Comic books: the art of storytelling

An exciting new wave of graphic novelists from around the world is flourishing in the rapidly evolving comic-book industry. Vision reports

When Mai El Shoush arrived at the first-ever comic-book convention in Dubai last spring, she wasn’t expecting it to change her life. As a reporter for local newspaper The National, she’d already filed her stories previewing the festival, and it was only on a whim that she decided to take a peek at the expo on her day off. “I never had stacks of comic books in my room,” she admits. “I wasn’t a collector.”

El Shoush ended up talking to two of the men who are helping to transform comic culture in the Middle East. First, she met the co-founder of the Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC), Arafaat Ali Khan. He explained that part of the festival’s aim was to encourage locals to start producing their own graphic work, and when he found out that El Shoush had been harbouring secret dreams of writing creatively, he suggested she talk to Sohaib Awan, a Philadelphia-based entrepreneur with a special interest in stories that link to Arabian myths. Awan’s own comic-book series, Jinnrise, which pits genies against aliens, was debuting at that year’s Comic Con, and he’d just launched a company, Jabal Entertainment, to help more comic books from the Middle East and North Africa get made.

Muslim heroine

El Shoush told Awan about an idea she had for a Muslim super heroine, Rayann Lawsonia, whose henna tattoo gives her mystical powers. He loved it, and a few days later a deal was struck. “I thought, are you kidding me? This is incredible!” she remembers, laughing. “I started working on it immediately.”

She was set up with artists including The Walking Dead contributor Mark Torres and Siya Oum, another rare woman in an industry that’s still male-dominated. By the time MEFCC came around again in April 2013, El Shoush had a booth selling a 14-page teaser issue of her comic, Drawn. At the end of the weekend, she was left with only a couple of copies of the entire run. She says, “It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

El Shoush is part of a new wave of comic-book writers across the world who weren’t brought up on monthly issues of Justice League of America or The Incredible Hulk. For them, comics and graphic novels are just another medium for storytelling, as diverse as film or books, featuring intelligent Arab women as well as square-jawed white men.

Some would argue that the peak era for comics has already passed and will never match the sales of the pre-TV era – when Superman sold around a million copies per issue – or the artistic high point of the 1980s. But for Mary Talbot, who became the first graphic novelist (along with artist Bryan Talbot) to win the Costa Book Award for Biography in 2012, the medium has never been so interesting.

“There’s now an enormous range of high-quality material available, in almost every genre and style you could think of,” Talbot says. “That attracts a much wider and more varied readership, which in turn encourages writers like me to join in.”

Antidote

It’s a positive feedback loop, and it means that a profusion of vivid, personal voices are getting heard. Talbot’s own book, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, intertwines the story of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia with the author’s own memories of her father, the Joycean scholar James S Atherton. El Shoush’s Drawn features a smartphone-toting, headscarf-wearing inhabitant of New York – a deliberately designed antidote to the lycra-clad heroines of old-school superhero comics.

There are two reasons for the increasing diversity. Firstly, superhero movies like The Avengers (the highest-grossing film worldwide in 2012) have been successfully marketed to all four of the industry’s target demographics – male, female, under-25s and over-25s – and they’ve helped rid the reputation of comics as the domain solely of awkward teenage boys.

Secondly, some of the experimental, highbrow graphic works have managed to grab the attention of hipsters, critics and the literati, and have forged the way for unorthodox comics that aren’t about caped crusaders. These included Art Spiegelman’s haunting graphic memoir about the holocaust, Maus, which won a Pulitzer prize back in 1992 and Chris Ware’s heartbreaking and beautifully-designed Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which won major literary prizes in both the US and UK in 2001.

These writers helped familiarise readers with comics about the real world.

“I don’t suppose there would have been an audience for my book in the 1980s,” Talbot says. “It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to produce it.”

In the Gulf, a few pioneering individuals had been staking out new territory. In 2006, Kuwait-born entrepreneur Naif Al-Mutawa began writing and publishing The 99, about superheroes with powers based on the 99 attributes of Allah, which went on to do a crossover run with DC’s Justice League of America and is now on Cartoon Network TV. It also inspired Dubai-based IT consultant, Qais Sedki, to write and self-publish Gold Ring in 2009. The book, about a boy who takes part in a falconry competition, combines classical Arabic dialogue with manga drawings by the female artist duo Akira Himekawa.

This summer, El Shoush will see the first full-length issue of Drawn go on sale online and in UAE bookshops, and though the journalist is sticking with her day job for now, she’s excited about promoting her work at international conventions like the San Diego Comic-Con. “As long as there’s a demand for it, then I’ll continue,” she says. “Writing creatively is something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time.”