A GOOD STORY IS SOMETHING ANYONE CAN READ
– Interview with Fouad Mezher, Lebanon –
Fouad Mezher (26) is a Lebanon-based illustrator, comics artist, graphic designer, and animator. He graduated from the American University of Beirut with BFA in Graphic Design in 2009. He started publishing comics in issue zero of Samandal Comics Magazine, with first chapter of The educator in 2008. The series ran until 2010. Other of his comics include the short stories A Good Deed and A Sorry Sneak, also published through Samandal. Comics currently in development include an attempt to put together an anthology of horror comics set in Beirut, and another long format story entitled Enigma. Currently working as an illustrator and animator. Illustration projects range from children’s books to T-shirt designs and murals. Most recognized work in animation is the music video for the song Yareit by Ashekman, worked in collaboration with David Habchy and Michel Karsouny. Was exhibited at the 2010 Lucca Comics and Games Festival in the Lebanese artists exhibition and Superheroes and Monkeys, part of the Community initiative by A Fish in Sea (Beirut) in 2012.
RP: You’ve done it all: created comics for the Samandal series, illustrated children’s books, taken part in animating a music video, and even drawn interior murals and T-shirt designs. Which element of your work gives you the most satisfaction?
FM: I feel like I first need to contextualize the answer to this question. Pretty much every illustrator in Lebanon needs to work all over the place as you’ll find yourself out of work if you don’t. Having said that, comics are easily my favorite to work on but it’s also nice going back and forth between different projects. I find that what you learn on each one always lends itself to all the others. With comics, what I like the most is the narrative aspect but the narratives tend to get richer the more experience you have working a variety of things.
RP: As you said on your blog, you are currently transitioning from an obsession with superheroes towards an obsession with monsters/horror. Where do you get the ideas for your characters (evil animals, then a vampire walrus, Medusa, and a once-innocent girl, now lost in the dark side, futuristic sex-robot…)? What attracts you to this style of storytelling?
FM: This is a really tricky one to answer, but as a kid, I was drawn to superheroes mostly because they’re all orphans who had the ability to do something useful. It gave me a coping mechanism to deal with my father’s death, but the things that left a stronger impression on me were usually horror or sci-fi related (the good superhero stories tend to lend themselves to these genres as well). I think with sci-fi and horror in particular, you can use a concept to put enough distance between you and reality, and say something honest about how we live our lives, something that you normally might not get away with. I think the reason I draw these things is in some way an attempt to emulate everything that blew my mind while I was growing up, but beyond that I can’t really offer much of an explanation.
RP: Neil Gaiman once said “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses“; What are the things that terrify you, today?
FM: There’s no shortage of things that frighten me (which is a good way of not running out of material). What frightens me the most these days is how easy it is to be consumed by fanaticism or an obsession. I find myself becoming far less obsessive about anything the older I get, but there was a time when I would watch the same movie over a hundred times in less than a year. That kind of obsessive behavior shuts down critical thinking and can be very dangerous, especially if practiced by a large group of people. For example, reading fan reactions online is part of the reasons I’m becoming less interested in superheroes lately (especially now that they’ve dominated pop culture). I also live in a country in which suicide car bombs are a regular occurrence so I’m constantly reminded of the dangers of dogmatic thinking.
RP: Tell us something about the process of creating a comic, as a writer and at the same time as an illustrator. Do you first write a script and hang on to it, or is it the other way around?
FM: The script definitely comes first, but I like to sketch while writing. It’s a good way to take a break if you’re stuck on a story beat and if you have visual ideas about what you want to do with the story, I feel like it can help the writing (it can also hold you back if you cling too tightly to an idea simply because you want to draw it). One of the most instructive parts of the writing process is sending out a draft to friends and having them tear you a new hole pointing out everything that isn’t working. It used to really upset me but it always leads to a better story. I also have to say that one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had drawing a comic was on a story someone else wrote. It’s an interesting balance of interpreting someone else’s ideas and remaining faithful to them but also making it yours. We also used to hold late night brainstorming sessions about how to panel the story and those were insanely fun. I ended up learning a lot more from that than from anything I’ve written on my own. Whether you work alone or not, I think it’s important to have someone around to tell you when you’re doing something really stupid with a story.
RP: How did you become interested in illustrating literature for children? What’s the relationship between children’s books and comics? Do you think that children’s books are for adults too? And do you have this in mind when you’re working on the books?
Honestly, it just happened out of practicality, it was never something I actively went after. I think the link is that they both involve visual storytelling and some children’s books really blur the line between illustrated narrative and comic (Dave McKean is someone really good at that). I think a good story is something anyone can read and enjoy so they should also be for adults but I can’t honestly say I’ve worked on one of those yet. Because of the nature of the market here, I feel like most of the children’s books we have are very patronizing and preachy towards kids (there are some good ones out there but they’re very rare).
RP: Is studying illustration in a college worth the cost or do you recommend an alternative?
FM: I think this one depends on the person and on the school, and on how you make the best of the resources that are available to you. I ended up in a graphic design program as I thought it was my only option at the time. But in retrospect, I benefited a great deal from it as design greatly informs how I draw. I don’t really know much about what an illustration program would entail, but I sometimes envy people who had a lot more formal training in drawing. There are now a lots of online tutorials so it’s a lot cheaper to learn on your own but I value the studio experience and some of the professors I had a great deal. As long as you’re developing the tools to communicate something meaningful, I think you should just take whatever option is available to you. In some ways, working as a freelancer in Lebanon is like being paid to go to art school, considering how much the work varies, so I guess that’s one alternative.
RP: Which cartoon was your favorite when you were a child? Which adventure stories did you enjoy most, in whatever medium, and which inspire you?
FM: Batman: The Animated Series from 1992 was my favorite cartoon and it’s even better when I watch it now. The stories were so well written and the direction and art were very stylish (I think it might be the first Noir cartoon series ever aired). I first learned how to stylize and break human anatomy down by freeze framing episodes of that cartoon and copying them when I was around 11/12 years old. My first attempt at a comic was to adapt one of the Joker episodes. Before that, I was mostly into dinosaurs. I used to read about them as much as I could and even made two illustrated books modeled after those I would buy (I included a glossary and everything). The idea of space travel also was very appealing but as a kid, I had no idea how much astrophysicists understand about the universe. Pretty much anything revolving around the theme of discovery was very inspiring while growing up.
RP: Which book/movie had made the strongest impression on you and influenced your work?
I’m going to name a few because there are too many influences. The first is The Matrix. I first watched it dubbed with bad reception from a Turkish TV station when I was 11. I don’t speak Turkish so I had no idea what was happening, but it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. About a year later, I finally watched it properly and the scene in which Morpheus holds out a battery to explain to Neo what the Matrix is immediately struck me as allegory and I thought, “I don’t wanna be a battery!” As far as books go, “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World” left a strong impression on me for similar reasons. Another movie is David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I watched it when I was 14, and up until that point, had never seen a horror movie with such believable protagonists. There’s one bit of dialogue that’s always stuck with me: “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects... don't have politics.” That movie always reminds me how fragile everything we consider significant really is, and is the benchmark I aspire to reach.
RP: Do you have favorite music to listen to while you work?
FM: It’s usually soundtracks to films I like, but I’m also a fan of a few bands so I try not to listen to just one thing for too long these days. I find soundtracks easier to work to, though, as they’re usually formed by a narrative and rarely feature lyrics.
RP: Being a workshop instructor at the Lebanese Comics Festival in Beirut in 2012, what have you learned from young Lebanese artists regarding inter-cultural understanding by the use of comics?
FM: I feel like it’s something I was already aware of before this festival, but it just became more apparent; Cultural exchange shouldn’t be an obvious mandate when telling people to share stories. The culture is already being exchanged whether or not you’re telling people to exchange it. By phrasing it that way, I feel we initially held the participants back because everyone had very different stories they were waiting to tell and this was their first chance to get attention for it. This ties back to my answer about the children’s books but we really need to see more art that isn’t funded by some agenda (even a noble one). We need to just let people make things more often and in whatever way possible, offer guidance to help each other express what we want to, thoughtfully and clearly.
RP: Can you suggest 3 artists or illustrators we should check out?
I'm going to blatantly promote other illustrators I know from Lebanon who are making comics: Jorj Abou Mhaya, Omar Khoury and Ghadi Ghosn. There are many others but I’ve either worked with and/or learned something valuable from these three.