Berlin — Arab Comics | 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture, put together by curators Mona Damluji and Nadim Damluji, represents a cross section of research in publishing houses in Egypt and Lebanon that shows the translation and proliferation of Western comics into the Arab world. Such publishing houses include Dar Al-Hilal (Egypt), which translated Mickey Mouse into an Arab protagonist; Dar al-Matbu’at al Musawara (Lebanon), which translated Superman; Al-Katkout (Egypt), which showed Tintin in a series of adventures; and Samadal (Lebanon), which focused on post-war Beirut.

Such focus on American and French pop ideology illustrates the repurposing of narratives with an eye towards their colonial and neocolonial origins. In a comic Mîkî from the cover of the Issue 170 published in Egypt by Dar Al-Hilal, a militarized Mickey Mouse holds up the flag to the United Arab Republic, which symbolism connects to the Egyptian revolution of 1952. The cover, published in 1964 after Syria’s coup d’etat that broke the Republic, memorializes Arab revolution by calling out the specific generation that produced it. Other images from a following edition envision Mickey’s return to Palestine, which inevitably touches upon the seizure of land from the Palestinians in the 1950’s. Such images — which galvanize trauma —superficially highlights the artifice of American culture with its noxious, Disney, sugary coating. The text, which accompanies the images, speaks to a similar super dream that has gone awry. In the translated Tintin comics published by Al-Katkout , one can’t but help seeing parallels to eerie spaghetti westerns. In “The Adventure of Hero Hammam in the Land of Uncle Sam”, Hammam walks into a town full of “poor folk”. Hammam humorously, though darkly claims how he has never seen red folk — a racial slur for Native Americans. He continues to say, “I think our clothes are getting a lot of attention here, Milo!” This comic specifically underscores the mutual foreignness Hammam shares with the people he encounters, also wryly insinuating that foreignness can be weaponized on any basis — a foreigner can also certainly be a native.

In seeing these pop comics within the context of the Arab world, one wonder’s how this American export entangles with grander narratives of geopolitical rivalries and fictional superiority. Gazing at the myriad of covers, one remarks on how the stereotypical imaging of what it means to be Arab in turn becomes an export in it of itself. Pop art in the United States simultaneously was being called out as a degenerate, lowbrow entity. The appropriation of this populous form draws attention to the fact that orientalism is a product of the West — but also that it can be imported in order to be destabilized further.

Arab Comics | 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture is exhibited at Bulbul Gallery & Cafe
Berlin, Germany and organized by the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry