A surprising collection of Arab comics in Michigan
East Lansing, Michigan - Hidden away in protected archival space at Michigan State University (MSU) is a surprising trove that Special Collections Librarian Patrick Olson refers to as “the largest collection of comic books on the planet”. The collection’s oldest holdings — considered the first comic books — are by Rodolphe Toepffer, published during the 1830s and 1840s in Switzerland.
“We’ll never compete with Harvard’s illuminated manuscripts or Duke’s Egyptian papyrus collection,” Olson said, “but we lead in the comic niche.”
Quite a few universities maintain collections of comic books and graphic novels and MSU has a growing section from the Arab world. The collection has grown through private collectors’ donations and direct acquisitions by staff, principally Comic Art Bibliographer Randall Scott, who visits book fairs in the United States and overseas, and Deborah Margolis, Middle East Studies & Anthropology librarian, whose relationships in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel facilitate acquiring content and collaborations.
Beyond Tarzan — the Arabic versions of which are in the archives — contemporary Arab comic artists and writers join a flourishing industry as the genre gains momentum. Humour as artifice tackles taboos head-on and often rises above difficult subjects but comic artists’ repeated depictions of the Prophet Mohammad demonstrates their potentially dangerous power.
Amid societal turmoil, many Arab youth gravitate to comics, which are accessible across educational levels and offer a bit of relief through amusing plots and colourful characters — both fantastical and human. While most comics offer pure entertainment, some promote specific agendas.
MSU’s collection includes 23 issues of the boldly unconventional series called The 99, created by Kuwaiti media executive Naif al-Mutawa. This series, whose name alludes to the 99 attributes of Allah, aims to promote the universality of Muslim values through an entertaining cast of 99 characters.
In contrast to the US agitprop developed by government contractors to appeal to Iraqi children, The 99 was created by Arabs for Arab and other youth to offer a different narrative through the adventures of “the first superheroes from the Muslim world”.
At one of MSU’s Comics Forum events, Salah Hassan, associate professor of Arab American and Muslim American Studies, talked about Mutawa’s venture to create The 99, explaining how he “dodged cultural minefields and confronted the harsh realities” of financing and censorship.
Despite being banned in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait when it appeared in 2006, the series gathered favourable acclaim and was printed in the United States until 2009. Electronic publication continued until September 2013, having spawned other series that continue. Critics remain strident and last year the Kuwait Times reported a declaration of reward from the Islamic State (ISIS) for Mutawa’s assassination.
Another Comics Forum event, led by Assistant Professor of Linguistics Sadam Issa, featured a film about Palestinian activist, journalist and cartoonist Naji al-Ali whose work is also in the archives. Issa’s 2013 doctoral dissertation focused on Palestinian cartoons from 1967- 2009.
The graphic novel Je Me Souviens Beyrouth (I Remember Beirut) by Lebanese writer Zeina Abirached, features striking black-and-white drawings of animated characters and their speech bubbles. This collection of wartime memories tells the stories of ordinary people’s day-to-day struggles.
Another graphic novel, Cairo by American G. Willow Wilson, is a modern fable in which five strangers in Cairo interact with a genie and the underworld. Wilson, who lived in the Egyptian capital for several years, describes herself as “a student of religion and a comics writer”. The American Library Association listed Cairo as the top graphic novel for teens in 2007.
Among the more eclectic works in the collection is an original 1982 broadside by British cartoonist Ralph Steadman. This broadside is a visual interpretation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem Earth, which is printed at the top. Steadman painted a somewhat abstract image of a prone man, lying on a plinth with dead-open eyes. Except for the head, his body is transparent and his heart seems to explode into his gaping mouth while his arms hang limp.
Also in the stacks is a bound collection of the Youth Times from its founding in 1998 to 2009, believed to be the only issues outside the Middle East. The Ramallah-based Palestinian newspaper is a project of the Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation. Its 24-page, full-colour issues appear monthly in Arabic and English, written by young people, for young people.
The Youth Times develops writers aged 14-25 into leaders while providing Palestinian and international audiences with important stories that speak across borders. Funded partly by UN agencies, it is the only Palestinian youth newspaper that circulates throughout the Palestinian territories. Margolis said she expects to collect copies of all published issues when next visiting Ramallah.
MSU journalism Professor Salim Alhabash was the original Youth Times managing editor and today inspires Arab-American middle school students who are interested in journalism and Palestinian society.