Joumana Medlej began to school herself in illustration and the comic arts at the age of 12, and later graduated with a BA in Graphic Design from the University of Beirut. For a couple of years she was part of Future TV and Zen TV’s animation team before she decided to go freelance. She has since touched on a number of fields, exhibiting mixed media pieces in Japan, France and Lebanon, as well as photography; co-authoring and illustrating a popular series of children’s books, and self-publishing several drawing resources. Her work has appeared in a number of local and foreign magazines and on regional TV shows. She is also a globetrotter whose travel articles and photography can frequently be seen in Lebanese publications. She is also a practicing martial artist.
LR: Hi Joumana.
JM: Hi back!
LR: What’s your favorite color?
JM: Not fair to ask this of someone whose work revolves around colour! But I have a thing for vibrant purple.
LR: Let’s talk about your work a little bit in the beginning. How do you describe your work?
JM: My personal work, as opposed to my client work, is very eclectic. Cultures are a recurring theme, but I use and mix an unlikely diversity of mediums. I guess the single word to describe it would be: personal.
LR: You work on many children’s books, tell us a little about that.
JM: My mother had the idea of a series of children’s books about various aspects of Lebanese culture, as there was nothing equivalent on the market. We have since published 6 books, which I edit, illustrate and lay out, and I’m happy to say they are very popular. They are packed with information and aim at getting kids interested in and proud of their own culture. I like to think thanks to them we’re having a positive influence on several generations of Lebanese.
LR: You have also published many resource books on drawing and calligraphy. Can you elaborate on these books for us?
JM: These started out as drawing tutorials that I posted online, but I soon got requests for a more convenient format to work with, so I decided to make them into spiral-bound books. So far the tutorials cover the human body pretty thoroughly (and I’m particularly proud of my guides to human types, the likes of which have never been published for artists before), as well as animals and some miscellaneous topics such as arabesque. I have plenty more lined up, but am waiting for an opening in my load of work to get started.
LR: Let’s get to Malaak. I am sure that you had the idea in your head for a while. But it did not take its current shape until I contacted you about our first Q-Record project for the year. In a way, I am glad that Lebrecord was a catalyst for the creation to be set in motion, but I want to know how you came up with the idea. Let’s start by the name Malaak.
JM: That’s true, the seed of the idea (no pun intended) goes back to 2000, where I actually “saw” the opening pages of her birth but didn’t know where to go from there. I just wasn’t ready for such an ambitious project at the time, either technically or personally. Lebrecord’s timing was divine to say the least!
Anyway, the name Malaak. In Arabic (and other Semitic languages) it means “Angel”, and I chose the meaning before I found the name. I could go conceptual for a few pages and scare you off, but let’s just say Lebanon could really use a guardian Angel (it’s worth noting here that I began work on the story right after the summer ‘06 war).
LR: What about the suit? The fashion seems to be awesome.
JM: I’m actually surprised at how positively people reacted to the suit. I wasn’t trying to create anything special when I designed it, I had “generic superhero” in mind, comfortable to move in, somewhat sexy, and visually articulated by these red gimmicks. Those around the wrist would add mass and power to her punches, otherwise they’re mostly for visual effect. In good superhero comic tradition, I chose a color scheme associated with Lebanon, but not too in-your-face (I hope). “Lebanon” means “white”, and it’s the oldest country name in the world (already used in the epic of Gilgamesh), so white is the country’s oldest and most solid symbol, which is why most of the costume is in this color. Red was inevitable as a highlight, and the green was already her eye color, related to the trees that gave her life. Originally I also used areas of black in the design for more drama. Then I realized that white-red-green were the colors of another flag I wanted nothing to do with!! I banned black altogether from all the good guys – that’s my subliminal political statement there.
LR: She has super powers. Have you thought of all the powers that she will have? I mean, will she be able to take off and fly sometime, or is she earthbound for example?
JM: I don’t want to say too much because (weird as it may sound) I’m giving her room to grow and to surprise me. Parallel to her mission, which she has yet to understand fully, there is a quest to find herself and her place in an even bigger picture, and with that quest comes the discovery of new powers as she goes. As far as flight is concerned, I do plan on giving her that ability somehow. Superheroes shouldn’t have to deal with gravity!
LR: Lebanon is a multi-confessional society. Many artists that I have contacted trying to raise interest in this project mentioned that such an attempt in Lebanon would be futile, because of this diversity. I still maintain that if we will be able to have a national comic hero that every single Lebanese can relate to, that would be an element to saturate a sense of identity in our society. How do you describe Malaak’s position within this complex multi-confessional society?
JM: Nothing on earth can appeal to everybody and it’s cheap to blame it on multi-confessionalism when even the most homogeneous societies are made up of individuals whose tastes differ. With Malaak I am not attempting to please everybody – that’s the shortest way to mediocrity. As a character, she’s intensely Lebanese and completely transcends political or religious divisions. As I see it, she is an absolute. She has the potential to appeal to all Lebanese, and that has to suffice, because it’s unavoidable that some will try to impose their divided view of the world onto the comic. Beyond her all-Lebanese symbolism though, I believe readers will relate to her as a person, a sweet girl who can’t bear to watch helplessly as war shatters lives so close to her. Is there a single person in Lebanon who hasn’t felt that kind of grief?
LR: There is a Phoenician element in the storyline. The Lebanese Phoenician heritage has been used in the past by various political groups, whether to attach themselves to this heritage or to distance themselves from it and attach themselves to something else. This wonderful heritage has been in a way contaminated by politics. I have myself been fighting this connection, and trying to separate history from politics, and to promote a sense of awareness that this heritage does not belong to one Lebanese group, but rather to all Lebanese. Aren’t you concerned that some people might see this Phoenician connection as a political statement relevant to certain Lebanese political groups, or do you think that they will be able to achieve this separation, and see that the story is relevant to all of us?
JM: I’m with you on that subject and it’s something I convey at every possible occasion in the children’s books, but I’m not involving the comic in that particular awareness campaign. You recognized the Phoenician element, but there is no actual mention of them by name, and I predict most of the population won’t recognize it. They’ll just pick it up as an ancient element and wonder if it’s real or made up. It’s just as well for me because, just as I picked the most fundamental symbols of the country (the color white and the cedars), I am placing the emphasis on ancient forces on the land rather than on specific cultures. To finally answer your question, I’m quite sure the unspoken Phoenician element is not what can make or unmake the story’s relevance, and I fully expect any reader who can appreciate the story as a whole, to not even stop at it. You’d have to not get any of it to see politics in it, and there’s nothing any of us can do for such extreme cases.
LR: With such a local setting, do you think Malaak can only interest a Lebanese audience?
JM: If I thought so at first, I don’t anymore. The response from non-Lebanese audiences has been great. It is true that the story is firmly set in Lebanon, and the urban environment, the characters, their attitudes, their language manifest that at every page. But the plot, not being bogged down by details only a native would appreciate, has universal appeal, and as a comic book, it speaks the well-established language of classic superhero comics. Its “regional flavor” is an added value: it’s original without trying to be.
LR: In the same Q-Record project, I myself submitted a character that I called Arz. One of the reasons I did that, was to curtail any attempt from any artist that wants to submit the typical male hero with the cedar as an emblem (on the other hand, I can claim ownership of the character J ). Your design was a female character, with a unique emblem. How did you decide on that, and what did the creative process involve?
JM: I see, good thinking!
There was no question for me, even in the original story idea 7 years ago, that the character would be female. One good reason is that they are a lot nicer to draw and to look at, but I think the primary reason was an intuition that in this part of the world, a bigger audience would relate to a young woman. All warlords and nearly all politicians are men, and the mere sight of them makes everybody’s blood pressure rise. I feel a male superhero would unconsciously be seen as “another guy with too much power claiming he can save us”. On the other hand, the women-peace association is universal, and the role (and abilities) I have in mind for her could only be a woman’s. So for this there was no process at all, it was the foundation on which to build the rest. As for the symbol, it is the mark of the Hippocamp, her predecessor as guardian – but I can’t remember what realization shaped the early story this way. The great lines of the story come as flashes of inspiration: I see the plot in my mind as if I wasn’t the one writing it. Most of my work is just tweaking details and making a good layout of it. It’s only in retrospect that I notice the potential of certain things.
LR: You have pushed the comic into 19 pages so far. Is there any plans to market the comic into a full fledged book?
JM: Absolutely. I have 5 or 6 more pages to finish until the story comes to a logical “end of part 1”, and I plan on publishing the first volume then. I already have most of the extra content I want to include. It will be purchasable online, but I also plan on showing the printed book to a few people and see what happens.
LR: Would you be willing to accept any offers for publishing and developing the comic from prospective publishers?
JM: I would gladly accept offers, but not if I have to compromise my vision of the character and storyline. It’s almost unavoidable when you work for someone, and that’s just not going to happen with this story.
LR: You have launched a website specifically for Malaak. You called it malaakonline.com. What’s the idea behind the website?
JM: First, establishing the comic as a serious and full-fledged entity. I know from my work that you just don’t promote something unless you can deliver: I wanted to promote it as an existing comic, not as one person’s hobby, so I needed a hub to match. Now I can send readers, professionals and potential publishers to the site and know they will take it seriously, and be able to share the link easily. Besides this, it is a place to share “Malaak stuff” that wouldn’t be printed, particularly downloadables and fan art, and I expect it to grow along with her popularity. A quote from Ray comes to mind: “If you think pennies, you get pennies; if you think dollars, you get dollars.” I’m working on this as if she were a popular icon already. It may be early in the game, but it will pay off in the end!
LR: In the comic art world, the process of creating a comic involves 5 different disciplines. The first is the story, the second is rough sketching, third id penciling, 4th is inking, and 5th is coloring. It is a rare thing to see an artist mastering all these techniques, but somehow, you have managed to do so. Do you think that a Lebanese comic artist must have to be so? If yes, why do you think that is?
JM: I think anyone who a) cannot hire others to work on the comic and/or b) has an artistic temperament and so wants to touch upon all the stages, would have to do it this way. In Lebanon the tiny market means everyone, no matter the profession, has to be proficient in several skills as opposed to specializing as much as a Westerner would. If that is true of thriving industries, imagine the situation of the comic book industry. There is in fact no such thing. Instead we have an artistic production of comics, the only kind that can exist when there is no money to be made in that field at all. There’s actually something to be said about the uniqueness of such graphic novels, though that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be glad to delegate my coloring and shading…
LR: Thanks Joumana, it was a pleasure. We will keep the news section updated with your latest.
JM: Joumana’s address on the web is:
Phone: +961 3 493508
Write Joumana at: 121 Alam Str Park, 2058 8403 Beirut, Lebanon