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Can Egypt's superheroes stop corruption?
Horus, the god of the sky in Egyptian mythology, has risen to fight corruption. He is accompanied by Mariam, who is a female doctor with the superpower to heal, and Microbusgy, a minibus driver who can control fire and dust.
These are just a few of the characters in El3osba, derived from the Arabic word to mean "the gang," a comic book series for Egyptian adults. These superheroes tackle the ills of Egypt such as corruption, poverty, injustice, violation of human rights, loss of Egyptian identity and even bad grammar.
Egyptian writers John Maher and Maged Raafat, working with artist Ahmed Raafat (the Raafats are not related), have created six Egyptian heroes of different backgrounds. The team is recruited by Alpha, who has arrived from a more advanced universe to recruit five superheroes on Earth, including Horus, Microbusgy, Mariam, Walhan — who is in love with Mariam — and Kaf, who has the power to control Arabic letters.
Maher, a 28-year-old engineer, told Al-Monitor, "The characters all came from our culture and represent different groups and backgrounds. Microbusgy represents poor people who struggle for daily survival. Mariam is an educated, independent woman who brushes aside social stereotypes. Walhan represents Egyptian young people who are talented but have little opportunity to achieve their dreams, and Kaf symbolizes knowledge."
Comics spread in Egypt following the 2011 Arab Spring as they became a way for many artists to express their social and political discontent. "The internet and social media made it possible for the Egyptian people to learn more about the US and European art and try to create more professional content," said Maher. "This developed further in the Arab Spring, as humor became a tool for artists to express their opinions. Many artists, both professional and amateur, have turned to social media to display their work."
The idea for El3osba started taking shape in 2012. The team's first production was in the form of a short story. The first comic book came out only three years later. Today, it is free online, but El3osba also sells self-published hard copies. The team also participates every year in the CairoComix festival, where El3osba issues a 32-page printed comic each year. In April, the team published its first comic in English.
All through this period, the small team had to battle against the Egyptian perception that comic books were for children and that they needed to be funny. "We are taking the concept of comics to another level. What we want to do is to discuss the problems of Egypt in a serious way," said Maher.
The series' current target is the age group 15-29, and the writers use easy colloquial Arabic to make it appealing for people from different backgrounds.
Comic books often feature superheroes fighting powerful villains, and El3osba's are no exception. However, El3osba's superheroes also focus on societal problems. One villain, for example, is called Set, named after the ancient Egyptian god who represented disorder. In El3osba, Set tries to undermine the Egyptian identity; through him, the writers tackle the idea of how Egyptian identity has disappeared or changed.
The superheroes also are more like ordinary people who have normal faults. Horus is smart but comes across as arrogant. Microbusgy is uneducated.
Ahmed Raafat, originally a telecom engineer, now works as a freelance artist in the United Kingdom and draws the El3osba characters. "It took a lot of discussions with the writers to come up with the final version of the characters," he told Al-Monitor. "We didn't want the characters to look like they are imitations of American superheroes or comic book characters. We tried to make something very Egyptian, something that is inspired by Egyptian folklore, history and the things that you see in the streets every day."
For the three members of the El3osba team, Horus is the character closest to their hearts. Horus wears an outfit like those of famous superheroes such as Superman and Batman, but he is named after the most powerful of the ancient Egyptian deities.
"John and I went through a lot of discussions while we brought him to life. We discussed at length his origins and his backstory, so he is the one I have the most emotional connection with," Maged Raafat, a dentist who currently lives in Canada, told Al-Monitor.
Maher said, "The majority of comic art in Egypt is inspired by European art like Tintin and Lucky Luke. We have many talented artists, but still we need to work on making it appealing and commercial to Egyptians. The distribution of comic books in Egypt also is very hard. Publishers are not convinced that it is profitable to invest in comics."
The three comic book creators make no profits from El3osba, so they try to keep their costs low. Ahmed Raafat, for example, does not use color because printing the editions in black and white is cheaper. They hope to use color in the future.
"We'd like to use color in the future, but for the time we are self-funding the [comic] book," said Ahmed Raafat, who added that it takes about two to three days to draw one page of El3osba.
Despite the challenges, Maged Raafat is optimistic that El3osba can help change society for better and make a positive addition to the art scene in Egypt.
"Our main goal for the future as a team is for El3osba to become something that every Egyptian, man, woman, boy and girl knows about. We hope that all of our characters become part of Egyptian culture and folklore," he said.
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