08 November 2013

A bit of news and interview

Dear Malaak readers,

The hiatus continues and I know it leaves many people rather frustrated, but moving to the UK with basically a few paintings under my arm was no small thing. Now that I have just moved from a tiny room into a flat where I can work on more than one project at once, I have hopes that I can pick up volume 6 again, but not before the making of a calligraphy show I've been asked to prepare is solidly underway, as that will make or break my living. Too much noise in the head makes for poor writing, as fellow makers will know!
Yet rest assured I constantly hold Malaak and her world in my mind while I wait for the right time to proceed. There will be some books for sale a The Souk London next week, and I've done a few interviews recently, one of them for Bloomberg News' article: Arab Superwomen Triumph as Comics Depict a New Middle East

As the article barely scratches the surface of a serious and bottomless topic (as mainstream articles usually do) and because I know you miss me ^_^ I thought I would share here the full interview I had with Salma el Wardany, as I was hoping some of the more thought-provoking stuff would be published.

First of all where did you get the idea of creating, Malak, a female super hero?

I never actually had the idea of creating a super hero. I had an idea for a story, back in 2000, that involved a child being sent by the guardians of the land (the cedar trees) to save Lebanon, but I didn't know what to do with it. When I dusted off this old idea in 2006, I could see where the story was going, and the character was obviously going to be female, and a superhero-ish. I see her more as a mythological figure planted in a modern setting, where she'd come across as a superhero. For me, today's superhero comics are a much-needed replacement for our lost hero mythologies, they serve the same function, and I explored that consciously in Malaak.

When you were thinking about drawing Malak, were responding to a demand (from readers for a female superheros) or you were intentionally trying to create this demand?

Neither. I'm a storyteller: I tell stories when and if they come, for the sake of the story, without an audience in mind. The audience is attracted (or not) later. I was thinking of nothing but my own desire to tell the story when I first started it (you could say there was a demand in me for a Lebanese superhero), and only later realized, by the size of the audience it attracted, that there was a demand for such a character. I would not reduce it to a demand for female superheroes, however Рthere are plenty of those, let's not treat them like a rare species or Malaak like a novelty. Lebanon needed a local character and storyline rooted in the land and its history; Middle-Eastern women needed a female comic character that's both strong and vulnerable, neither a stereotype nor a feminazi (and indeed not necessarily involved in a gender war); young Arabs needed more regional comics of high standard; Western comic readers needed a Middle-Eastern character that's not a clich̩ and that's not painfully contrived to "bridge cultures"; and everyone who enjoys those things needed a superhero story that breaks the Marvel/DC mold. All of these demands were revealed as the story unfolded and it's why Malaak appeals to such a diverse audience.

In terms of critique and sales, do you think people in the Arab world welcomes the idea of a female super hero? Did you face any hate mails?

Generally it was welcome, though I did get some silly reactions, even well-meaning. Also a lot of people asked "Why a female character?" as if that was necessarily a feminist or man-hating statement. Some people even decided that creating a strong female comic character meant that I was a lesbian. It's remarkable how much gender-linked psychological nonsense came out of the woodworks around this character. But overwhelmingly, the reactions were very positive and a I have a good and intelligent following. Not purely because I'm writing a female superhero, but because it's a good story and a well-written character. I'd be very disappointed if the love was for no other reason than the character's gender. Interestingly, sales have been rather better abroad. This could be because it was well marketed online, while Lebanese bookshops made no effort at highlighting Lebanon's only comic and hid it away almost systematically. Comics still seem to be an embarrassment to the Arab world.

In terms of the reaction you received or do you think people are still afraid or reluctant of the idea of a woman having a lead role?

A lot of people, of either gender, welcomed this with enthusiasm, as it highlighted the lack of such women in entertainment. Yet there were, as I mentioned above, definitely reactions of reluctance and defensiveness. I got the clear feeling that to some people (men AND women), putting a female in a lead role signified an attack on men. This is a deeply ingrained distortion in our society (less in Lebanon than in other parts of the Middle-East, but still). So yes, it's there.

Recently, there have been many examples of comics and cartoons coming from different parts of the Arab world depicting female heroins, do you think that may reflect the fact that artists and young people are trying to create their own fiction characters to fill the void in reality amid governments neglect of women rights and societies resistant to this sort of change?

I can't speak for creators I haven't discussed with, of course, but my feeling is that even if they're not consciously aware of it, somewhere they are compensating for the repression of women in these societies. In any society that's out of balance, you look at the artistic creation to see what exactly is missing. So it's not surprising at all that in such an extreme patriarchy, creators are bringing in a larger role for women.

Are there any examples of female super heroes in Lebanon that you may want to point out? and if not, what does this scarcity mean to you?

None at all, Malaak is the first and to my knowledge still the only one. But there are barely any comics in Lebanon, superhero or not, and no iconic characters at all, female or male! The real question is, why the scarcity of creation, and of comic books? That's simple, creativity is repressed in Lebanon, where you are brought up with only one idea: get a solid job that will make you financially secure. Art is seen as silly and not serious. We have such a fear of the future (due to our past) that we have completely forgotten, to a destructive extent, that creativity is the food of the soul and that a society that doesn't give art its proper place can only be neurotic (do I need to explain how this applies to us?) As for comics, they take a lot of work over many years and bring in no financial reward at all, so only artists truly in love with the medium, who make comics for comics' sake, end up with finished products worth publishing. There are a few such people in Lebanon, very few – but given how unrewarding the country is, it's a good start!

How has Malaak evolved over the years?

The best way to find out is to read the story on malaakonline.com! But I can say she has gotten more solid as a character, more centered, and has gone from a classic action superhero solving problems with martial arts and outward action, to looking deep within for real answers.

Do you believe comics are reflections of social concerns or trends, politics and if so, how have regional events over the past 3 years or so impacted your work, if at all?

Not always -- that's a prevailing prejudice in the Mideast, that comics can only be educational or political. Storytelling of any kind is much broader than that and can also be simply for pleasure and fun. In the case of Malaak, the July 2006 war triggered its making (from my 2000 outline) and set the emotional tone for the first volume, but then the story became much less concerned with current events and more with timeless themes. The work has been impacted more recently in a different way: the climate in Lebanon and economic decline being so unlivable I've had to move to the UK, so that the final volume of Malaak has been on hiatus for nearly a year.

What are your thoughts on female superheros in the arab world, do they have a role to play, how, can they help change mindsets and take certain issues, like fights for equality, to the wider public? 

I would say any kind of well-written, solid female characters, not just superheroes, are essential for the Arab world at this time of unprecedented violence against women. Empowerment starts in the mind. Women need from a young age to learn they have power of their own and young men need to learn to see women as equals with abilities of their own which must be respected. We can also learn from the mistakes of the West and, if we're smart and have more women creators from the outset, skip their embarrassing history of going from women as second class citizens who can't vote straight to women as sexual objects that are in the story just to titillate male readers (this is rampant in the superhero genre). We can create in our literature the equal and balanced society we aspire to and that can then modify our whole collective.

Are you working on any new characters?

At the moment all my efforts are towards establishing my career as an artist calligrapher in London. I do have ideas for a Malaak prequel, but I hope there will be space in my life to develop it!