Lebanon's First Superheroine
Next week brings Lebanese and international graphic novelists together for Hay Festival in Beirut. Lebanese graphic novelists Zeina Abirached and Mazen Kerbaj, best known for Journal 1999, his graphic diary of the war, will meet with Belgian artist Judith Vanistendael, creator of Dance By The Light of the Moon and When David Lost His Voice, for a lively conversation, especially on autobiography and real-life in comics, on Wednesday July 4th.
The next evening, Thursday July 5th, Britain’s own Karrie Fransman, author of The House That Groaned, joins Zeina Bassil, a contributor to Lebanon’s Samandal comics anthology, who describes herself as “a shapes and forms lover, an illustration and comics addict, a passionate storyteller”, and Joumana Medelj (above), the artist behind Lebanon’s first superheroine, Malaak. I first met Joumana when she was over in London and she was invited to speak at Laydeez Do Comics. She and her superheroine character are also the subjects of this feature in the current edition of in-flight magazine Gulf Life.
Aside from Wonder Woman, Black Widow, She-Hulk, Supergirl and a handful of others, the superhero genre has traditionally been male dominated, and so too has the comic book profession. But since 2006, following the July War and her return from exile, Joumana Medelj, a young illustrator and cartoonist based in Beirut, has been creating a distinctly local superheroine of her own named Malaak, the first of her kind in Lebanon.
Having grown up in the Eighties during the civil war, Medelj was eager to make her character neutral yet rooted in her country’s history and mythology. So she imagined an alternate reality in which her ‘Angel of Peace’ is born from a cedar tree, magically springing from the earth itself. “It is the story of a young woman sent by Lebanon’s ancestral guardians, the Cedars, to save their land from an endless war”, she explains.
Medelj began Malaak as a serialised webcomic purely for fun but it soon took on a life of its own and built up a cult following online. Since 2007 she has published four print collections in colour so far of her graphic novel, which is set to run to seven volumes in total. Looking back on how Malaak has evolved, she reflects, “I feel like I have watched the character grow from being an angry young girl who had to resort to violence to a woman leaning more towards intuition and sacrifice to reach a solution.”
Inspired as much by French bande dessinée strip albums as American comic books, Medelj sees her creation as an inspiration to her readers. “It’s important for the Middle East to present positive female role models in the media addressed to younger generations, and comics occupy the front row there. Considering the unsatisfactory position of women in the region, young girls need empowered women figures to identify with, and these need to be local. While there’s nothing wrong with importing and enjoying foreign superheroes, if they’re not balanced with a local production, readers may not identify with them, or otherwise may feel that their country has nothing valuable to offer.”
Medelj is determined to complete Malaak‘s first adventure, possibly this year, and then produce a handsome hardbound volume of the whole story. “It would be wonderful if Malaak was taken up for something larger such as an animated feature, so that the character can reach an even larger audience, as long as she is not denatured in the process.” Could this Lebanese superheroine make it to the big screen? Anything can happen in comic books.
Medelj’s other projects include the landscape-format collection of witty automotive comics called Driving in Lebanon (above), which she drew entirely from an overhead viewpoint and designed in the size and feel of an actual car user’s manual in three languages. “These strips illustrate the proper Lebanese way for parking, saving time on the road and other useful things. The twist is that every one of the egregious practices shown here was witnessed by me for real, and is captioned with the place(s) it happened.”
Another small book she produced, Dragi & Me: Life with a Finicky Farcical Fuzzball (above), records her experiences with a beloved and very funny pet parrot. “For a while I lived with a very cheeky timneh parrot, whose antics I recorded day by day through comic strips and tweets and served as my first experiment at making comics for mobile devices.”
Joumana Medelj is proving herself to be a truly fresh and inventive voice in Lebanese comics, both in print and digitally. You can read the entire saga so far of Malaak for free on the Malaak website, which she keeps updated with the latest episodes.
Posted: July 1, 2012
This Article was published in the July 2012 issue of Gulf Life Magazine.