Pioneering Comic Magazine ‘Samandal’ Returns With New Adventure

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The cover of Samandal's latest edition. Cover art by Paula Pauling.

By: Rawan Ezzeddin

Published Tuesday, January 20, 2015

After an almost year-long absence, “Samandal” (which means salamander in English) released its latest issue in December 2014, putting to rest speculations about its demise. The Lebanese comic magazine appeared in a new guise, with a new design and editorial policy, all the while maintaining its ethos as an experimental platform. The new edition titled “Genealogy” (Sulala) brings together artists from Lebanon, Egypt, Belgium, France, Germany, Morocco and Algeria.

The tree branches drawn on the cover — designed by Paula Pauling — sneak into the first pages of the magazine. Inside, the artists contributing to the new issue of “Samandal — picture stories from here and there” discuss them as an embodiment of a family tree. It has been eight years since the release of the comic magazine’s first issue. After an almost year-long absence, Samandal’s latest edition came out in December 2014, putting predictions of its demise to rest. Many of the magazine’s readers, though, may not be able to recognize it immediately.

Substantially thicker than before, Samandal is now an annual publication. We can no longer talk about it as we did in the past, as an endeavor trying to reach an unknown audience. Its previous 15 editions, released over the past few years, with about 180 contributing artists, gained the magazine a wide readership in Lebanon and the Arab world. Looking back at the beginning of the project, launched by Omar Khoury, Hatem Imam, Lena Merhej and Tarek Nabaa, “Samandal” now appears as a vanguard in the Arab comic strip movement, which was looking for a crack in the door to unleash new experiments. This modern wave of comic strips for adults includes Egyptian experiments such as “Tok Tok” and “el-Doshma,” and comic festivals from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, to Beirut.

In Beirut, “Samandal” reflected the street’s questions and the concerns of the artists. The stories and drawings on its pages captured the city’s absurdist climate. But it grew beyond that, opening itself up to international experiences and artists, becoming a stage for experimentation, a search for new languages and forms of visual expression. These characteristics are still apparent in “Samandal’s” latest edition, edited by Lebanese artist Barrack Rima, who also chose the title and theme. “Genealogy” brings together 22 artists of different generations, nationalities, schools and languages, in 20 works of art that exemplify the experimental ethos that “Samandal” has aspired to since its inception.

The magazine has tackled various issues and questions over time, covering everything from family, childhood, memory, history, politics, desire, nightmares, city, to mythologies. On paper, the artists expressed themselves to the fullest extent, receiving guidance from the fathers of the artform, such as the Moroccan poet and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011), whose work was featured in the issue. Their comic strips were inspired by other art forms, which makes sense given that some of the contributors came from other artistic backgrounds. In the latest issue, the concept of Genealogy isn’t only explored in some of the artwork, it is also reflected in the artists Rima invited to contribute — from Morocco, Lebanon, Argentina, Algeria, Belgium, Germany, France and Egypt. Further, the magazine has added strips in German and Spanish to its usual lineup of Arabic, French and English strips, along with a booklet containing translations of the foreign strips.

Political events and family life overlap, and so do the lives of the mother and daughter, in “To take the family Album (whenever I leave home)” by Jana Traboulsi and her mother Nawal Abboud. In drawings, collages and stamps — which take the work out of the context of traditional comic strips — we find a sad story, burdened with political and urban disappointments, which the daughter inherits from her mother’s generation. We see this specifically in the stamp section made by Nawal at the height of the resistance, and drawn by Jana years later in memory of the struggle. We follow them through a series of wars and migrations, beginning with the Israeli invasion of Beirut, the family’s departure, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death, Palestinian defeats, urban sprawl in the Lebanese capital, all the way to the Syrian revolution.

In “Tomorrow will never come,” we read Mazen Kerbaj and his mother Laure Ghorayeb’s family story. The two have a visual conversation through comic strips. Mazen throws questions at his mother that arose after he turned 40. He wishes that he could relive that period. An intimate conversation begins between two generations alienated from each other, one that is dominated by Laure’s peers and family of poets and artists in 1960s Beirut. Mazens’ spontaneous and simple questions drag us into the abyss of memory and its mechanisms, before the two unleash their absurdist overlapping drawings in the last pages.

A kafkaesque feel hangs over “Nap before noon” by Barrack Rima. In a nightmarish atmosphere and unknown places, we see his relationship with his parents transform. His father who does not see him standing next to him in the elevator, and his mother who appears to recognize him despite his disguise when they dance.

“Genealogy in ten movements” by Imam breaks with the expected hallmarks of comic strips. The Lebanese artist presents his vision of the traditional concept of family — marriage, procreation, knowledge absorption, alignment, repetition, harmony, and contradiction — in spontaneous lines and abstract scribbles.

__title__A comic illustration by artist Mazen Kerbaj. The Arabic reads: Mama? Mama, I’m lost...I’m not the little boy you knew all your life..I’m starting to mature... at the age of 40!..And I’m losing all the blind self-confidence I grew up with...Mama, I’m in a place where I don’t know what I want to do...with my life or my work As if everything has become very difficult... scary..

In “The Games of Pain,” her own take on the Genealogy theme, Lena Merhej captures the shrinking space and murky line between ecstasy and pain in a poetic visual language. In “Fatigue,” a contest between time and the elements of comics, Baudouin, a French teacher, realizes the point of drawing comic strips. He wants to freeze the moment and the thousands of faces he passes by daily; he tries to capture his teachers, Goya, Giacometti and Shitao, dancing, drinking, and women. In “Drowning,” French artist Golo traces the concept of sleep among ancient Egyptians, to the daily rhythm of the Egyptian street, all the way to the Egyptian revolution; reality intertwines with the dreams of deep sleep. There is a long line engulfed with memories, pulling us to the depth of the self, in late Moroccan artist Bouanani’s story “I always dreamt of…,” which was originally published in Al-Maghrib newspaper in the 1980s.

“Mom, dad, homeland, flag... freedom, nationalism, peace...” is an excerpt from the alphabet song broadcast on Egyptian TV after the 1973 war. In “The alphabet song: Four exercises on singing the homework and forgetting it,” Lebanese artist Zaatari reproduces the song that has been engraved in the memory of millions of Arab children.
It used to come on Egyptian channels, which television sets in South Lebanon would pick up, in the spring and summer during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Zaatari redraws scenes from the song’s video clip created by Sawsan al-Abdullah in 1973, and provides a short description of al-Abdullah, as if it was an incantation to exorcise a song and the values it taught, which he no longer believes in, except for peace.

There is also “Space” by Nawal al-Ward, “Story” by Louis Joos, “Paris the Un-deserted Island” where Zeina Abirached landed, the phantasmagoric atmosphere created by the Argentine artist Frank Vega in “Electromyogram with the devil,” the story of “Trash” by the Egyptian Shennawi, and “Home” by Zineb Benjelloun. There is an almost bottomless supply of stories in this issue, which may just hold us through till the the next one.

Barrack Rima: Protector of the Genealogy

The first eight years of “Samandal’s” existence forced certain changes in its ambitions and goals that have come to their logical, preliminary, conclusion in the latest issue.
In the course of that period, this youthful project helped establish picture stories as an independent art form for adults in Lebanon and the Arab world. It built a solid platform for visual narration, inviting artists from different schools, creating an audience and expanding its geography. Thanks to these efforts, “Samandal” doesn’t have to shoulder this burden alone anymore. The flurry of comic festivals and magazines that have swept the Arab world in the past 10 years carved out a comfortable space for the magazine to expand its ambitions, further develop its editorial policy, and control its direction without losing its experimental edge.

This lead them to the policy of picking an artist from Samandal’s editorial team to oversee each edition. Barrack Rima, the editor of this edition, lives in Brussels, draws comics and directs movies, and is responsible for the books “Beirut,” “Cairo’s Storyteller,” and the work-in-progress “Nap before noon,” which is excerpted in the latest issue. In addition, he draws a weekly comic strip for a Belgian newspaper and Sociologia in Al-Akhbar.

Rima wrote the edition’s introduction, which appears in Arabic and French. In it, he summarized his editorial journey. The magazine used to accept submissions from artists, publishing the best ones. This time, however, Rima invited 30 artists to contribute, ending up with 22. He chose the artists based on certain priorities, such as discovering new illustrators from the Arab world that he had met at Arab and international comic festivals, in addition to artists whose work he likes, and others who are from the Samandal family.

The idea of genealogy was not held to a scientific or theoretical standard; the editorial policy remains experimental, and so did not impose the theme on the artists. Rima tried to delve in with the illustrators into the journey of their work and the stages of finishing it. He raised the questions and the basic problems of picture stories that afflict every artist, and him particularly, such as the trifecta of mind, hand and eye that makes the comics. He assigned a great deal of importance to this open and participatory workshop. This feature is an integral part of the new editorial policy. To complete the Genealogy, the Lebanese artist who graduated from l’Académie des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles and l’Institut des Arts de diffusion in Louvain-La-Neuve (Belgium) tried to reach out to older artists in the Arab world and the West. This earned the magazine a piece by the late Moroccan poet and film maker Bouanani. He could not get the rights to publish works by the late Argentine comic artist Alberto Breccia. In addition, works by young artists were published, alongside works by established illustrators such as Golo, Louis Joos, Baudouin and others.

Lena Merhej

We got to know Lena as one of the founders of “Samandal.” We also knew her thanks to “Jam and yogurt or how my mom became Lebanese,” which won the best comic strip book at the FIBDA Festival in Algeria. The Lebanese artist views “Samandal” today as a mature experiment that has influenced Lebanon and the Arab world. “The magazine has grown, and our skills have evolved,” she says. We can read “The Games of Pain” by Merhej in the latest issue through a series of poetic visual strips.

Hatem Imam

“Not a doctor, engineer or businessman.” With this sarcastic comment, Hatem summed up his biography. He is one of the founders of “Samandal” and has been with the magazine since its inception. He contributed his work “Genealogy in ten movements” to this edition, a strip devoid of faces, places and the expected visual sequence. The experimental space within the magazine motivates him to make comic strips. The idea of the workshop appeals to him: artists looking for their own language, without necessarily latching on to the major schools of comic arts.

Jana Traboulsi

Jana is pleased that “Samandal” has returned, after its one year of absence. She attributes this return to the team’s sense of responsibility towards their audience. The Lebanese artist and graphic designer has published many of her stories in the magazine. In her comic strip “To take the family album (whenever I leave home),” which she did with her mother Nawal Abboud, Traboulsi discovered connections between their two generations. Connections that appeared in the form of personal stories intertwined with a mostly disappointing political reality in this part of the world.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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