BEIRUT: A pen-and-ink sketch depicts a Vampire Walrus holding an umbrella, staring incredulously at the observer. Elsewhere, the walls are adorned with black-and-white Frank Miller-esque cityscapes and brightly colored, digitally rendered illustrations of monkeys, among other things.
“Superheroes and Monkeys” is an exhibition of personal and commercial illustrations by Lebanese illustrator, animator and designer Fouad Mezher. It’s located in the Hamra office of “A Fish in Sea,” a London-based design company that set up shop in Beirut a couple of years ago.
The angular, open plan office doubles as a gallery space to promote up-and-coming Lebanese artists – “Community,” as the initiative is called.
Mezher, a graphic design graduate from AUB, has had a diverse output.
His initial breakthrough came with “The Educator,” a V for Vendetta-inspired comic strip that follows the travails of John Fawkes – a student living in a totalitarian state who starts to question his own worldview following a chance encounter with a mysterious figure named The Educator.
The strip ran for three years in “Samandal” magazine, concluding in 2010. Mezher has also collaborated with the rap duo Ashekman, animating their 2011 single “Ya Reit”(I wish).
Mezher’s style is eclectic and quirky – “Disney meets Hell Boy” he calls it – a product of his love of science-fiction, Disney and the darker end of the comic spectrum, to which he was drawn following the death of his father.
“When I was 12 my Dad died,” recalls Mezher. “I was a lonely kid and I became incredibly interested in the mythology of the orphan in Superhero comics, especially Batman. Drawing was how I channeled my emotions, illustrating was my means to becoming Batman.”
In crafting his comics, Mehzer says he relishes the challenge of depicting contrasting emotions in his characters, in particular striving to illustrate awkward moments in life.
“The action, the POW, is great,” says Mezher, “but I really focus on trying to present the emotional backstory of my characters through the imagery. Awkwardness in particular, because 99 percent of my life is defined by awkwardness.”
In much of Mezher’s work his protagonists appear naive, with faces defined by large puppy-dog eyes. This sense of innocence is accentuated by their location in dark, gothic settings and a predilection for black-and-white that together evoke a certain melancholia – a sense that the world can be a cold place defined by forces beyond our control. This is particularly evident in Mezher’s illustrations in “The Educator” and “Enigma,” a graphic novel that has been making its way through the pipe for the last four years.
“I think that on the surface black-and-white captures a sense of coldness and emotional detachment,” says Mehzer, “but at the same time the two-tone contrast actually creates more emotion.”
Mehzer feels Lebanon doesn’t much appreciate comics, which makes it difficult for illustrators to find local validation for their work.
“People are not aware of the history of comics in Lebanon,” says Mezher, citing the “In Beirut” anthology produced in the JAD workshop in the ’80s. A form of autobiographical comic strip not unlike that deployed by Maltese-American comic artist and journalist Joe Sacco, “In Beirut” saw different artists depict their experiences in Beirut during the Civil War.
In order for the local comic scene to evolve, he says, artists need to focus on developing their own style and not simply mimic mainstream American comics and Japanese manga and anime. He cites George Muhia’s stunning graphic novel “Madinet Mjawura Al-Arad” (A City Neighboring Earth), released earlier this year, as a raving success in this regard.
Mezher has also illustrated numerous children’s books, including “The Adventures of the Little Monkey,” launched at this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fare, and “Zeina’s Story: Divorce” published by Asala in 2011.
Obviously the Mike Mignola and H.R. Giger side of his work has to take a back seat in such work, but he’s comfortable with this.
“I like the balance between working on my own stuff with complete creative control and then the kid’s illustrations,” says Mezher, “If I am just doing my own thing then I can get stuck in my head. The kid’s books are a good escape from myself.”
They pay the bills, too. Being an illustrator in Lebanon isn’t the most lucrative gig.