Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ARABIC COMICS


A BRIEF HISTORY
OF ARABIC COMICS
American University of Beirut



Any overview of the Comics in the Arab world requires two levels of “Readings”: the first one, an autonomous approach, sees the Arabic Comics as a local product having its own path of development and then tries to define the major periods of its evolution. The second level, takes into consideration the international influences that affected the Arabic Comics since its beginning in the early fifties.

This “Layered Reading” doesn’t pretend to come up with a definite and final conclusion (it’s mostly impossible due to the fact that many of the original artworks or copies of the early magazines are not available, even at the publishers), instead it tries to be a tentative revalorization of the Arabic Comics and the major guidelines of its evolution.

This Reading will also take into account the only Arabic Comics produced by Arabic illustrators or narrators, and not those (magazines, etc…) imported or translated by Arabic publishers.


THE BEGINNINGS

During the 50s a whole movement of re-evalution of Comics spread through out Europe and reached some other corners of the world, either through the translation of Western Comics, or through the foundation of original and specific movements. The Arab world –contrary to the common perception- was influenced by this new phenomena, although it followed a different path of evolution than the western pattern.

The 1st characteristic of the Arabic Comics is that the early artworks were not published in daily newspapers (like in the U.S.) or in form of Comic albums (like in Europe), but in juvenile magazines that already existed, and without them the Arabic Comic strip wouldn’t have found its platform of transmission.

The 2nd characteristic (a derivative of the previous one), is that the Arabic Comics was exclusively directed to a specific audience. This fact created an obstacle to the development of the Comics as an Art form. It’s only in the early eighties that some adult content (scripts or illustrations) emerged in Lebanon, and later in some North-African countries. Even though these attempts didn’t create a movement or samples to be followed, and stayed as individual contributions with no further influence.


SINDIBAD
BIRTH OF THE ARABIC COMICS

In 1952, in Egypt, SINDIBAD started as the first young magazine to publish comics within its pages, at a rate of 2 pages in every issue that became 5 pages at a later stage. These comic spreads started with two stories: the “ADVENTURES OF ZOUZOU” by Morelli (unknown real name), and the adventures of CHADDAD AND AWWAD by HASSAN BIKAR (some Egyptian scholars say that both comics were done by the same HASSAN BIKAR). The latter using the technique of underlying text to the picture (19th and early 20th centuries images D’Épinales style), whereas in ZOUZOU series, MORELLI had already appropriated the techniques of sequential framing “vignettes”, of “Balloon labels”, and mastered the use of the equation of space to time. In spite of the weakness of the drawings, and the static stands of the characters, these pages could be labeled the first comics to be published acquiring the fundamental elements of graphic narration in time. (Movie1)

As for the Journeys of SINDIBAD, they started as simple texts coupled with illustrations, to end up into the form of Chaddad and Aouad, or the images d’Épinal style. It is interesting to notice that the author of the SINDIBAD series had already acquired the graphic requirements of a comic strip; easiness of the character movement, narrative figuration, etc... Added to the fact that it was the first Arabic comics to be continued in several issues. These features permit to say that the Adventures of SINDIBAD were at the time, unique in the kind. (Movie2)

It is to be noticed that the language used in these comics was the classical Arabic language (problem that the west didn’t face), AND NO INSPIRATION was taken from foreign production concerning the Characters, Themes, or backgrounds and decorations. The least detail reflected an Arabic context (not to say Egyptian): Egyptian costume, Tarbushes and Gellabieh of the citizens, typical desert space not to mention the visual conception of details, (you know, drawing a line to express a road, a circle for the moon, etc… minimal, miniature type of expression). (Movie3)

Thereafter (toward the end of the 50s) other comic strips followed, always published in SINDIBAD. They adjusted quickly to the forms we know nowadays. Some were inspired by foreign well known comics like -as TOM &JERRY for Farfour and Basbous – or trying to base their graphical expression on a local context, as in Kandous and Noussa. (Movie4)

Comics artworks at that time revealed a technical maturity and a professional level concerning the movement of characters (the key feature in comics techniques). But, it is only toward the end of the 50s, with the contribution of MIHIEDDINE EL-LABBAD, that the magazine created a particular style of expression and drawing, close to the local style of the Egyptian caricature. LABBAD achieved several isolated pages of comics of which the style and the spirit have not been followed. Among these series were, Professor KARNABEH, Merjan, The Professor Fassoulia, The Cowboy, Zakzouk Marzouk and Maatouk. (Movie5)

LABBAD’s style was distinguished by a minimal style of the drawing, the simplicity of the features and decors, the absence of the third dimension; as many elements that covered the weakness of the narrative plot. Although, LABBAD will always be considered like an innovator of the juvenile Arabic comic strip and influenced a lot of illustrators in the field of kids books and publications. (SINDIBAD menu)

In Brief, someone can say that SINDIBAD, marked (unwillingly may be) the birth of Arabic Comics the way we define it nowadays, and put the pillars and directives to later comic production. Through its pages many forms of Comics were introduced (series, gags, strips etc…), treated in different styles and techniques. Nevertheless, SINDIBAD sat the unbreakable standard for publications to come: exclusively for kids, promoting conservative educational and social values, (it is to mention here that SINDIBAD like other Arabic publications were state-owned or state-sponsored, or, in the best case, controlled by the state censorship). On the other hand, as we’ll see later, the utilization of local spoken language opened new horizons of diffusion in another magazine: SAMIR.


SAMIR
The “Golden Age” of Arabic Comics

SINDIBAD magazine came short for pushing the evolution of Comics forward, due to the nature and goals of the magazine itself, and to the quality of its artists. As a juvenile publication, aiming to entertain solely and to instruct morally, SINDIBAD never put as an objective the development and diffusion of Comics as an Art. Comics spreads were treated as a side category in the magazine, reaching the number of two or three adventures per issue.

This limitation -the least harmful to the magazine- risked to stop the Artists’ contribution to the magazine, a lot of them preferred to continue their career in other “respectful” form like “Caricature” or “illustration” more valuable in Egypt than simple Comic Strips for kids.

(SAMIR MENU) It is with the launch of SAMIR in 1956 that the situation adjusted itself. Since its beginnings, this Egyptian weekly publication distinguished itself from SINDIBAD trying to follow (not to say copy) the scheme of foreign publications like TINTIN or SPIROU. This renewal, granting a major place to the Comic Strip within its pages, brought confidence back to artists who had moved away.

An overview of the whole production of SAMIR helps us to define the main characteristics of this magazine. These Qualities go from the movement of the Characters, to the diversity of styles, focusing on the narrative expression and especially the liveliness of the language.

a. The graphic narration

From the very beginning, the Artists of SAMIR imposed themselves as professionals expressing skillfully the motion in time, whether through the different positions and angles of the drawings, or the sequential storyboarding. Artists like NASSIM (Samir and Tahtah) or LOUTFI WASSFI (Antar and Ibn Jarjoun, Farid Heart of steel) were characterized by the liberty of the character movement, the strength of expression and the diversity of poses, gestures and mimics. (Movie6)

If NASSIM followed the rules of the Belgian school of comics (traditional Layout and style of drawing), LOUTFI WASSFI went farther in his aesthetic research, using a personal style in drawing, and a liberty in the layout of the pages, which was rare at the time even in European standards. On the other hand NASSIM remained loyal to certain western graphics, particularly to FRANQUIN (same lines, same backgrounds, same elements of the decor, same clothing...).

b. The liveliness of the language

If the dynamism of the drawings was a beneficial element to the launch of SAMIR, the magazine also owes its success to the text written in spoken language trough out the majority of the stories, which made them more accessible and more living. SAMIR is undeniably the first publication to have understood that only the spoken language could integrate smoothly into the nature of Comics as a living and dynamic form of Art, (a problem that the West didn't have to face). (Like in movie making, imagine all the features, series and comedies are in literary classic Arabic). (Movie7)

What helped this shift compared to SINDIBAD, is that the majority of the Artists came from the field of caricature, and were accustomed to this form, and therefore didn't hesitate to venture in this new attempt. It is absolutely important to note that the use of spoken language decreased with the regression of the local Comics to the foreign production profit, the return to the dialect expression only showed up again at the beginning of the 80s.

Beside the use of the local language in SAMIR, appeared the first onomatopoeias (imitation of sounds in written words). NASSIM and his fellows will use these onomatopoeias systematically. Artists of this period were also the first to use stars, drops of sweat, or other ideograms, or to create their own graphic symbols, and to give a variety of shapes to bubbles of dialogues, in order to evoke a variety of expressions and situations. (Movie8)

These innovations helped. Yet, it is mainly the use of the spoken language that was behind the blossoming of the Arabic Comics. The use of popular terms and proverbs, of local twisted meanings, more expressive compared to their classical literary equivalents -if however these exist – helped the Arabic comics to impose itself quickly as an element of the local culture.

c. The diversity of themes

SAMIR gathered in its pages a variety of tendencies, not only in drawing styles, but also in themes and scripts, every artist trying to differentiate himself from his colleagues and predecessors. Therefore many individual styles appeared, and for the first time in middle-eastern Comics names of authors were associated to artworks (usually we don’t know who did what!!!!). Schools and ways to follow were created around some particularly representative artists.

If we exclude the series of Tanabilat al-soubian achieved entirely by HIJAZI and Zaghloul Effendi by LABBAD, It is noticeable that the entire production was the outcome of joint efforts between script writers and illustrators even if, in some cases, the link between them was inexistent, and this, created an incoherent output. Nevertheless, the contribution of a variety of writers played an important role in the variation of themes, giving birth to different categories of Comics, such as Comedy script, Historic, popular legends, adventures, Science-fiction, thrillers etc…. (Movie9)

These topics were most of the time treated in a local context: local morals and traditions, local costumes, etc… In detective novels we see local prototypes of criminals and detectives; or in Historic legends like those of Antara by WILLIAM AL-MIRY (script writer) and LOUTFI WASSFI (artist). A unique genre of the Arabic Comics surprisingly emerged, and has no equal in western Comics: “Lessons in Popular resistance” a series based on military education after 1967 war. Among Artists that specialized in Contemporary History, AL-BARJINI author of Hassan Toubar, and AL-Nadim, should be named . AL-BARJINI developed a style of drawing and composition far more elaborate and without precedent in the history of Arabic Comics. Other Comics worth mentioning at this level are the popular legends like the adaptation of Geha’s stories and proverbs (a prominent comic figure in the middle-eastern popular culture) (Movie10)

d. The diversity of styles

We mentioned previously that some Artists were influenced by, or followed, western schools of drawings, whereas others tried to work out some more specific Local styles. The latter, on which we’ll stop longer, could be put in two distinct categories: the first one represented by LOUTFI WASFI, based on a sophisticated graphic narration, putting the accent on the visual representation rather than the script. The second based essentially on the script and dialogues, better represented by HIJAZI and LABBAD, and was more “Egyptian” (if we can put it this way) in content than the others.

(Movie11) In his adventures of Antara and Ibn Jarjoun, LOUTFI WASSFI granted a primal importance to an aesthetic based on the purity of lines, features, and sceneries, but also on the global composition of the page. He is considered as an innovator in the narrative technique of Arabic Comics, in the sense that he was the first to use various Camera Angles, plongées/contre-plongées, horizontal and vertical compositions, that helped a better rendering of the atmosphere of his narrations, based on battle sceneries. It is regretable however that the WASSFI “school” (if one can talk about school) didn’t perpetuate after SAMIR’s period, and had a minor influence in the production of Arabic Comics to come.

(Movie12) In opposite, HIJAZI and LABBAD put all their creative efforts in the humorous script reducing to the minimum the function of the picture: rather than to express the idea, the drawing was limited to the sole role of supporting the narration and not guiding it. Movements and attitudes of characters were limited, the cinematographic language minimized if not at all exploited. The reason of this extreme simplification of graphics is due to two factors:
  • · The nature of the Strips: WASSFI brought up real adventure narrations of several page, while HIJAZI and LABBAD limited themselves to the humorous gags of one page or a spread of 2 pages, and could transmit their idea with a text and simple fast sketches.
  • · The influence of a prominent established Egyptian school of illustration: The Caricature. Based on this background, HIJAZI and LABBAD’s Comics were accessible and common, and it was normal that their production knew a bigger success, imitation and continuity than those more elaborated of LOUTFI WASSFI. The simplified graphics was already more accessible to readers comfortable with the caricature style. On the other hand, the absence of commentary texts that invaded the pages of Antara and Ibn Jarjoun, facilitated the reading of these Comics already geared toward the direct hold on the daily life.

e. Attempts to assert a local style

Through elaborated techniques, dynamism of drawings, vivacity of the language and diversity of themes (although still for children), the Comic Strips of SAMIR reached to a certain extend the level of western Comics. If we put aside the bad quality of printing (that did –with other factors- ruin the continuity of the publication), it is fair to say that SAMIR’s period could be labeled “the Golden Age of Arabic Comics”.

It is however deplorable that Arabic Comics of that era couldn’t compete with other forms of illustrated arts like the caricature which preserved the favor of adults, and limited itself to an exclusively children public. The reason -as we already mentioned– is that the first Comic Strips were born in kids’ magazines which limited the evolution of the kind, plus the governmental policies to keep these magazines as a tool of propaganda as we’ll see later.

THE WAR OF 1967

(Movie13) June 5, 1967. The Arabic-Israeli war. A turning point in the history of Arabic Comics. A new era marked by the direct governmental control of all publications, with only one message to spread out, the indisputable endorsement of resistance and the will to fight, reflected even in publications for children. A period that affiliated the Comics production to the state run policy of war.

Very quickly, Comics heroes were sent to the battle front, with one motto “All for the popular Resistance”, as it appeared in the cover of issue 592 of SAMIR, surprisingly summoned by characters like Jehha and Samir themselves. Artists were committed to the new mot-d’ordre, dividing between themselves the fields of action: Samir and Tahtah were transformed by NASSIM into commandos, whereas FAREED KALB HADEED executed some military missions behind the enemy lines. Activities were also diverse: Direct involvement into fights in Samir and Tahtah’s case, spying on and delivering documents to feddayyins in the case of FAREED KALB HADEED. To his merit, Zaghloul Effendi -involved as well in the war efforts- preserved his features, humor and innocence, awkwardly to the other heroes who became part of an excessive, unjustified militarism.

And, as if these efforts weren’t enough, new sets of Characters were created for the sole purpose of promoting “war against the enemies of the nation”, such as Dandache and his friends (text of SOBHI EL-JAYYAR, drawing of SALAH ASKAR) who, at the end of the war reconverted into detective missions. New series were born -of which “Nadim and Rachid: The battle of the heroism and heroes” by BARJINI - based on the contemporary history of the Middle East aiming at creating a spirit of solidarity, fraternity and resistance. A unique genre to be created -and not having been exploited by the west during the two world wars - is the attempt to propagate a military teaching, through “Lessons of popular resistance” by LOUTFI WASSFI that covered all the issues of SAMIR in 1967.

STEPING BACK FACING IMPORTATION:

LEBANON THE NEW CENTER

It is mainly in the 60s that western Comics “invaded” the Egyptian and middle-eastern publications, whether through translation in existing magazines (like TINTIN in SAMIR) or by launching Arabic versions of western magazines (like MICKEY or THE CASTORS from lat Disney),

Quickly, the children preferred the imaginary adventures and exciting characters of Walt Disney and other western Comics to those highly politicized local heroes. The success of Mickey and other translated series and magazines, aggravated the crisis of the local production. One after the other, Atrists of Samir and other publications regained their jobs in the world of caricature, or tales illustration.

Motivated by the success of Mickey, publishers invested in publications for children, importing and translating foreign Comics, with a lesser cost (no Artists or writers to pay, No pre-printing cost value, etc) and better quality of scripting, drawing, and especially of printing. There, came the role of LEBANON as a center to this new wave of highly qualified production. It is in this period of mid-60s (1965) that the center of Comics production shifted from Egypt to Lebanon, due to the fact of the vanced adevelopment of this country in matter of import, reproduction and distribution. More than 35 magazines dedicated to comics flooded the Lebanese and Arabic market making any attempt to re-launch local production a highly risky business.

IRAQ: FAST EVOLUTION, AND SUDDEN END

In 1970, the Iraqi government published MAJALLATY, the juvenile magazine entirely produced by the Iraqi artists.

In Parallel another monthly publication AL-MIZMAR showed up. In spite of the political orientation of the two publications, it is interesting to notice the quality of the graphics that, without abandoning the European influence completely, kept an original local character. Among the names: Ali Saad, Necha'at Toufic, Mehyi Khalifé, Sabih Hamid, Necha'at eI-Aaloussi, Safwat Farid and Mohammad Jaber.

Iraq was also the second country after Lebanon to publish albums of Comics (1980). Of relatively high technical quality (printing, color, format...) these albums (printed in Lebanon) were exclusively of baathist political and educational aims.

Unfortunately, all the Iraqi publications stopped during the war with IRAN, and never showed up again.

 
SYRIA, TIMIDLY INCLUDED

In 1969, USAMAH started as the state-run magazine for children. Of a socialist baathist guidance, it remained far from the Egyptian magazines of the 50s and on. However, many of USAMAH’s artists like Mumtaz el-Bahra and Hassan Ayyash, knew their fame through Lebanese comics publications toward the end of the 70s.


LEBANON - NEW BOOM

With the step-back of local production, one magazine tried to gather a wide number of pan-Arab script-writers and artists to work from or through Beirut which became the new center of Comics.

Appearing in 1979, SAMER is undeniably the No.1 magazine (for kids of course) to publish comic strips entirely produced by the pan-Arab authors: Nabil Kadouh (Lebanese), Loujayna el-Assil (Syrian), Taha el-Khalidi (Palestinian), Mumtaz el-Bahra (Syrian), and the famous Mike Nasser (Lebanese) were the most noticeable artists. But, In spite of the technicality, SAMER remained as a whole, less innovative in styles and scripts compared to the advanced Egyptian comics of the 50s.

1980 – A HOPLESS ATTEMPT

One cannot conclude this overview without a stop at one of the most daring attempt to reshape the perception of comics in the Arab Culture and I mean: JADWORKSHOP.

Adult aimed publications, spread a breath into the stagnant Arabic comics with Jad (these are not my words, but NUMA SADOUL’s. a French historian of comics, in Encyclopedie de La Bande Dessinée). My production in Comics covered since 1980, daily newspapers (An-Nahar, As-Safir), Cultural magazines (Al-Makassed, Abouab), Albums (Carnaval, Freud, 1001 Leyla), exhibits (Beirut, Angoulême, etc…), museums acquisitions (Musée Nationale de la Bande Dessinée, France). A turning point still was the foundation of JADWORKSHOP in the mid-80s, where a group of artists gathered around one objective; to promote non-commercial Lebanese comics, and to spread this genre as an Art form into the Arab world. The adventure lead to many exhibits in Lebanon and abroad, and 3 publications… to end up in a dramatic way with their last album and exhibit in 1989 with a very strange title: “From Beirut…” as if it was a premeditate farewell to the most intriguing experience. The names to remember were: Edgar Aho, Lina Ghaibeh, Wissam Beydoun, May Ghaibeh, Shoghig Der-Ghogassian…..