Edward Said talks about Orientalism in very negative terms because it reflects the prejudices of the west towards the exotic east. But I was also having fun thinking of Orientalism as a genre like Cowboys and Indians is a genre — they’re not an accurate representation of the American west, they’re like a fairy tale genre.

— Craig Thompson, PopTones Interview, September 1, 2011

It’s easy to inventory my feelings about Craig Thompson’s Habibi. For well over a year, I approached its release with equal parts excitement and fear. The fear sprang from the 2010 Stumptown Comics Festival — held in Thompson’s hometown of Portland, OR near the completion of Habibi — as I sat in the audience of a Q&A session with him about the processes of publishing and creation. There he explained (as he has in many venues since) that Habibi was going to be an expansive book about Islam and the idea was birthed out a place of post-9/11 guilt he felt in reaction to America’s Islamophobic tendencies. Had he traveled much in the Middle East? No, except Morocco. Did he know Arabic? No, but he had learned the alphabet. At one point he actively said he was playing “fast and loose with culture” picking from here and there in order to tell his story as he saw fit. As I sat in the audience I saw red flags going up. I was about the spend a year abroad studying how The Adventures of Tintin is a Orientalist text precisely because Hergé rarely left the confines of Belgium while drawing the far off landscapes of India, Egypt, China, or made-up Arab lands like Khemed. And here was Craig Thompson some 80 odd years later, well intentioned, proposing a very similar project of creating a made-up Arab land of Wanatolia for the purposes of quelling his own guilt. …

My quest: to track down an iconic quiff of red hair. I was in Cairo, and the quiff in question was Tintin’s, created by the Belgian artist Hergé in 1929. This boy reporter is the hero not only of the world’s bestselling comic books but also of a TV series, a Steven Spielberg movie, a museum, an entire field of study… and a research grant for this writer. For a month I’d been in Egypt trying to trace the history of comic art in the Middle East; seeing a potential point of entry, I turned to Tintin’s Arabic translations. …

While I haven’t yet met anybody whose favorite Tintin adventure is The Crab with the Golden Claws (Crab), it is certainly an important text in the scale of Hergé’s overall story about the boy reporter.* For one, Crab is the album in which Tintin meets, is repeatedly almost killed by, and ultimately befriends the perpetually drunk Captain Haddock. As such the album will presumably serve as the first act of Steven Spielberg’s 3-D monster The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Anglophiles. Penned in 1941, Crab is also notable for being the first story Hergé published during Belgium’s occupation by Nazi Germany in the newspaper Le Soir.

In 2011, I embarked on a year of comics-related travel to find historical proof that non-Western alternatives to Tintin existed. One of the stops in this journey was Egypt, where I was looking specifically for a regional comic book hero that children from all over the Middle East idolized, learned from, and escaped through. Where was the Syrian version of Astro Boy hiding? Why doesn’t the Arab World have a Superman?

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In 1964, an editor at Lebanese publisher Illustrated Publications (IP) seemingly answered this very question in the form of mild-mannered Nabil Fawzi. As cataloged in an excellent 1970 article from ARAMCO Magazine, IP reasoned the Middle East contained a potentially viable market for the same adventure comics that had become popular (and profitable) in the United States; comics like The Adventures of Superman. But instead of creating a Superman-like hero for an Arab audience, IP decided to teach the man of steel himself how to speak Arabic through translating the already abundant English editions of the comic. …


Nadim Damluji

I write about comics and culture.

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