Thursday, September 29, 2011

Egyptian graphic novel rekindles an art form

The National
Egyptian graphic novel rekindles an art form

Sep 26, 2011

Oliver Good

More than six months after toppling their deeply unpopular ruler Hosni Mubarak on a wave of hope and optimism, some Egyptians are now struggling to identify change for the better within their homeland.

But a pair of 24-year-old Cairo residents have seized upon recent events to offer the Arab world's most populous nation something it probably never knew it needed: graphic novels.

Egypt has had a longer association with comic books than any other Middle Eastern nation - providing the Arabic-language's first outing, 1923's The Children (Al Awlaad) and, more recently, child-friendly superhero stories published by AK Comics.

But adult-oriented material of the kind created in the West and afforded serious literary acclaim - such as Will Eisner's A Contract with God, Alan Moore's V for Vendetta or Neil Gaiman's Sandman - has been rare.

"The normal idea about comics in Egypt is that they are for children. We are going to change that," says Mohamed Reda, the co-founder of Cairo's latest publishing imprint, Division Comics. "We need to explain to people that graphic novels are a mix of literature and art."

Reda and his long-time friend Marwan Imam began plotting their entry into the publishing world in February, as Cairo surged with a post-revolution can-do spirit.

The pair, who were reared on American superhero stories and translated Franco-Belgian bande dessinées ("drawn strips), wanted to create a platform for home-grown artists and writers to produce intelligent and mature work, such as the kind offered by the cutting-edge US imprints Vertigo and Image Comics.

In July, just four months after Cairo's first comic book store, Kryptonite Toys, opened in the Heliopolis neighbourhood selling almost entirely imported titles, Division's debut release, Autostrade, appeared on the shelves.

"The Mubarak regime caused one huge frustration, which was censorship," says Imam.

The engineering graduate cites the banning of graphic novel Metro, written by a fellow Cairo native Magdy El-Shafee in 2009, as evidence. The highly political book, which delves into corruption in Egyptian government and business, and even sexual harassment in society, was removed from shelves permanently by a court order. Both its writer and publisher were fined 5,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh3,081).

"Now, it's easier to get things done and we do not have to worry about the government banning things," says Imam. "I think it would still have been possible to have done [this] before, but certainly after the revolution it's a lot better; we wouldn't have had any creative freedom."

But despite being conceived in the wake of Egypt's revolution and the ongoing Arab Spring by creators keen to prove that comics are not just for kids, Autostrade gives politics a wide berth.

"Well, we want to sell Autostrade as entertainment," says Reda. "There will be comics about the revolution and maybe some stories about it in Autostrade in the future, but we didn't want people to think it is a political book."

With more than 140 pages, the book contains 12 separate stories (six in Arabic, six in English), each a kaleidoscopic collaboration between a different writer and artist. It has a scratchy, indie aesthetic overall, but plenty of brightly coloured set pieces, too, of the kind found in mainstream American comics.

Stories include The Pharoh (El Far'on), about a young Egyptian who discovers he is the descendant of an ancient king and capable of wielding immense power; the ward-based comedy Hospital Stories (Hekayat Mostashfa) and a revisionist superhero tale, Whirlwind/Short Circuit.

In it Imam has also tried his hand at writing, with Stages of Life (Marahel el Haya) a reflection on social issues in modern-day Egypt, while the banned author of Metro, El Shafee, appears with the new story The Castle Remix (El Qasr Remix), a wry spin on the lauded Egyptian author Tawfiq El-Hakim's classic novel, El Qasr.

Division plans to release a new issue of Autostrade every two months, although Reda says the second issue, which was due out this month, has "had to be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. The printer has too much work on, so we had to delay the product. It will be ready by mid-October". Still, hopes are that the anthology will act as a breeding ground for spin-off projects. The publisher has already begun encouraging readers to vote for their favourite stories on its website - the most popular will then leave the pages of Autostrade and continue in their own separately released issues.

"The word 'autostrade' means highway," says Imam. "The book itself is basically a highway for the artists to come into the market."

But while Reda and Imam's knowledge of the medium is in little doubt, they admit that their understanding of publishing is minimal. As expected, the first edition of Autostrade has failed to turn a profit and only around 600 of the initial print run of 1,000 copies have so far been sold. The book, which sells for Dh18.5 is comparable in cost to similar releases from western publishers, but would still price-out the average Egyptian. The decision to publish stories in both Arabic and English may help the book receive a wider international readership, but will likely exclude non-university educated Egyptians. Reda has also admitted that the practicalities of assembling the first issue proved challenging for the novice publishers.

"It was very difficult for us to realise how technical it would be," says Reda. "Problems like getting all the work from the artists and writers at the right time. It could have been better, some stories could have been improved, but I think we did a good job."

But despite teething problems, the pair hope to triple the number of copies of Autostrade printed by mid-2012, as well as running a number of separate monthly spin-off stories. They have also begun discussing the simultaneous release of electronic copies of their graphic novels to be read on tablet devices - a practice already adopted by US comics giants DC and Marvel.

In a political climate that the duo believe will allow their creative endeavours to flourish and with an untapped market for graphic novels within Egypt, Reda and Imam might just be the Middle East's next publishing success story. But even that would not be enough to please the pair.

"We're not just looking at the Middle East," says Imam. "We're hoping to reach the US, France and Japan."

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