NOW & Zahra Hankir

Malaak to the rescue

The setting is war-ravaged Beirut, and the militiamen patrol the streets, harassing the innocent amid scenes of destruction. But this is a parallel Lebanon, a fantasy world where the humans are “drifters” who can’t sustain a war without the help of the “Jinn;” where partisan politics plays no role; where homegrown mythology jumps off the pages; and where Malaak, a young female superhero born from the cedars, comes to the rescue.

“The idea came to me in 2000. I just had this image of a baby falling off a cedar tree,” says Joumana Medlej, who penned, illustrated and colored Malaak, Lebanon’s only current homespun superhero comic. “I went as far back as possible in terms of identity… You can’t be more neutral than coming from the land itself,” she said.

Medlej, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, kicked off Malaak last year by publishing several pages on the web. “At first it was just for fun,” she told NOW Lebanon, “then it got really serious and developed into a big project, which I’ll be working on for a long time.” Initially distributed at bookstores in 2007, the comic quickly became popular, and a second part will be published later this year.

It takes Medlej 50 hours to create one page of Malaak. (Image taken from Part 1 of Malaak, Copyright Joumana Medlej 2007)

Written in a mixture of transliterated Arabic and English, Malaak makes local mannerisms accessible to foreign audiences. Still, said Medlej, “the entire story is based on our [the Lebanese] history and mythology.” The comic weaves together elements of fantasy and personal experience and, yet, is “anchored in daily life in Beirut,” she said.

For example, Medlej based the militia-men characters in Malaak on the myth of the Jinn – creatures that exists in between the world of angels and the world of humans – and based their looks on figures from nightmares she had as a youngster growing up in the 1980s, during the civil war. Ordinarily, Medlej said, the civil war is depicted “in a real way, like commemoration, satire or commentary, but I’m using it as the basis for a fantasy story.”

The classic Marvel comics also inspired Medlej, but she manipulated these influences and even violated some of the typical rules. Though Malaak is female, for example, she doesn’t fit any of the typical comic book stereotypes. A village girl who leaves home to attend university in Beirut and has to struggles to come to terms with herself as a young woman and as a superhero, Malaak may also be the first female superhero with a male sidekick.

Medlej hopes one day to make Malaak the popular icon that Lebanon lacks. This does not mean, however, that she views the comic as a strictly Lebanese, or even Arab, endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be so obviously nationalistic,” she explained. Indeed, in a country where comics have been known to turn into political commentary, Medlej is doing something new, attempting to break with stereotypes and appeal to broader audiences.

Her message? “Other than that war is obviously bad and that no one wants to have it… it has a lot of things you can read into.” But it too, can be understood as a portrayal of, “how we are, how we live, and how to accept it.”

Malaak can be bought at Beirut bookstores, and can be visited online at www.malaakonline.com.