Marcia Lynx Qualey
Last updated: 13 October, 2011

Cairo’s Graphic Novel Explosion

This week in Publishing Perspectives, bookseller Ramy Habeeb announced the launch of his new Cairo-based publishing house, “Arab Hero.” The publishing house, he said, will focus on creating a series of Arabic comic books “featuring Arab heroes, written by Arab writers, and illustrated by Arab artists.”

Despite Egypt’s difficult economic situation, Habeeb’s is the second Cairo-based publishing house launched this year with a focus on the graphic form. The first, Division Comics, kicked off in July with the Arabic-English comics anthology Autostrade.

Stand-alone cartoons have long been a serious art form in Egypt, playing an important role in shaping public discourse. As artist Asmaa Youssef told Al Masry Al Youm, “Cartoons are powerful because they help you decide how you feel about what’s happening. If I couldn’t read a newspaper for a day, I could see just one cartoon and feel informed about what people were thinking.”

But graphic novels have been a harder sell. This is in part because they are more expensive to produce than text-only books, and in part because publishers have seen them as a genre just for children. Division Publishing co-founder Marwan Imam said, “The whole idea of Division spurred from the fact that we as comic artists and writers were frustrated from publishing houses dealing with us as crazy people trying to sell them kids’ books.”

But, in the last four years, a lot has happened to change that perception.

It was 2007 when Magdy al-Shafee published his pioneering Metro, billed as the first Egyptian graphic novel. For a while, no one seemed to notice the slim socio-political thriller, which tells the story of two young men who rob a bank as a way out of bankruptcy. Then, in 2009, the book was yanked from shelves, al-Shafee and his publisher fined 5,000LE each (around 600 euros), and the book was banned. The novel has since been published in Italy and is due in English translation from Metropolitan Books next year. However, it has yet to reappear in Arabic.

Nonetheless, al-Shafee and others have continued to publish comics “for adults.” The comics magazine TokTok, which is labeled “keep out of the reach of children,” was launched in 2010. A group of independent Egyptian artists and writers put together the serious and enjoyable graphic-novel collection Out of Control in 2011.

Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies department is also trying to give the movement a boost: They have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for an anthology they’re calling Muktatafaht, or Excerpts. The anthology is set to include work by Egyptians Magdy al-Shafee, Mohamed el Shennawy, and Mohammad Tawfik, as well as by a number of experienced graphic novelists from Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.

Although graphic novels remain expensive to produce, practitioners are hopeful. Division comics co-founder Marwan Imam said earlier this year, “I never said financing graphic novels would be easy, but we believe in it enough to stand by it.”