NOW & Zahra Hankir

Lebanon's forgotten superheroes

A selection of comic book covers and excerpts, including Bissat El-Reeh, Tarzan, and Batman.

Some of America's most prominent superheroes came to the rescue during the Second World War: Superman and Captain America, for example, battled the Japanese and the Nazis. Similarly, independence, and later, war-related themes permeated Lebanese comics, through the concepts of patriotism and resistance, during the medium’s heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s.

In the 1950s comic Zarzour, for instance, the hero was a young Lebanese soldier, while Al-Fursan's (The Knights, 1965) protagonist was a villager who fought against the Ottomans. Bissat El-Reeh (Flying Carpet), one of Lebanon's most famous homegrown comics, which was launched in 1962, depicted Fedayeens (freedom fighters) as superheroes who gallantly fought the ‘aggressors.’

"Comic books are a populist media, much like cinema and TV," said Henry Matthews, one of Lebanon's few researchers on Lebanese comics, in an exclusive interview with NOW Lebanon. The theme of patriotism has been present in Lebanese comics "since the start… During the civil war, at least one party published a comic periodical in Arabic with entirely local art," he noted.

Comic art has long been recognized as a tool to disseminate political and moral messages, with the US Army using the medium to promote its interests, and the United Nations soon following suit with an agreement with Marvel Comics.

But while American superheroes continue to be household names today, and comic art remains a booming industry in the West, in Lebanon, the local superheroes seem to be long since forgotten; nowadays, Lebanese comics are largely directed toward children, and rely almost completely on the translation of foreign works, such as Asterix.
Despite the medium’s decline in recent years, the history of the Lebanese comic book is both rich and prolific: The country produced the highest number of Arabic comic books during the genre’s "golden age" in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The themes of Lebanese comics varied. According to Matthews, "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." Some comics, though, were more religiously-oriented than others, having distinct Christian and Muslim themes, while others, such as Dunia Al-Ahdath, were geared toward education.

During the civil war, comics became a tool to illustrate and celebrate Lebanese resilience. Lebanon's most popular comics, said Matthews, were Bissat El-Reeh, Superman and Little Lulu. Bissat El-Reeh stopped being printed before the civil war and restarted in 1978, only to finally close shop in the mid-1980s, but Superman and Lulu experienced only brief interruptions in production from the mid-1960s until 2000.

Even as the war raged on, the initial decline in comic book production did not come until 1982, said Matthews, when "the Lebanese currency collapsed, and the changed geopolitical situation in the region curtailed export." Superman, nonetheless, remained the most popular serial in Lebanon and in the Arab world from the 1960s to the 1990s.

According to Future Television's Animation Department manager and comic art expert, Jad Khoury, the proliferation of comic books in the latter half of the 20th century in the Arab world, and in Lebanon in particular, reflected both emerging local expression and international influences. But foreign influence, which often brought lighter themes to the embattled region, eventually led to a decline in the popularity of homegrown comics, prompting Arab governments to attempt to push “Arabized” morals on their youthful audiences, said Khoury.

Lebanon, thus, also became a hub for the importation and distribution of foreign comics, particularly as an area more favorable to Western imports during the 1950s and ‘60s, Khoury elaborated. Translations were adapted to suit the local setting, with only minor changes made, such as the censorship of Wonder Woman's voluptuous cleavage.

Today, few comics are sold on Lebanese newsstands, and most are translations of Western serials into classical Arabic rather than the local Lebanese dialect. However, local efforts to revive the comic book as an expression of intellectualism and social commentary have been undertaken by a Beirut-based group, which launched the first issue of Salamander, a Lebanese comic magazine, late last year, in addition to the individual efforts of artists such as Mazen Kerbaj.

But according to Khoury, intellectual comic efforts often collide with Arab censors. In the past, censorship has stalled the publication and distribution of some comics in the broader region. And today, "if the Gulf doesn't want it, it won't be bought. [I'm] talking about certain morals, conservatism, and the fact that some visuals would not be allowed. All these values, you have to integrate them into your art." 

In response to the challenge of matching foreign works to local mores, Arab comics have emerged an industry in their own right. In 2006, Kuwait's Teshkeel media created a series of comic books called The 99, whose characters depict God's 99 qualities. Efforts like these "try to get people to buy the idea that we are good, traditional Arabs," said Khoury, describing such developments as part of a regional trend towards child-oriented, non-intellectual comics.

Nonetheless, efforts like Salamander show that Lebanon is still awash with real talent, and that there is a desire among artists to revive the industry. "We have the chance to create a booming comics industry in Lebanon," concluded Matthews, "And we have the will and the talent, whether to produce original work or to translate and produce suitable foreign stories."