Graphic novels are “cheap, fast, and accessible,” according to Amir, author of “Zahra’s Paradise,” (he has chosen, along with his illustrator partner Khalil, to remain anonymous for political reasons). “All you need is a pencil and an imagination, and you can break through barriers of space, time, money and even language.”
This barrier-breaking capacity is what makes graphic novels one of the most enticing forms for writers reaching out to new audiences in Egypt and beyond.
The presence of graphic novels is growing worldwide. After years of being seen as something that was only for children, “comics” are blossoming in hotspots around the world, including Algiers, Beirut and Cairo. Shelf space in bookstores is expanding, and local and regional artists have put together a number of well-loved collections, including “TokTok,”“Samandal,” “Autostrade” and “Out of Control.”
With the surge in regional artists working on walls and paper, and a long and storied history of Arab comics, there are high expectations for the Arab graphic novel. On the flip side, Arab readers also have the potential to bloom.
Kuo-Yu Liang, vice president of the comics-focused Diamond Book Distributors, has done several book-fair trips to the region. He told the trade magazine “Publishers Weekly” that he has his eyes on the “180 million people aged between 15 and 24” who read, or should read, in Arabic, and that he hopes to translate more graphic novels into Arabic.
It’s not only foreigners who are interested in selling graphic novels to Arab readers. “More and more [Egyptian] publishers are interested in this field now,” says Egyptian children’s book author and graphic novelist Rania Hussein Amin.
She says publishers hope “that this could partly solve the problem of the poor market for books in Egypt,” as they think graphic novels are “probably the new thing that will get … young people interested in books.”
It certainly looks like a perfect marriage: Young Arab readers + graphic novels = true love, forever.
However, the relationship has hit a few bumps along the way. Lebanese graphic novelists have gotten off the ground more quickly, although in a variety of languages. Mazen Kerbaj, who has been called a “millennial Handala,” writes mostly in French. Joumana Medlej writes mostly in English, and the pioneering comics magazine “Samandal” is trilingual.
Egypt’s first graphic novels have been more solidly Arabic-language explorations, with books such as Mohamed Fahmy’s “Atlal al-Mustaqbal” (Ruins of the Future), and the collections “Out of Control” and “TokTok.”
But the graphic novel that garnered the most attention — Magdy al-Shafee’s “Metro” — is now available only in translation. The original Arabic remains banned in Egypt.
Complicating the issue is the perception that comics are for kids. This means many readers are uncomfortable with works that have adult themes and content. And, as of yet, graphic novels in Egypt aren’t selling “much better than other books or magazines,” according to Amin.
“I’m hoping the reason they’re not selling better is that readers are not yet used to this kind of publication, and that with time and with more graphic novels … being published, and the quality improved, people will get more interested and will start buying them as well,” he says.
Khalil, Amir’s partner, has said that one doesn’t have to be a professional artist to draw a graphic novel. Indeed, Egypt’s pioneering Mohamed Fahmy, also known as Ganzeer, majored in business, and says he learned to draw from Stan Lee and John Buscema’s “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.”
Amin says she used “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud as a guide, and adds that “the best advice of course is to read a lot of graphic novels.” But “you should have friends who travel abroad so they could get you those books. Very few of them are found in Egypt.”
The celebrated Kerbaj says he always wanted to make comics, since the age of five or six. “So I just never stopped drawing and reading comics,” he says, jokingly advising that “the secret is: Travel back in time and start early.”
Lebanese graphic novelist Lena Merhej is one of the founders of “Samandal” magazine. Her graphic novel “I Think We Will Be Calmer in the Next War” was one of the best-selling books in Lebanon in 2007, and her autobiographical “Murabba we Laban,” (Jam and Yogurt) was released in 2010. She says there are many aspects to becoming an excellent graphic novelist, and emerging artists need to develop both graphic and narrative skills.
“I think exercises in ‘imitating’ or adapting from both literature and comic artists … can be a way to develop the first,” Merhej says. “However, I think narrative skills have to do with knowing how to tell a good story, and that is very political.”
To her, creating a good narrative is about making good choices. “I think the trick is to be true and honest in those choices,” Merhej says.
“Zahra’s Paradise” author Amir echoed this, saying that budding graphic novelists “should tell a story that springs from their heart, something that they care about very deeply and intensely. The more they care, the more they will communicate.”
On a technical note, several of the graphic novelists advised editing down as much as possible. Amir says the words should be “like haiku,” and Amin advises graphic novelists to read their own work and forget about the words, just “imagine the story in pictures.” She says the “few sentences you add should really be necessary and should add something to the pictures,” not describe them.
What if you’re ready to get started on the next great Arabic graphic novel? Amin suggests you go to the right publisher with a story and a “sample of a minimum of two illustrated pages. At least one of them should be finalized and the rest in the form of sketches.”
Who’s the right publisher? Amin suggests those that have some history of publishing graphic novels. Youssef Nassef’s “Comics Publishing,” Mohamed Sharkawy’s “Malamih,” Dar al-Shorouk, Dar al-Balsam and Dar al-Ain are all good places to start.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.