05 July 2012

Unpublished interview: a feminist enquiry on Malaak

This interview was conducted in 2012 by Washington-based journalist Vicki Valosik for a feminist magazine. It was never published, so I asked her if I could put it on the website, as the questions brought up subjects that have never come up in other interviews, such as the comic's relationship to the feminine and feminism; the following insights, I thought, would be of interest to my readers.

1. What was behind your decision to make the heroine female?

It wasn’t a conscious decision: the female heroine came along with the story when I first thought about it. I didn’t stop for a moment to think about whether I wanted a male or female character. It’s only later, looking back, that I realized that a male character would have required a very different story, and that because of their natural differences in thinking and in doing, male and female characters were simply not interchangeable, unless badly written.

2. Did you base Malaak's personality on any females (or males) you know?

I didn’t want to do this, I really wanted to avoid it, but she ended up based on myself. I guess it’s inevitable, all characters are projections of their author and the main character probably most of all. It was my friends who noticed it before even I did, and some people (including one journalist upon concluding an interview) unconsciously called me by her name a couple of times.

3. How would Malaak be different as a man? How are her reactions to the fighting in Lebanon uniquely feminine?

A male Malaak would be incapable of resolving this situation, full stop. I can’t reveal where the story is going, but we need only look at reality: Lebanon’s troubles were begun, fuelled, and are currently kept up by men. Our (male) politicians are deeply caught in their egos and utterly incapable of taking the steps that could bring peace to the region. I’m not the only one to believe that if women were in power, things would get solved much more quickly (as long as they didn’t ape male behavior as too many women end up doing to achieve a political status in the first place).

At the beginning of the story, Malaak reacts in a more masculine way: she fights violence with violence. She uses her gift to take out Jinn one by one. If she’d been a man, she’d have taken this to a culmination, probably raising an army to do this very thing on a massive scale – likely backed up by research into what destroys the Jinn, so you’d have all these fighters armed with salt-throwing weapons or the like. Instead, her intuition soon kicks in. She realizes fighting can only get her so far, and turns inside to understand what is happening and what she, specifically, can do about it. She does have an advisor, but he’s only showing her the door: note that her male helper Adrian distrusts that advice and would reject it. But she takes the irrational decision to trust it and it opens new doors for her. As the story progresses she relies increasingly on her inner knowledge and less on logical decisions, less on violence and more on fixing things. Her ultimate purpose is healing the country, whereas a male hero’s would have been ridding it of its enemies.

4. How did you settle on such a sexy costume for Malaak? Do you see any conflict between her costume and the larger feminist message? She seems to appear more confident when she is wearing it.

I don’t see why sexiness and feminism should be mutually exclusive. You can look sexy because you submit to the distorted image modern society has of women, or you can be sexy because your natural femininity bursts out of you.

The costume design however didn’t take the above into account. I needed a “second skin” type of suit because it’s the most convenient for the kind of acrobatics and martial arts I had in mind for her (I practice both myself so this is my own experience.) This was also because I enjoy drawing  the human body in action so much that I didn’t want to cover her up too much, it would just not be as fun for me. Also, when I first started working on the comic, I was more intent on poking fun at the superhero genre, so I made the costume look typical of female superhero costumes, which are predictable to the point of ridiculous – and made it an in-story point that it was, of course, designed by a man!

That said, Malaak wears her suit the way a gymnast wears her leotard: in a natural, practical, not deliberately sexy way (note the realistically sized breasts instead of the usual balloons.) If she appears more confident in it, it’s because she’s playing the Clark Kent game: pretending to be shy and awkward in real life, so that people don’t wonder why she’s always absent during shelling (she pretends to be hiding in a shelter while in fact she’s out hunting down Jinn). She herself states at the end of the first volume that “nobody would ever guess” the costumed hero is her, because the costume is so not her. There are a lot of subtle subversions going on here that are even more striking when one looks at other superheroines.

5. It is interesting that Malaak's two main advisors are men (and that a man chose her sexy outfit) costume. Was this a conscious decision and if so, what was the reason behind it?

For Malaak to have a male friend, Adrian, was originally suggested by the friend who is the model for that character. He argued that Adrian would serve as the cold voice of reason alongside her more emotional and intuitive character. I suspect my friend just wanted to be in the comic, but this struck me as a very important point. I went with it and the result is a very interesting relationship, complementary but not without clashes. They need each other, though she has the greater strength.
There’s also a twist there: In all of the history of comic books, there is no such a thing as a male sidekick to a superheroine. Male superheroes may have a female sidekick, but not the other way around. Adrian would vehemently deny being a sidekick, but the pairing subverts this unspoken “rule” of superhero comics.

As for the other man, Amer, I can’t say anything about him right now because his role is still largely a mystery and I don’t want to spoil the upcoming volumes.

6. How long have you been designing comics?

I was 11 when I made my very first attempts. I was brought up on reading bandes dessinées and around that age, making them became a consuming passion. Until I graduated from high school, I spent every free moment making comics. Now that I think of it I’m a bit shocked, I really did not spend a single lunch break at school socialising, I just disappeared into the library either to draw comics or to read up on comic theory.
That changed when I went to university in late 98 and suddenly had no time at all to myself. I wasn’t able to touch the medium again till I started work on Malaak in 2006. By then I had a decade of new skills and experience (both worldly and professionally), and that made a huge difference in the new scale I was tackling.

7. What gave you the idea/inspiration for the series?

The first whiff of it came in 2000, while still under Syrian occupation, a very nasty period though the nastiness was kept hidden from the world. I had this idea of a “savior” sent by the cedar trees in the form of a child, and sketched the 2 pages showing her birth, that are now in volume 1. I had no idea what to do with it, though. What will she do, I thought, fight the Syrian army? That sounded wrong on all levels, and I knew I didn’t have the skill for an ambitious story, so the sketches went into a drawer and were forgotten.

Much later, in 2006, the Israeli-Hezbollah war brought us to our knees. Like everybody else I was both angry and disgusted. An online magazine launched the idea of creating “the Lebanese superhero”, just for a laugh, and though I sneered at the concept at first, inspiration just came. I designed her, then got the idea for her backstory that dusted off my two sketched pages, and then more ideas kept coming. Until I realized I was onto something big and I really had to see it through and publish it. It was almost pure catharsis at first, but volume 1 consumed my anger and now I’m flying on pure inspiration.

8. Do you have a conclusion in mind for the series or do you plan to keep it going?

I have a conclusion in mind, though I’m not yet sure how many volumes I will need to finish the story arc. No more than 8, I think. [Note from the future: I have now settled on 6!] I have nothing but distaste for series that go on and on long after they’ve said all they could say, and lose themselves in mediocre plots just to keep going. When Malaak’s story ends, it will end, though there’s always the possibility of then coming back in time for short, experimental storylines that run parallel to the main story arc, and put the spotlight on lesser characters, for instance. I’d very much like to do that and to let other writers and artists do that, if they wish. But after Malaak, I’m moving on to another series that I already started to develop – intimately related, but very different.

9. In making the aggressors jinns are you seeking to make a certain social/political message or is that your way of keeping it politically neutral?

Neither, really: it was a storytelling decision. As one of my readers put it, “a superhero is only as powerful as her enemies are.” You can’t go very far in a story when your antagonists are nothing more than armed men; to us (Lebanese) in particular there is nothing less exotic, more banal, and less threatening as a concept than militias. In the very beginning of my writing the story, they were going to be men, and I was stuck in a rut because I couldn’t see where I could take the plot, what I could possibly do with them to give the story an epic scale. There was also the question of how to discourage my Lebanese readership from trying to guess which of the existing political parties I was portraying as the bad guys, as everything is highly politicized in Lebanon, and there was no way in hell I was going to play that game. Then I had a classic “lightbulb” moment and thought of making them Jinn. That unblocked everything and suddenly the doors of local mythology and the supernatural were open to my plot, and that had never been done in my part of the world. It was a true stroke of inspiration.

I’ll add that I could not have brought myself to make my character routinely killing human beings the way she takes out Jinn. Adrian might, but not Malaak. In the story, Malaak explicitly doesn’t hurt humans who unwittingly help the Jinn, because “that’s not her part.” What she would do if backed into a corner is a pending question and may make for an interesting “moment of truth” in the near future.

10. Are you primarily trying to reach a Lebanese audience or are you hoping to bring what's happening in Lebanon to a larger audience outside the country?

I mainly target the Lebanese. There’s so much about this comic that only they can appreciate fully: the locations, the language, cultural references, and above all the collective memory of living with war. There are elements they have collectively forgotten: our ancient history and mythology, which I dig up constantly for my other pursuits (I co-author educational children’s books about Lebanon) and that I want to remind them of, because national amnesia, short-sightedness and lack of awareness of their identity is a real problem right now. Also, no such story has ever been addressed to them. We have no national fiction character, and no work of imagination taking place within our culture.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in taking the whole thing to a worldwide audience. I made it in English for that purpose (instead of our usual French) and I include vocabulary notes for the Lebanese words and anything a foreign reader might not get. I’m very gratified by the overseas readership I’ve acquired online. I didn’t expect everyone would be interested in such a Lebanese story, but it turns out it’s precisely the cultural setting of it that makes it fresh and interesting to comic lovers worldwide. I would love to find a way to have it published or at least distributed in Europe and North America, but those circuits are hard to crack.

11. Do you have any rolemodels in doing this kind of work?

I have many, and they are very different from each other. At the top of the list I should place Hergé, the author of Tintin, whose work and innovations in the medium were my leading light when I first began to learn it. Much more recently there’s Benoît Peeters, one of the great comic theorists of today, and in-between a number of artists in the French-Belgian traditions whose styles influenced me: Roger Leloup, Franquin, Hugo Pratt, Tome & Gazzotti... In the English-speaking world, Alan Moore is my absolute hero. I only discovered his Promethea after publishing volume 2 of Malaak and I was bowled over by the intersections with my own story, although I don’t know if I can ever match his writing and epic vision. I also admire and learn from David Mack, Chris Ware (for other kinds of comics), Gail Simone, Mike Mignola...

12. How has Malaak been received in Lebanon? Do you feel that it is filling a need for stories with strong heroines?

Well, Lebanon has no stories at all. I can’t think of a single current storyline that is developed enough to appeal to anyone above the age of 10. The only fictional character we have is one who appears in jokes. As for comics, we only have cartoons and caricatures, very few of which deserve any attention. Few people can draw right now, and even fewer write. [This was in 2010; there's been a clear increase in illustrators turning their attention to comicmaking since, though no rise in storytelling that I'm aware of]. In such a bleak landscape, the question of strong female heroines is not even asked – we have no heroes to begin with. So Malaak fills the need for Lebanese storytelling, Lebanese comics, Lebanon-based fantasy, a Lebanese superhero, serious writing and, finally, the need of the entire Middle East for a female lead character who is real, and not just a writer’s fancy to look open-minded and attract male readers.

The books are very well received in Lebanon both critically and popularly, across all age groups (of people that read comics, that is). They suffer from insufficient exposure, given I’m on my own, but the feedback was encouraging from the get-go. Without a doubt the question I get the most often is why I made my main character female. People are struck by that before anything else, because it’s a first (not even women expect a female action hero) and because they’re aware of our region’s patriarchal complex. I also think that due to Lebanese feminism leading the region right now, they make associations – but I was never on a crusade against men, I’m just writing a story that happens to be based on the feminine...