Friday, April 18, 2008

Free the Comics!

It's only a fortnight until Free Comic Book Day on May 3. I'll be picking mine up at Fantastic Realm in Finsbury Park, but I will be missing the lovely freebie with strips by local artists put together by my old Toronto local, The Beguiling.
It's the seventh year for this annual celebration of independent comic stores across North America and internationally -- a triumph in a publishing climate ever more dominated by big publishers and big chains. Not only that, but schools and libraries are starting to realise that comics are a great way to promote literacy, especially with titles like Shekhar Kapur's Ramayana, Devi and Snake Woman series for Virgin changing the all-white, big-boobed face of superhero comics.

But Virgin are really playing catch-up as Arab countries boast their own superhero comics promoting understanding of Islamic values and Middle Eastern history. There's The 99, named after the 99 traits of Allah, from Kuwait, and Middle East Heroes from Cairo's AK Comics. Not so much with the evil ragheads of classic American comics, AK's series got lots of positive web coverage when it was announced and both books have proved popular.

So far, so positive. But the comics medium is not only there to serve nationalist or community-building purposes -- it can also be used for critique and satire, as well as reportage. While the Egyptian authorities have no problem with Zein, the Last Pharaoh representing their culture in the graphic world, it seems they have more of a problem with "the first adult Arabic graphic novel, is set in a chaotic modern Cairo pulsing with financial and social insecurity." Magdi al-Shafi'i's The Metro uses the story of a bank robbery to throw light on corruption and change pulsing through an urban, modern Cairo that's very different from the cartoon-bright world of Middle East Heroes. It has more in common with critical and political graphic novels like Etgar Keret's Kamikaze Pizza and it's also met an excited reception.

And lo, it's beenbanned. Not just banned, but booksellers have been told to wipe any mention of it from their computers. And the publisher Sheikh Muhammad al-Sharkawi, a blogger, translator and academic, has been jailed (for the second time: he served a previous sentence of two years for solidarity with Egypt's judges against the ruling party). Why? Because the graphic novel is written in colloquial language and could harm "public manners," according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights.

After you've picked up your free X-Men or Amelia on 3 May, take a look at Words Without Borders' translation of The Metro… It's a free comic -- and it could help to set a wrongly-imprisoned man free. Now, isn't that a job for Zein, the Last Pharaoh?

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