The world of Arab comics, then and now

person reading comic book at home in living room
A page from Samir Magazine, one of the most widely read comic magazines in the Arab world in the 1950 and 1960s. (Photo: Envato Elements/
When you hear the word “comic book”, your mind probably jumps to bright colors, graphic art, heroes, villains, capes, masks, all different shapes of speech bubbles, and, of course, the good-old comic publishers Marvel and DC and their anthology of iconic characters. اضافة اعلان

Recently, these international comic publishers have drawn flack for moves that have alienated certain cultures while exalting others. For instance, Marvel turned a blind eye toward the Arab world when it announced a recent decision to resurrect Israeli superhero “Sabra” from print comic archives, incorporating the character into the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe in the upcoming Captain America: New World Order, which is set to hit box offices in May 2024.

Sabra, an Israeli superheroine whose name blatantly revives memories of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre committed against Palestinians in Lebanon in 1975, has drawn criticism worldwide. Many have accused Marvel of supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and dehumanizing Arabs.

In the face of all this, and with comics increasingly under the spotlight, we looked into the Arab comic book hall-of-fame. We found a treasure trove of vintage print publications reflecting Arab history, culture, and norms, along with a file of newer additions that display the clever talents of a younger generation of artist-authors.

Jordan News interviewed Bader Mohammed, a comic lover, to get his take on all that Arab comic books have to offer.

“Arab comics are still in a formative stage,” he said, “but this does not mean that we lack the talents and abilities in the Arab region to reach a larger audience.”

As Arabs, he pointed out, “we need stories to talk about culture and the suffering we see in many of our countries.”

Here is a glimpse of the past and present of Arab comic books for future cartoonists and comics lovers:

Sindbad Magazine
Sindbad was a weekly Egyptian magazine created by Muhammad Saeed Al-Arian, which released its first issue on January 3, 1952, and its final issue on July 7, 1960.

Sindbad Magazine is known as the first children’s magazine in the Arab world. It was distributed in all Arab countries, and the stories were written in an elegant and interesting literary style to raise awareness among children on several issues. The magazine also published many Arabic and translated stories of world literature, as well as serial adventures featuring several episodes.

 The main character is Sindbad, who has embarked on a journey searching for his father, Shahbandar.

Nimrod, Sindbad’s dog, accompanies him on his adventures. Other characters include Qamarzad, Sinbad’s sister Mushira, his aunt, and Safwan, his cousin.

Shubeik Lubeik
Artist-illustrator Deena Mohamed’s main comics project, Shubeik Lubeik, is a trilogy about wishes published in Arabic and English. The story illustrates how three “first-class” wishes impact the lives of the three main characters as they struggle to realize their aspirations in a dramatically stratified world. The trilogy has been awarded Best Graphic Novel at The Cairo Comix Festival (2017), Grand Prize at the Cairo Comix Festival (2017), and finalist for the Mahmoud Kahil Award (2018).

Egyptian comic series Samir was one of the most widely read comic magazines in the Arab world in the 1950 and 1960s. The magazine featured an intriguing mélange of pop culture topics, nationalistic views, educational content, and gender issues, illustrating how early expressions of mass print culture for children played a role in the Arab world during a time of early postcolonial nation-building.

Underlying the magazine, which was printed from 1956 through 1967, was the goal of instilling nationalistic values in young Egyptian citizens during the formative years of the Egyptian republic. Some of the regular comics contain characters adapted from the local culture, including Basil, a young explorer who battles smuggler networks to defend Egypt’s borders, and Samira, a young woman who frequently exemplified the intelligence and grit of Egypt’s female role models.

This Lebanese comic magazine that is issued in three languages: Arabic, English, and French. They aimed to increase the reading of comic books in the Arab world and shift stereotypes that direct this art form almost exclusively towards children readers. Samandal boldly addresses various important issues, distinguishing itself from other mainstream magazines.

Throughout the pages, support is offered for upcoming artists considering making comics a career path, inspiring them and teaching them the importance of comics in reflecting on the social and political events occurring in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. 

Fe Batn Al Hoot or “Inside the Giant Fish”
Fe Batn Al Hoot is a graphic novel created by Rawand Issa. It documents the life of a girl who grew up beside a beach that no longer exists. The story is inspired by true events that began in the 80s and continue to this day, including the deteriorating economic situation and violence witnessed in Lebanon. In the story, the girl is drowning inside the belly of a whale, while trying to retrieve memories from the past.

Qendeel Al Jaw
Amidst the noise and pollution of Cairo — an explosion of population and waste — a new society is emerging, competing for land, air, and audio space. Qendeel Al Jaw, written and illustrated by Hazem Kamal and Charles Akl in 2021, follows the story of a group of passionate musicians who are trying in vain to devote themselves to art, living as outcasts in a professional world. They know only a few primitive techniques and musical tricks, which bring them contempt and scorn from listeners. 

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