Talking To: Henry Matthews

Henry Matthews began working in Arabic comic book publishing houses in 1978, handling translation, layout and illustrations as well as writing history and science articles for the comic magazines he was producing. A former engineering student, Matthews has written about aerospace exploration, and his Encyclopedia of Rocket Aircraft and Space Shuttles was the co-winner of the Best Arabic Scientific Book Prize from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences in 1993. Matthews also writes poetry and prose and is a graphic designer and painter who held his first individual painting exhibition in 2006.
Matthews taught graphic design for ten years at International College and at the American University of Beirut. He is also an animal care activist.

NOW Lebanon: In your opinion, what is the significance of the history of Lebanese comics, and how has this history developed?

Henry Matthews: Lebanon is only the second Arab country to publish a periodical comic book. Egypt started with Samir in 1952, and Lebanon started with Dunia Al-Ahdath in 1955. Some famous literary and artistic names accompanied Dunia Al-Ahdath early in its career, such as writer Rose Gorayyeb and artists Samir Rashed and Abdullah Shahhal. In 1962, Bissat El-Reeh started in Lebanon and was soon a house-hold name all over the Arab world. Bissat El-Reeh started the comic book revolution in Lebanon and the Arab world.  Unlike Samir, whose distribution was to a large part centered in Egypt, and Dunia Al-Ahdath, which was basically limited to schools in Lebanon, Bissat El-Reeh – and later, the Arabic Superman, which started in 1964 – sold the bulk of their thousands of copies outside Lebanon. The decline started with the war and really worsened after 1982, when the Lebanese currency collapsed and the changed geopolitical situation in the region curtailed export.

The importance of Lebanese comic books stems from the love and passion with which youngsters viewed them. The stories and the art were superb. Some youngsters, including myself, fell in love with drawing and colors thanks to the Lebanese comic books. I studied fine arts at BUC [now LAU] because of one magic and unforgettable cover of Bissat El-Reeh. It was issue No. 7, with Aladdin on a flying horse in a starry sky. It changed my life. Comic books contributed a lot to my happy childhood, and I am unabashedly sentimental about Lebanese comic books. I grew up on them. Incidentally, some of my paintings have a comic character.

For the sake of all the love and passion the Lebanese comic books were made of and inspired, I want to produce an encyclopedia of Lebanese comic books, featuring the history of every single comic book ever published in Lebanon.

NOW: What were the most popular comics, and why do you think some were more popular than others?

Matthews: The Bissat El-Reeh weekly and the Superman weekly (and his superhero friends, Al-Warwat, Al-Barq and Lulu As-Saghira monthly series) were the most popular. Bissat El-Reeh stopped and restarted several times [published in 1962-1965, 1968, 1970, 1978-1985]. Superman and Lulu continued without lengthy interruptions, though changing format, frequency and production standards, from 1964 to 2000.

Both Bissat El-Reeh and Superman comic books were appealing at their best, but Superman quickly established its dominance over Bissat El-Reeh, which lost its main asset, Bahiga (and her loveable characters Rido, Sumsuma and Aladdin) to Walt Disney and also met with financial misfortune. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, Superman remained the most popular comic character in the Arab world. Perhaps the lack of consistency in Bissat El-Reeh (changing characters and artists) and the rock-solid consistency of Superman – as well as his natural appeal to the dormant handsome hero in every one of us – gave the man-of-steel the edge. Incidentally, Superman and other American superheroes are now published in Saudi Arabia and are very popular.

Note that the Bissat-El-Reeh vs. Superman confrontation was in reality a confrontation between the French system of Tin Tin and Spirou weeklies, where stories with a variety of heroes dragged on in small episodes from week to week, exasperating the readers, and the American system of Superman, where you read all the story in one or two issues. Superman won.

Interestingly, this aversion to continuation stories eventually affected the French magazines, making some famous names stop or adopt the American system with complete stories or ample episodes per issue.

NOW: To what extent were the comics translated from the West (such as Batman, etc), and to what extent were they original Lebanese works?

Matthews: Bissat El-Reeh used a mixture of locally-made comic strips [by artists Bahiga, Mahmoud Kaheel and Tareq Al-Assaly] and translated French-language material from Dargaud and Dupuis. Superman used American comics almost exclusively, with one exception: a Sindibad continuation story in the 1960s, by Georges Azar. Both formulas worked as long as the quality was there. Other comics relied only on local talent, but their quality varied a lot.

NOW: When was the heyday of Lebanese comics? Would you say that their production was a significant part of the Nahda, or the Arab Cultural Renaissance?

Matthews: The heyday of the Lebanese comic book extended through the 1960s and 1970s, despite the war. Many experiments did not live long: Dunia Al-Abtal and Shater-Hassan, for example. But there was so much going on, and practically every publisher wanted to join the comic boom. There was a lot of experimentation. As to the second part of your question, my answer is: yes indeed, they were a significant part of the Nahda. They made youngsters love to read. Myself and other classmates of mine used to smuggle our comic books to class because our teacher, a grey-haired chisel-faced stern disciplinarian, thought of comic books as less than garbage. He was wrong, of course.

NOW: Would you say there has been a decline in production and popularity of comics in Lebanon?

Matthews: It would take dedicated research to find a reliable answer. Contributing factors  are the multiplicity of entertainment means available to youngsters nowadays, social change, and, of course, new generations will not love Lebanese comic books if they have never seen one. Last May in AUB, my collections sourced an exhibition of Lebanese comic books. Almost all students and most of the older visitors admitted to having not seen most of the comic books on display. It broke my heart but convinced me that the history of Lebanese comic books should be preserved, before it is too late. Call me sentimental –I am – but I will sleep better if I know that the heritage of our comic books is preserved, for the sake of all the hours of unbridled magic and happy memories that Lebanese comic books gave me. This is not to mean at all that I am not interested in other comic books, Arab and foreign, but I have to start here.

NOW: Do you think globalization has had a negative effect on the production of Lebanese comics in particular and Arabic comics in general?

Matthews: It is all a matter of reading being a part of life. The comics market has mutated in the Arab world, but it still exists because people still read a lot there, and the numbers are huge, making the sales profitable. New publications, glossy and colorful, have replaced the old. Lebanon is different because it is such a small market, and some very beautiful comics are reaching us from the Gulf. Copy price is very cheap. This makes it difficult for a small-time publisher in Lebanon to compete. Also the internet, cable TV and other attractions have filled the “boredom slots” for all youngsters. Reading is not their prime concern.

NOW: Did the themes of “Islamic morality” or “East-West dichotomy” that were present in some Arabic comics find their way into Lebanese comics?

Matthews: Lebanese comic books usually carried much more variety than the American comic books, which mainly featured a main story and little or no editorial material. Lebanese and Arab comic books invariably included scientific, moral and cultural textual articles and short stories, so even the most partisan publication had neutral material to read. There is no dichotomy, but a variety, where anyone can find something interesting to read.

This is a continuation of the trend started by Dunia Al-Ahdath, which devoted half its pages to school curriculum material in order to be allowed distribution in schools. And while Dunia Al-Ahdath’s production standards deteriorated around its final years – it was then named Al-Foursan – the quality of its textual material remained impeccable.

Comic books published by Islamic publishers naturally depict Islamic morals but still contain science and funny material, and many of the ethics, such as obeying one’s parents and being kind to animals echo similar topics in much earlier publications, which were not religious-leaning. Please note that there have been a number of religious comic publications, both Christian and Muslim, with very beautiful local art. Some, like Qissat Al-Mawarinah, even used informal Arab language.

NOW: What are you comments on the future of comics in Lebanon and in the region?

Matthews: Comics have come a long way from their beginnings in the late 19th century as newspaper comic strips. The comics industry in the West is thriving and is very promising, despite the age of the internet. While books and newspapers have been badly affected by the internet, the comics industry has thrived to an unprecedented extent. More and more comic book publishers are starting, and long-established regular publishers are also setting up their comics imprint. And the quality and variety of the artwork are going up.

And because this is such a booming industry in the West, it is attracting some very famous names. Only recently authors Jonathan Lethem and Stephen King (yes, the Stephen King) began writing for comics. The first issue of King's Dark Tower sold 200,000 copies almost immediately when it hit the stands in March 2007.

We have a chance to create a booming comics industry in Lebanon. We have the will and the talent, whether to produce original work or to translate and publish suitable foreign stories. A lot of new and young talent is here. They are eager to create. They love what they are doing. Look at Samandal, the newest Lebanese comic book, with stories in English and Arabic. It will take sacrifice and patience, but the publisher who can afford it will succeed in the long run, especially if he learns from the mistakes of earlier publishers.

Comics are the new language of the 21st century, and it is high time Lebanon joins the trend. The first step would be in recognizing previous publications and documenting their history in an encyclopedia like the one that I am seeking funding for.