Comics are in the news a lot these days — and not just in the funny pages. From the Danish cartoon riots and the Charlie Hebdo killings to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ revived Black Panther superhero and Marvel’s first Muslim heroine (created by a Seattle author), comics are increasingly on the front lines of pressing social and political issues.
And that’s true in both independent and commercial scenes, globally and in the U.S.
“There’s this general misconception about comics, that they belong to the world of children,“ says Hatem Imam, a comic artist and editor from Beirut who will be visiting Seattle next week as part of the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, “But more people are thinking about using comics to address serious topics and to address adults.”
And Imam would know. In addition to creating his own work on themes like “estrangement and alienation” and “the relationship of a person with their context, surrounding and city,” he was recently at the center of a battle over censorship in Lebanon.
“We felt that comics offered this kind of haven where we could express ourselves,” says Imam, describing the 2006 founding of Samandal (“Salamander” in English), a multilingual comics magazine published in Beirut, “Because comics were not taken seriously and were considered child’s play, it allowed us to stay under the radar and say what we want.”
But they didn’t stay under the radar for long.
In 2009, Samandal’s seventh anthology caught the attention of religious groups that claimed some of the comics were insulting to Christians. The complaint resulted in a charge brought by the government against the three editors of the publication (including Imam). They ultimately lost their case in 2015 and were ordered to pay a fine of $20,000.
“The two comics that were considered offensive were completely taken out of context,” says Imam who adds that an international campaign to raise money to pay the fine has left Samandal “stronger than ever.”
He says his publication is interested in issues of freedom, expression and sexual identity.
This blending of politics, rebellion and comics is natural, says Short Run co-founder Eroyn Franklin.
“There are a lot of people in comics who are interested in social justice,” says Franklin, “Self-published, small press and independent comics have always been an underground form of communication.”
Franklin sees Short Run as a celebration of that radical creativity (political or not). She says the organization has prioritized bringing international artists to their now six-year-old festival as a way placing Seattle in an international comics community, starting conversations about the role of comics in society and highlighting voices that may not have had much exposure in the United States.
“America and Europe really have the comics monopoly, both independent and mainstream,” says Franklin, adding the influence of Manga comics from Japan and other parts of Asia, “We wanted to make sure this year to have artists who represent other parts of the world.”
With that in mind, Short Run is kicking off their festival week with an International Comics Night on Wednesday at the Central Library downtown. The evening will be a conversation with Imam as well as other featured visiting artists Ilan Manouach of Greece and Belgium, Ivana Pipal of Croatia and Inés Estrada of Mexico.
Estrada will also be hosting a comics workshop for Spanish-speaking kids at the South Park Library on Thursday afternoon.
These events culminate in the daylong festival (on Saturday 11/05) at Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center, where over 270 exhibitors will be displaying independent comics and self-published, small press and handmade books. (disclosure: I’ve volunteered for Short Run for the past few years).
Imam, who will be visiting Seattle for the first time, says he’s excited to share his work with new audiences and to connect what he describes as a comics “renaissance” in the Middle East, with America’s growing independent comics community.
“There’s something about the directness of comics,” says Imam, “Something very potent that people are starting to get more and more aware of.”
Whether you’re in Seattle or Beirut.