Once upon a time, an Egyptian generation grew up reading all-Egyptian comic books such as Samir and Flash. But as that generation hit their 20s and 30s, this form of art started to die, and the only comic books available were Western ones that bore no sign of Egyptian culture. Sadly, very little action was taken to bring life to Egypt's comic art scene, except for a small group of Cairo-based cartoonists.
Launched in late 2011, The 9 th Art Foundation was created to spread the culture of comic books in Egypt. While not many people may know of the foundation, its most popular publication, TokTok, first published in January 2011, has grown quite popular.
Similar to most initiatives that intend to swim against the tide of the status quo, the foundation’s activities were self-funded until they got a one-year grant from the European Union in 2012, promising to cover 80 percent of their costs, a grant that was again renewed in 2014.
With a stronger financial backbone, the 9 th Art rocked the scene and pumped life into a once decaying art form. Besides TokTok, the foundation released a monthly journal, the 9 th Art Journal, which was dedicated to all who were zealous about comics.
With contributions flocking in from within the Egyptian community, the journal was rich with announcements about comics workshops, reviews and analysis for the local and international comic art scene, and even critiques on movies based on comic books. For 12 consecutive issues, Egyptian comic book fans had a publication that catered to their long lost interest.
Not only this, the grant helped the foundation host several workshops on journalism, silk screening and a variety of comics’ events. They hosted several "Drawn Interviews" where the comic artists being interviewed only responded by drawing, as well as May 2013’s "Drawn Concert" in collaboration with the band Like Jelly, where three artists draw live impressions of the music being played.
Furthermore, the foundation was able to hold world-renowned comic events and workshops such as 24-hours of Comics where artists meet for 24 hours to do nothing but draw.
Both workshops gave life to published books under the same title as the theme, compiling the participants’ artwork.
And because the more collaborative the means of communication are, the richer the message they send, the 9 th Art organized and facilitated a more encompassing workshop for the different elements of journalism in December 2014 called Ashat Matbou’aty Horra Mostaqella, or Long Live My Publication Free and Independent.
From journalistic writing enthusiasts, to cartoonists and visual directors, 15 participants took part in this interactive workshop that resulted in the journal El-Sab’ina.
“When we first started the two-week workshop, we didn’t set a particular direction, and we urged the participants to dictate where the journal would go,” said Anwar, cartoonist and editor in chief of El-Sab’ina. “Although the journal was funded by the 9 th Art, the participants got really excited about the project, and are contemplating to keep the journal going, but this time no longer under the umbrella of the 9 th Art.”
Anwar also anticipates that more similar workshops will take place outside Cairo. Even though they already have one planned for Alexandria, he dreams of spreading the culture of comics way beyond the big cities.
Yet talking about the 9 th Art Foundation without bringing up TokTok and shedding light on it would be rather impossible, since TokTok was the spark that started the burgeoning life of comic art scene witnessed today.
The idea started brewing in 2010 when the five founding artists of TokTok met at Mohamed Shennawy’s invitation to fill the gap of comic books that address adults, yet adopt a fully Egyptian approach in content and characters.
Before the 9 th Art was founded, and before there was any grant, the founders and contributors took it upon themselves to give life and nurture TokTok, beginning with unpaid contributions, to covering the costs of printing and distributing the magazine themselves. The same scenario was repeated in 2013 during the time between the two EU grants.
Even as TokTok’s popularity caught on, it barely made enough revenue to sustain itself.
“Ever since they released the first issue of TokTok, it sold for the same price of LE 10,” says Asmaa Youssef, project coordinator at the 9 th Art. The magazine has ever since been published quarterly, and now with enough funds from the EU grant, the foundation celebrated the release of the fully color 64-page 13 th issue of TokTok in mid-February 2015.
Although the 9 th Art may be one of the leading caterers to the comic art scene in Egypt, we find that more artists have figured out a way to contribute, too.
Sherif Adel, Cairo-based cartoonist and dentist, brings another rather interesting Egyptian comic book to the market. With the same Egyptian wit and sarcasm, Pass by Tomorrow is a monthly comic series that takes place in 3014 where Egypt combats an alien invasion.
“The sci-fi series is a parody which shows how Egyptians will still be as messy as they are today,” said Adel, sole creator of Pass by Tomorrow. “But unlike other comic books, I believe it is suitable for all ages, children and adults alike.”
To overcome the funding dilemma, Adel resorted to Garaad, which funds arts and culture projects. “For a year, I had the scenario almost finalized, and the first issue drawn,” Adel said, “I kept it ready at hand for when I meet a prospect funder.”
United in their passion for comic art, yet different in their vision for approaching, implementing and nourishing it, the different artists I spoke with shared similar concerns as well as hopes for the scene.
“I believe one of the reasons the scene is really struggling to grow is because the community of cartoonists is rather small,” Youssef of 9 th Art said. “There is no formal education that is solely and clearly dedicated to cartoon and comics.”
But as small a community as it is, both Anwar and Adel believe that the community is certainly growing.
“Four years ago, this scene was inexistent,” Anwar said, “but now, more people are enthusiastic about it even though it is still regarded as an underground art.”
The artists were not hesitant about the fact that printing and publishing the comic books posed the greatest obstacle to the growth of the scene.
“Most big print houses seem quite anxious about printing comic books,” Adel explained, “and I think it’s because they don’t understand it; they fear what they don’t understand.”
According to Youssef, her other concern in terms of funding was that functioning under the umbrella of any big and well-established institution was likely to enforce a direction on the content of the artwork.
Yet regardless of the aforementioned obstacles, the artists seemed to have quite the optimism for the comic art scene in Egypt to flourish over time.