Comic magazines Samir, Lulu and Mickey Geeb (Pocket-sized Mickey) and Arabic translations of Tintin, Superman and Asterix and Obelix have been read and loved by generations of Arabs. Editorial cartoons are fundamental parts of every daily newspaper. But comic art remains an often unexamined and under-supported part of Arab artistic effort.
A new initiative is intent on changing that.
In September, the American University in Beirut (AUB) began a new academic program focused entirely on the study, archiving and promotion of Arab comic art. Named after its biggest donor, the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative will also hold an annual conference to promote the artistic field and sponsor the Mahmoud Kahil Awards to highlight emerging creative talent in the field.
Mu’taz Sawwaf and the initiative’s founding director, Lina Ghaibeh are both published comic artists as well as avid comic book collectors. Early on in his career as a comic artist, Sawwaf decided it wasn’t a realistic career choice. He pursued architecture and engineering instead. Now, he hopes that the program will aid the careers of future comic artists, providing them with opportunities that he and other artists were denied.
“Look at the first generation of Arab masters in cartoons and comics, the Mahmoud Kahils, Pierre Sadek, and the Bahjouris of the Arab world,” he says. “They were left cash [strapped], yet now their art is worth millions, unfortunately mostly after their [deaths]. I hope that within five to six years, we will be able to encourage young artists to pursue a career in [comic] art and make a comfortable living.”
With the new program, the American University of Beirut joins a few other institutions offering degrees and supporting research on comic art, including the University of Florida, the University of Toronto and the University of Dundee, in Scotland.
“The Arab world is a wonderfully rich area, with a whole cultural heritage that has not been explored and deserves to be studied,” Ghaibeh says. “There have been [extensive] studies of comics in the U.S. and Europe, even the Far East; yet Arab comics have not been touched. “
Through the program, researchers will also have access to professional studio spaces, advanced digital imaging labs and university research centers.
Dating back to the early 1920s, Arab comic art provides fascinating insight into political propaganda and orientalism as well as cross-cultural influences.
“Comic art is a very rich form of Arab cultural heritage and mass media,” Ghaibeh adds. “There is a massive amount of editorial cartoons that tell you the history of the region.”
For example, some of the first unique Lebanese comics, Zarzour in the 1950s and Bissat El Reeh in 1962, depicted freedom fighters as superheroes and had heavily political themes for their target audience of children, according to a NOW Lebanon report.
The very first original Arab comic, Al Awlad, was published in Egypt in 1923. “The original creations were trying to tell stories for a younger audience that had an Arab point of origin,” says an Arab comics scholar, Nadim Damluji. “This is not to say they weren’t political, as Hussein Bicar, the founder of Sindbad, was a member of the Society of Post-Orientalist; he was very conscious of the power of the medium and how it could be used to further pan-Arab ideas.”