10 July 2011

A Lebanese comicker in London

This blog has been quiet entirely too long! But I have been, as usual, all over the place, and today is the big day for Malaak IV as it's finally launching, both in print and in the iPad app, which was updated for the occasion!

Today though I wanted to take advantage of a morning of no-longer-running around to blog about my recent encounters with the comic scene in London, which were exciting to say the least. My involvement in any of these couldn't have without the kindness of Paul Gravett, aka the Man at the Crossroads and Peter Stanbury, aka the Man in the Emerald Fez, who surely deserve to be characters in a mystery graphic novel to do those names justice ;)
But I have to say, what I have said before, that I have yet to meet anyone involved in comics who isn't friendly, open and enthusiastic!

The first event I attended was the June edition of Laydeez Do Comics, a wonderful monthly forum that reminded me of Geekfest, except dedicated to comics, particularly those with an autobiographical dimension. LDC was set up by artist Sarah Lightman* and illustrator Nicola Streeten in 2009 to discuss selected works, but by now is more oriented towards having guest speakers of all kinds - established graphic novelists, academics, young potentials... They also invite a different guest blogger each time, to write about the event. If I lived in London, I would be a regular! I hope to catch future editions; their Facebook page is the place to catch all news and what others have written about the meetings.

* See her also in this Women in Comics mini-documentary.

The guests of the June 20th meeting were Andrew Godfrey, who draws an ongoing comic about living with Cystic Fibrosis, Katie Green, working on a graphic novel about her recovery from anorexia, Charles Hatfield, professor at California State University, and myself.
Andrew and Katie have already written their own accounts of the evening, as did Mike Medaglia, a London-based Canadian cartoonist (see his FB page) who was the night's guest blogger (artist bloggers are extra awesome because they draw events instead of snapping photos – see Mike's brilliant portraits!) I recommend them all to get a complete picture of these encounters.

Andrew Godfrey was the first speaker, and described for those of us unfamiliar with it the difficult genetic disease Cystic Fibrosis which he lives with, and the breakthrough he had in terms of dealing with it artistically when he discovered performance artist Bob Flanagan, who used it freely for his comedy stand-up routines. This put him on track for creating his comics about living with CF, turning the difficulty and indignity of it on its head thanks to humor. The roughness of the art style felt perfectly appropriate, a reminder to the reader that though funny, this was not casual, and when Andrew expressed a dilemma about it the audience reassured him that it really should remain this way. More on my thoughts below.
His blog Graphic Engine is packed with comic news and reviews, and hopefully we'll see more of his work on there in the future!

Katie Green shared some of her illustration work including extracts from her lovely Green Bean zine, but in particular she presented for the first time her graphic novel-in-progress, lighter than My Shadow, recording her experience with anorexia, reaching the edge of the abyss, and then succeeding in making a slow painful recovery complicated by abuse along the way. It was clearly difficult for Katie to speak in public of what is still a painful subject 10 years after starting to recover, and she confided that in her case at least, getting it all out on paper was not cathartic at all but reliving difficult times. And yet she still has a few hundred pages to go before the book's release in 2013! She's working in a style that will make the book very approachable by teenagers who may be the most vulnerable to eating disorders, and also, I found, the child-like feeling of the art only emphasizes the helplessness one must feel against this "beast".

It was particularly poignant and impactful for me to listen to Andrew and Katie's talks, both not only speaking but immortalizing on paper such personal and difficult experiences. I had never heard of Cystic Fibrosis nor do I know anyone who suffers from an eating disorder, not, I'm sure, because they don't exist in Lebanon, but because in our society, they would be kept under wraps, families dealing in the strictest privacy with anything they deem too personal, or presenting an image of weakness. Even those who may discuss their disease or story of abuse relatively openly with their friends, may hesitate to commit them to print and publish them. I know I wouldn't; for all my writing and drawing about life during the war, I realize now, I never really open up about how the whole thing affected my inner life or my family's. In a small country where everybody knows each other, one always tries to control the image they project, because once it's out there, it will return again and again. But this is no way to spread awareness, and comics, with their popular appeal, are in a unique position to bring awareness of diseases, psychological issues, abuse, and so on to a large audience. Katie, whose book is not even completed yet, already reports that she's hearing from people who are heartened by the knowledge that one can recover from anorexia. Doubtless Andrew has (or will have) an audience that feels differently about themselves or about CF-suffering acquaintances thanks to his testimony. Both of their work belongs in the lineage of medical comics and they will fill a needed niche there where they can help others. This makes me wish more Lebanese artists, instead of being fixated on the war (yes, it's a national trauma, but how long are we going to let it hang over everything we do? And I realize I'm not innocent here), would pick up their pencil to tell the story of more personal and immediate issues.

Click here for a podcast of Andrew and Katie's talks.

Next came Charles Hatfield, whose passion for the field made me wish I was a student in California. A scholar of comics, author of Alternative Comics (now on my wish list), Charles teaches English class where the focus is often on comics or graphic novels, reading them, appreciating them, and homework often consists in creating comics, "even with stick figures" if necessary. Charles fully appreciates the enormous potential of comics and how they can draw on as many disciplines and studies in life as one wishes. His work is instrumental in completing the transition that sequential art is still going through now, from a reviled medium not taken seriously by "serious people", to being accepted by institutions on a same level as literature or art. We certainly could have discussed the questions he raised for hours, but we were running short on time and so it was my turn to get up and present Malaak.

As the forum is interested in the autobiographical (and I'm still surprised they looked twice at my superhero comic), I started by describing the context in which I grew up, as it defines the premise of Malaak: Lebanon at war, then under occupation, then liberated and immediately attacked again. I always underestimate the impact our lifestyle of the time has on foreign listeners, and I never quite know what will stand out most in their minds. As usual I forgot some of what I wanted to say and blurted out things I hadn't thought of saying, such as "for us kids it was simple: bombs, no school, no bombs, school", and that was what stuck!
For this presentation I dwelled a bit on things that wouldn't bear explaining to a Lebanese audience: the symbolism of the cedars from which Malaak is born, the glimpses of the National Museum as it stood when combats ceased, and such small details I insert in the storyline and let people notice for themselves. It was also immensely refreshing to speak to an audience that looks at the artwork and knows exactly how much work it represents, something people who never held a pencil (99.9% of my countrymen) take for granted entirely.

After this we all ran to have a quick curry, and I was sad to have to head home before I could really get to know anyone – curse London's silly Tube schedule!

As this is already long, I'll go briefly over the other two events.

The Comica Social Club gathers on the last Wednesday of every month: around 100 comic creators or academics or lovers, catching up on news and projects, showing each other their work, and sometimes getting special treats – this time round, Paul brought an advance copy of the long-awaited Habibi by Craig Thompson, and the enormous Alan Moore: Storyteller. I was entranced by the former and excited by the latter, and both went straight on my wish list. There were more people than I could meet but a few familiar faces from LDC: Nicola, Mike, and German artist Andy Bleck with whom I spent a long moment brainstorming on possible abstract comics based on Arabic calligraphy.

Alex Fitch trying out the Malaak app

I was particularly excited to meet illustrator and comic artist Barnaby Richards. Unexpectedly, Barnaby lived in Lebanon as a child, from 1980 to 82, and he recently started writing, then drawing his memories of those years, memories embroidered and sometimes created by the highly imaginative child he was. The result is the promising Beetroot, the most creative take on Lebanon I've seen in a long time. Our meeting seems to have motivated Barnaby to complete his project (and myself to bring some old ideas out of the closet to parallel with his), but when he said he really wanted to go back to Lebanon now, we suggested he wait till Beetroot was finished, so as not to contaminate his memories!

I was at the gathering at 6 and thought I would leave around 8, but it's not till 10 that I tore myself away to make my long way home. I saw them all again one last time on the 30th, at a talk and book signing by David B for Black Paths, English version of his latest work, published by SelfMadeHero. With my Franco-Belgian comic background I had naturally long heard of David B. who in addition to being a celebrated author is also a founder of legendary L'Association, and I never imagined I would end up meeting him in London, at a talk in which I managed to slip at the very last minute (very Lebanese of me). But the world of comics is smaller than one imagines, and in London I found a staple between the worlds of American/English comics and French comics, which themselves, in my experience, wove into places as far apart as Armenia and Algeria. I absolutely can't wait to be back in any of those places, until our local scene ceases being a series of isolated attempts not interested in each other and becomes a proper scene to speak of.

David B. speaking with Paul Gravett