When a young, would-be cartoonist stumbled across a comic magazine in a local library in Beirut at age 19, it felt like “almost utopia.”
It was 2009, and Samandal magazine had been circulating for almost two years—showcasing local and international talent, and inspiring experimental comic production in the region. “I picked it up, flipped through its pages and was thrilled to realize that these comics were actually made in Beirut,” writes illustrator Raphaelle Macaron of her discovery. Little did she know that nearly a decade later, she’d be editing Samandal’s annual compendium to chime with its 10 year anniversary. If finding Samandal was almost utopia, perhaps sitting on the editorial team would bring her a little closer.
For Macaron, the practice of drawing comics had become a form of escapism, but in the editorial letter of the latest issue of the annual she also describes it as transformative to the way she existed in the world. “It would become my safe space,” she writes. “I decided it would be a powerful and unfailing tool against social injustice, political turmoil, bigotry, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” If something felt wrong, Macaron could draw her world differently, or she could use comics to point out the injustices she felt most deeply. When she joined the Samandal team in 2013, to be part of a magazine producing and circulating comic art that subverted traditions and prejudices certainly felt like a dream come true.
But Macaron also joined the team as they were in the midst of a lawsuit. In 2010, Samandal’s three founding editors were charged with inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, and publishing fake news. One of the offending strips—part of a series that comically literalizes colloquial phrases—depicts the saying “yahriq deenak,” which in translation could be “[May God] burn your religion.” It’s a phrase used as an everyday exasperation rather than outright sectarian abuse, and the panel was a small fragment in an issue filled with divergent themes, concerns, and topics.
After five years battling the case against censorship—all the while continuing to produce award-winning comics—Samandal founders Hatem Imam, Omar Khouri, and Fadi Baki were found guilty and fined a total of 20 million Lebanese liras each (today about $15,000 USD). For an alternative publisher of its size and scope, the fine seemed to designate the beginning of the end. For Macaron it was “an immediate bursting of the bubble” in regards to the philosophy she’d built around comics. Maybe it wasn’t such a safe space after all.
“The censorship laws in Lebanon are vague and open to interpretation,” says Imam from his design office in Beirut, Studio Safar. “We were always worried about our depictions of drugs, nudity, and sex, but nothing ever happened. What we discovered is that the biggest taboo here is religion.”
“We were always worried about our depictions of drugs, nudity, and sex, but nothing ever happened. What we discovered is that the biggest taboo here is religion.”
Without many other options, Samandal threw itself into a crowd funding campaign to raise money for its next issue. The publisher was already revered in the comic world, but coupled with media attention surrounding its conviction (articles appeared in The New Yorker and the Guardian), suddenly the platform had more eyes on it than ever. “We felt the love and support of people all around the world; it was incredible,” says Imam. “And financially, we came out of the experience with enough money to fund an additional issue too.”
This flurry of attention and support chimed with the project’s transformation from a quarterly magazine into an annual comics compendium, edited by a different editor each issue. The decision was motivated by a decision to work “a little bit slower,” Macaron writes, and to collaborate intimately with contributors over a longer period of time. The compilation published the year after the fine was edited by Lena Merhej—one of the offending comic artists—and it explored a theme of “youth, sexuality and poetry.” Even though its content is not what Imam would describe as especially shocking, to select such a theme was a definite act of defiance.
“The case made me more adamant about not censoring content, and it actually made us more subversive and confrontational,” says Imam. With their readership significantly increased, “now, if we published a statement about another censorship case, the repercussions in the media would be high. We’d have a huge amount of support. That support means we can stand by our values.”
“The case made me more adamant about not censoring content, and it actually made us more subversive and confrontational.”
Risograph printed with three different screen-printed covers (one for each of its three language editions), the latest Samandal annual, edited by Macaron, is an ambitious feat. As this 2017 issue coincided with Samandal’s 10 year anniversary, she decided to use the platform to pay tribute to what she believes Samandal’s mission ought to be. Instead of theming the edition “Utopia” as she might of as a 19-year-old, she opted for the truncated “Topia,” alluding to a utopic world that’s just out of reach. The book’s strips explore, as if articulating the team’s deep frustrations after the lawsuit, “the things driving us from [achieving utopia], the problems with it.” On its triad of covers, transforming cityscapes illustrated by Jerome Dubois symbolically articulate the concept, elegantly crowned by 3D typography spelling out the issue’s title.
Some of the comics imagine the future of humankind, as with Vincent Longhi’s lilac and gold, melancholic space-age narrative following a person whose job it is to name a planet and write the first line of its people’s history. Merhej’s loose lined comic thoroughly interrogates what the very idea of utopia might even mean, while Alex Baladi considers homemaking as an escaped Stepford Wife. In the past, Samandal have integrated three languages into a single publication, using various graphic and narrative devices to combine right to left reading in Arabic to left to right reading in French and English. Conversely, the “Topia” issue has three separate editions for each of the three languages, allowing each reader to be fully submerged in the stories and making it “the first Arabic publication of its kind” according to Macaron.
The production is impressive. There is not a single line falsely overlaid in the finely detailed Risograph printing, and a huge amount of various colored inks and papers combine like a fantastic feat of engineering. These differing hues express a kind of plurality, speaking to the various versions and visions of not-quite utopia illustrated by the content.
“Hopefully, they all articulate around the vast idea of a perfect place, an ideal time and what, ultimately [has] kept/keeps/will keep us from it,” writes Macaron.