The ‘Graphic Poem’ as Protest Literature

A good deal has been written, and rightly so, about the role that protest poetry has played in this “Arab spring.” Less has been said about political poetry’s younger cousin: the graphic novel and political cartoon. Most of the attention (in English) given to the genre has focused on a 50-year-old translated comic.

Certainly, it makes for an appealing story (for English-language audiences): Young Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada inspired by American civil rights hero! Fuels Arab revolution with decades-old…children’s book! But Ziada said her group has distributed “thousands” of the book’s Arabic-language edition “across the Middle East” since 2008. The world Arabic-speaking population is estimated between 200 and 800 million.

Yet political cartoons have been a vivid and popular art form in contemporary Egypt and beyond, and surely they play some role in shaping public discourse.

Artist Asmaa Youssef told Al Masry Al Youm:

Cartoons are powerful because they help you decide how you feel about what’s happening. If I couldn’t read a newspaper for a day, I could see just one cartoon and feel informed about what people were thinking.

Egyptian political cartoonist Sherif Arafa, who worked for the government paper روزاليوسف, recently told the Washington Post that “Joking of something is a defense mechanism to overcome your fear towards it. If people see their leaders in cartoons, that can help to make them realize they are not gods. Cartoons break people’s fear.”

Beyond breaking fears and showcasing public opinion, graphic works also can connect with readers in a middle space between text-only and image-only forms. They operate in a more receptive, childlike space than plain text and yet also engage us creatively, intellectually, and interactively.

Perhaps that’s what worried Egyptian officials when they yanked Magdy al-Shafee’s pioneering graphic novel Metro from shelves and fined its author and publisher.

Despite governmental and societal crackdowns, serious Arabic comics have seen a new flowering in the last decade, with short-form pioneers like Samandal, TokTok, 8X8, and Out of Control and new venues like Facebook and Twitter.

Indeed, TokTok2 is due for release this coming Sunday, and the cover (above) promises a critical look at state media, thugs, the army, suited bigwigs and more.

More graphic-poem protests:

The Arabist: Iraqis and Americans protesting occupation and sectarian government

Magdy al-Shafee Has New Illustrated Nonfiction (for the Revolution) on WWB

And Handala still serves as a powerful graphic shorthand

If this topic interests you, well, visit the blog Graphic Novels and the Middle East