From Egypt to Colombia: On the content of comics
Sara Ahmed Abdel Aziz - 03/08/2016
In awe and curiosity, we hunch over our desks in the cramped classroom at the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus, magnifying our attention on 25-year-old Lina Moreno. An illustrator and graphic designer from Medellin, Colombia, she has popped by Cairo to give a free workshop for 20 participants, organized by Kawkab El Rasameen, about her work and the world of illustration that exists halfway across the world in her native land.
Clearly apparent on our faces is our surprise that we’re not looking at comics displaying drugs, men in arms or the destruction of the Amazonian forest, but at calm depictions of an ant-enshrouded woman experiencing boredom and Saturn voraciously devouring humans like popcorn.
If language and thus comics, in all their subjective glory, represent the world and the world is represented in them, Moreno’s work proves that this is true as much for the personal realm as the socio-political realities so often drawn in Egyptian comics.
“You definitely find that in Egyptian comics there is focus on women, sexual harassment and other social or political issues,” Moreno observes. “In Colombia, those issues get published in commercial comics, but in the alternative scene you barely find political or opinion content — only more personal or absurd stories. I don’t think this is bad or wrong, it’s just different. I find it curious why it’s like that — very few young people are interested in politics.”
The quirky twins Mohamed and Haitham Raafat El Seht, a.k.a Twin Cartoons, organized and participated in the workshop and had given her a chance to mull over Egyptian comics magazines Tok Tok and Garage.
To many of us particpating, the focus on more abstract topics in Colombian comics, which often tackle relationships, existentialism and short-term amusement, seems almost alien. They seem to focus on individuals rather than the wide-scale societal issues pervading Egyptian comics.
Abstraction in Colombia
In Colombia, the 4th Comic Con took place in June, and there’s also a yearly comic festival, Entreviñetas. Moreno says there are numerous small publishers receptive to publishing work by emerging artists, competitions by institutions and government scholarships supporting such projects. She explains that one of Colombia’s most famous artists, Johny Benjumea (Joni B), was able to embark on a graphic novel with state funds. This support, fueled by a growing interest in comics by younger generations, is boosting the market and resulting in more and more Colombian comics artists gaining fame across Latin America and beyond, such as Paola Gaviria (Power Poala), Luis Echavarría Uribe and Monica Naranjo Uribe.
Perhaps due to proximity, the comics scene in Colombia was originally kicked off by the heavy presence of American Marvel and DC comics, which Moreno says all comic enthusiasts of her generation read as they grew up. This led to a heavy stylistic imitation that ruptured only gradually and recently as Colombian artists developed their own styles, fusing them with characteristics that dominate European comics, which tend toward abstract ideas as well as historical and autobiographical themes. Moreno is a big fan of calling the style of many Colombian independent comics “abstract” because they focus on ethereal ideas and highly subjective realities, as if “thinking out loud” — as in Julia Gordon’s graphic novel Le Parc and Aisha Franz’s Shit is Real — rather than focus on strict plot development.
Joni B is reputed to particularly relish murder and sexually explicit content, though: In a comic strip titled Ethnographic Study of San Perdido, a foreign film director goes to a small town in Colombia for a film festival, tries to pay for sex and ends up being killed. It’s a satirical critique of this not-so-uncommon reality of foreigners going to certain places in Colombia for drugs and sex.
“As a Colombian, when you travel abroad people are like ‘Oh Colombia — Pablo Escobar,’ so we don’t like this topic and not a lot of people talk about it, because it was a really bad time in our country,” Moreno says. “In the 1990s, for example, my mom told me she had to boil the milk that she was going to give me over candlelight because there was terrorism and bombs cutting off electricity for days.”
She says that despite the Colombian disdain for the topic, however, people living in the US or Europe retain their fascination for it.
Daily struggles in Egypt
The current comics scene in Egypt matured around 2008, when a community emerged and Magdee El Shafee published his graphic novel Metro. Although it’s a small community, there are prolific members, such as Shennawy, Ganzeer and Tawfik, and some publications. Tok Tok is a 5-year-old quarterly comics magazine headed by Shennawy, and Twin Cartoons launched Garage magazine in 2015. Another quarterly magazine, El Shakmageya, started in 2014 by Nazra for Feminist Studies, exclusively addresses violence against women.
There are increasing opportunities through these magazines, the yearly CairoComix festival (since 2015), the Goethe Institute’s Egypt Comix Week (since 2014), the annual EGYcon (gathering Egyptians fans of anime, comics and games since 2014), and quarterly exhibitions organized by the startup KoshkComics (since this March). Clearly, Egyptians boast a growing interest in the medium.
One only has to glance at these publications and exhibitions to notice the focus on sociopolitical and economic issues. For instance, Andeel’s The Shepherd and the Wolf in the fifth Tok Tok tells the story of an abusive military official who beats the man he was interrogating to death, leaving the body of the victim for his assistant to dispose of. His next victim jumps from a window and dies; when his assistant shows up, the official says he didn’t even touch him, but his assistant doesn’t believe it. Khaled Abaziz’s The Pleasures of Joining the Army, in the first Tok Tok, is a satirical and clearly political comic about the futility of joining the army, from traumatic training to eventually dying on duty only to be recycled into oil, a toilet or plastic materials that would then truly serve the country. Comics artist MacToot creates works about the hypocrisy of Egyptians professing their open-mindedness only to secretly harbor judgments of everyone they encounter. Similarly, in issue zero of Garage, Farid Nagy’s Bubble illustrates those inattentive to the difficulties of the underprivileged until those difficulties start affecting them.
“As I argued in the "Cairo Comix," article for Mada Masr, all comics are political,” writer Jonathan Guyer tells me. “All the more so because everything in Egypt right now is political and the space for political speech is rather limited, so comics have become a platform where the personal and the political intertwine.”
“Today's young generation of Egyptian comic artists fuse a cacophony of international inspirations — manga and anime, alt-comix and superheroes, the magazines of Mickey Mouse and Maged and Samir, the images on the covers of Naguib Mahfouz novels, the street art of 2011 and the visual language of protest that emerged from the revolution,” adds Guyer, a keen observer of comics in Egypt. “Artists pick and choose from each of these genres as they develop their own styles and techniques.”
While Tok Tok seems to be more irreverent, the El-Seht twins believe comics can be didactic. Currently working with the Catholic Relief Services on a comic tackling religious discrimination, they say comics help highlight dire realities that needs to be addressed. “Comics don’t fix a problem,” says Mohamed El Seht. “You present the problem and each person thinks of a solution according to their point of view.”
Similarities in content and challenges
Moreno says that in terms of “independent comics,” politics are totally absent in Colombia, but commercial comics published in newspapers and magazines often do have a social and political tone. One artist in particular, Matador, regularly contributes in a left-wing periodical called Semana. One recent work is a caricature that depicts a dejected farmer holding up an “agrarian protest” sign while conversations bubbles on the side reveal “goal!” and “Colombia!” to show that the nationwide farmers’ strike is being overlooked for the sake of the 2016 Copa America.
These kind of small caricatures and comic strips are equally present in Egyptian and Colombian newspapers. One only has to leaf through Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk newspapers to find a plethora of comics dealing with topics such as elections, national security and corruption of high officials.
Meanwhile, the digitization of works by comic artists worldwide means one can note a similarity in the pattern of the comic artists’ lives. KoshkComics co-founder Amr Hussein thinks that the limitations in terms of opportunities are more or less the same everywhere — that apprehensions about getting recognition, publishing and making a profit from comics are shared.
“The similarity between the independent comic artists in Europe, the ones we saw from Colombia and here is like 95 percent,” he says. “They share main characteristics, they share their interest in the artistic part, but there are no strong platforms to share their work, here or in Colombia or in Switzerland.”
Political engagement through comics: A final thought
Infused by my sudden passion for Egyptian comics, I leaf through a copy of Garage and guffaw at the clever play of words and imagery, from human-bird hybrids wondering about the exact location to defecate to the playful jeers of Egyptian dialect. I ponder Moreno’s work again, and think the medium lends itself to analysis, meditation and expressing both the real and surreal. Hussein says Egyptians are constantly aware of society and their lives are marked by continuous political developments, thus both tend to be reflected in their work because “it absorbs all of their mental energy.” This could be the reason why Egyptian comics don’t seem to be able to avoid tackling sociopolitical topics. But, as Guyer pointed out, both basking in and overlooking politics in comics constitute political acts, as they are conscious decisions to portray our realities and appeal to the audiences we want to reach.
Sara Ahmed Abdel Aziz