region.
The diverse panel, which included Egyptian comic illustrator Mohammed Shennawy, Lebanese graphic designer Lena Merhej and acclaimed German illustrator Reinhard Kleist, debated the various challenges facing the industry, ranging from a lack of understanding to finding publishing expertise.
It also provided an opportunity to break down certain misconceptions. The biggest of which is that this is some kind of new thing,” remarked Kleist. “I have been giving many comic workshops in the Middle East and North Africa over the last decade and I can say that throughout that time there has been plenty of talent.”
A favourite encounter, Kleist recalled, was meeting a team of illustrators from Sudan who worked on their comic book Cartoun – a play on the name of their country's capital Khartoum.
“They were working in the Manga style and it was very impressive – and also shows that they are also aware of the current trends,” he said. “The plot was also interesting in that it was a youth love story. They wanted to create a story to escape from their circumstances, instead of wallowing in it.”
That said, Kleist also reflected on a similar workshop he gave two years ago in the Jordanian capital Amman, in which a student delivered a fierce critique of her society’s ills.
“She gave a story that was very direct in that it talked about the protests and police brutality,” he said. “It was done in a real clever way with a twist in the end which was interesting.”
As the editor of the quarterly Egyptian comic magazine TokTok and director of the festival CairoComix, Shennawy says critique is rarely offered to Arab comics.
Although encouragement is there from certain cultural organisations, it is only once meaningful criticism comes into play that regional talents can grow.
“There are people who say that, yes, this is a good thing, but without really analysing what is being said or looking at the details,” said Shennawy. “We need this interaction as artists in order to develop.”
This is one of the reasons Shennawy set up CairoComix three years ago. The event is held annually at the American University in Cairo.
With financial assistance offered by organisations such as the Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française, Shennawy has been able to bring in international guests for discussions and workshops on the craft.
One stream of knowledge the industry lacks, according to Merhej, is publishing skills. She says artists like her and Shennawy – who both edit comic books – are essentially learning the trade as they go. This down to the fact that Arab publishers do not seem to be interested in publishing graphic novels.
“There is no real publishing industry when it comes to comics in the Arab world,” said Merhej. “I get the sense that they are scared of it and they don’t understand it. What we find is some papers provide a page for comics but that is not really suitable if you want to tell a story.
“You really can’t flesh out the plot unless you really put it in a book form.”
With such a lack of infrastructure, The National asked the panel whether digital publishing was a way to bypass such limitations.
The panel were unanimous in agreement that print was the ultimate aim.
“You need to be involved in comics to really understand this,” Shennawy said, with a chuckle. “I could almost describe it as an obsession. We know that we have to suffer a lot to get the book out, but the end result is always amazing.”
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