Wishes are a commodity to be bought and sold. How does Deena sketch fantasy and hope for herself in an increasingly digital world?
Drawing inspiration in the diverse and heavily saturated field of comics art sounds like an easy task, but developing a visual and narrative identity that is accessible and enjoyable to a local audience is what Deena Mohamed set out to do. Deena is 24 year old trying to keep her balance “on the edge between overwhelmed-with-work and unemployed. I am an artist. Most of the time I am a comic artist,” she told me.
Deena has already published the first graphic novel in a trilogy she named Shubeik Lubeik and is currently juggling between marketing that, writing the two sequels to it, and freelancing. She may already be known to you for Qahera, a Superhero comic-strip she started in 2013, or her #Inktober blowout this year.
Tell me about Shubeik Lubeik. What’s the concept, and how did you conceive it?
“It is an urban fantasy set in an alternate-universe-Cairo where wishes are literally for sale.” In Lubeik, wishes are a commodity, in a metaphorical and material sense. They are traded and circulated inside physical containers and seem to be stratified and categorized in a way that acknowledges a social reality. “The more expensive they are, the more powerful their ability to fulfill your desire is,” Deena explains. The series, and the first story start in a “koshk that has three first-class wishes for sale. Each novel in the trilogy revolves around one of these wishes. The first novel, currently available in Arabic, is about a widow named Aziza who wants to buy a wish in her [late] husband’s memory, and her journey starts from there.”
‘Lubeik’ seems to be grounded in something deeper. Are there any issues you’re trying to address through the graphic-novel?
“I come from a background of social commentary comics, so with this graphic novel I was sincerely trying to write a good story first and foremost. There are some issues, so to speak, in it, but they were never my priority. I was interested in writing a really good fantasy. I love fantasy and I wish there was more good fantasy set in Egypt. But I think hopefully what stands out about this story is its emotional core. It’s actually a bit tricky.”
In “a story that relies heavily on world-building and environments and ye olde social commentary to be understood.” Shubeik Lubeik is actually a “very simple story” to Deena. The references are easy to understand and because they’re rather not far from our lived reality in Egypt, where it doesn’t take much of a sociological imagination to think about society. “For example, in this world wishes are regulated and you have to get your wish licensed before and after buying it at a government office,” an experience we’re all deeply familiar with. To Deena, that seems to exist as the backstory. The social reality is integral to illustrating the mood and visual and narrative identity of the book, but she is not necessarily using it to comment on more than “the real story,” which “the main character’s innermost desire.”
Aziza doesn’t say much throughout the story, a “semi-silent protagonist” whose thoughts seem inaccessible at first glance, but Deena explains that “It was important to [her] that you reach the final page and it sinks in that Aziza’s thoughts and feelings were the most important thing all along. It seems like a very grand, complex, occasionally political story but it’s actually a very simple story in disguise.” It becomes clearer that, while caught up in the grander displays of power, government and bureaucracy in the world around us, deeply personal, yet not any less political, experiences like Aziza’s remain unheard. Seemingly conscious of this, Deena asserts: “at the end of the day, it’s a story about wishes. And I think it’s worthless to talk about wishes if you’re not going to think about what people want most, and why they want it. I think wishes (especially in this universe, where they are so costly) are more desperate than a simple want or even a need. There’s always something behind that desperation. And I guess that’s what this graphic novel is about.”
The book has a very unique and specific style. It looks and feels, essentially, ‘Egyptian.’ How did you come about that?
“I think it was just a whole bunch of things. I wanted to create an Egyptian graphic novel that paid homage to the long legacy of Egyptian comics - this is where the visual style of Shubeik Lubeik comes in,” she explains. “It’s important to me that it reads comfortably to an Egyptian audience and not “other,” like a manga or superhero-style comic might. As Egyptians we love translations of those, but through my research I concluded that we do have a unique visual identity that feels more comfortable to us, and if a story is going to be set in Egypt it needs to feel like it’s Egyptian, not translated.”
And how did you achieve that? What are the specific elements?
“I wanted to create an imaginative graphic novel that was still based on our history and mythology (genies, wishes, and so on) but add a different, contemporary, modern Egyptian twist to it.” Deena plays with a largely malleable art-form, and she has a lot of fun doing that. The wish-granting genies that come out of the wish containers, for example, “are composed of Arabic calligraphy. The more expensive the wish is, the better the quality of the calligraphy, and the politer the phrases the calligraphy is made of.” The font she uses in the book is based on the handwriting of the influential Mohy El-Din El-Labbad, a visual artist and cartoonist who worked on many publications including popular children’s magazine, Sindebad.
The book is full of characters that are visually typical to our popular culture: Madame Afaf is a big example. Illustrating or exaggerating a stereotype is common practice in comics-art and cartoons, in how the artist would depict the range of emotion or breadth of identity of a particular character or person. Lubeik uses that technique as well, but stands out in giving the characters a depth and a story. In that sense, the style to make her characters instantly recognizable and relatable to an Egyptian audience.
That’s for your audience. What about your playing-field?
“The comics community in Egypt is bigger than you expect, but also smaller than it deserves to be. I originally avoided it because I used to work on my webcomic [Qahera] anonymously. After it won an award in CairoComix 2015, I became more used to interacting with the comics community in real life, and I honestly really enjoyed it.” She explains that the vibrant community that grew around comics in Egypt, while so, is struggling still, because it is underfunded and under-recognised. But in that, she says that it still is “pretty supportive to an extent, with the big names like Magdy Al-Shafee and Makhlouf making an effort to take new artists under their wing and support the community. I never had to network locally because Qahera introduced people to my work and made it easier to get to know everyone. It’s a really small community as well, so once you meet one person you’ve met everyone.”
We live in a increasingly digital world. Let’s reflect on this.
Uh. Damn. Electricity?
We live in a increasingly digital world. How is that helping or hindering you?
“My entire career was built on a digital fluke, so I can’t speak of the evils of technology or social media. It was kind to me. But it gave me the perspective necessary that hype isn’t everything. Although now that I need to self-promote again, I have regrets for not taking advantage of it, building a “brand,” selling out and just posting things for the virality and so on. But I’m glad I made the value judgement to keep my dignity then.”
We live in a increasingly digital world. That comes with pressures. Other artists have spoken about a political economy of likes and shares and being up against algorithms and machinations beyond their control. There’s a constant obligation to stay relevant and in touch. How do you manage that?
“I don’t manage it at all. I literally hate all kinds of self-promotion. It’s a necessary evil. I was lucky to get popular by accident before, so now when I have to ask people to look at what I made, it feels like so much effort. It’s also embarrassing. But it’s just part of being an artist nowadays. I’ve grown to respect artists who are constantly promoting themselves and talking about their work, because honestly that’s the hustle. We can’t always make it by accident.
Right now I have a very practical outlook on social media. It’s a tool I have to use. I also grew up posting on forums, blogs and so on, so it’s not like I wouldn’t have been doing it anyway. Relying on it for your livelihood sucks though, which is another reason I am happy to have a book in print. It means social media is a crutch, but not a lifeline. I can’t promise I’m always going to stay “relevant” and “in touch” though. I keep forgetting to post on Instagram. Lowkey I do not understand Instagram. I had an exhibition for Qahera and forgot there’s a Facebook page with 15k followers who would have liked to know. I am basically my own worst enemy. Everything I do well is luck, everything I do badly is my fault.”
We live in an increasingly digital world. Why print?
“I don’t think print and digital are separate, and I don’t think one is superior to the other. Sure, they require different ways of thinking, production-wise. Digital is better read in vertical scroll on phones. Print is better read in double-page spreads. Digital means more color. Print means fighting about the price of printing in color. But at the end of the day, it’s still making comics. I still use a graphic tablet for everything I do. It’s the market surrounding print and the market surrounding digital that are totally different experiences. With digital work it tends to be self-published, you put in the bulk of the organising, layout, and so on. The reason I was interested in traditional publishing is because I wanted to interact with other human beings for once, and have them share the burden of producing, publishing, promotion. Also being a graphic novelist is lonely work. It’s nice to have feedback on it from someone else who is equally invested.”
Now that you’ve printed your book, how do you plan on moving forward from here? Is there more in the works? Where do you want to be?
“Yes! Shubeik Lubeik is intended to be a trilogy, so right now I’m focused on working on parts 2 and 3. Ideally, in two years I’d like to have all three parts completed, because I think when it’s done it’s going to be a really special collection. I’ve got big plans for the next two parts.”
Any final remarks? Is there anything you feel like younger artists starting out should know? Is there anything you want to share with them?
“Youtube tutorials. Invest in your art but make practical choices. Don’t buy a Cintiq until you can draw on paper. Don’t let an agency rip you off. Work on your craft first and foremost. Share your work on social media. Save all the art you like in a special folder and look at it when you’re art-blocked. Copy art you like, but never post it without credit. Every time you feel like your art sucks, it means you just became a better artist.”
You can purchase Shubeik Lubeik (published by Dar El Mahrousa at various bookstores.
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