Muslim Show, a French comic book series takes on the world

Portrait-interview with Norédine Allam, creator and author of comic books · In another life, Norédine Allam was a comic book star in France and Europe. From the Dargaud publishing house to the Astérix studios, his talents were fought until the launch of the ’Islamic’ comic, Muslim’ Show. Although the collection has met with a frank success in some thirty countries, it is shunned in France. Interview.

Read from Indonesia and Qatar to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, Muslim Show is a humourous account of the daily life of French Muslims. Yet in the country where it all started, the collection has not made a breakthrough.

After leaving school at age 17, Norédine Allam, now 36, created the 2HB studio in 1996, in the basement of a social housing neighborhood in northern Amiens, where he was born and still has his office. He was quickly spotted for his graffiti talents and became one of the youngest artists in France to be commissioned with an artwork for a public museum –the Picardie museum. But boredom set in and the young artist discovered the universe of comics. He was a novice but delved into it, leaving behind contemporary art. I had a bright future in store and was making a very good living but I wanted to discover this new world, he explains. In 2000, 2HB became a studio specialized in the colouring of comic books. “This activity existed neither in France, nor in Europe.” Allam taught himself through books, rapidly developing his own activities and breaking into the elitist milieu of comic books : he worked with Dargaud, Europe’s largest publisher, as well as with the publisher Albert René, and Uderzo in person, winning a 1-million euro European tender over five years to colour all the Astérix albums. It was not always easy for him and his colleagues : he recalls that many were taken aback to see “youth from the neighborhood” in charge of Europe’s - and indeed the world’s - largest project of this nature. He insists that their talent and the quality of their work were recognized. Their profile may have created ripples in the world of comic books, but Allam can take credit for “redesigning” the Astérix colors that are still in use today.

From graffiti to comic books

The self-taught artist started to make new friends. He adapted “Léa Parker,” a series on the M6 TV channel into a comic book that was widely publicized. He started being invited to festivals, travelling, mingling with artists but was no more seduced by this universe. Without being non-plussed, he is not drawn by the spotlight. It was during this period that he started to take an interest in Islam. “Having a French mother and an Algerian father, I have always worked in a dual culture and in a dual understanding of the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.”

Paternity incited him to address outstanding questions. “Before, practicing my religion was much more a question of group belonging and social habit, without any real religious awareness. With kids, you cannot go on living with these contradictions or unanswered questions.” Allam started studying Islam. "I had read a lot about all religions, but not about my own. I discovered that I’d been lied to on everything.” This is how he “fell in love” with this religion that he had a negative opinion about, notably because of some Muslims who preach in awkward ways about an Islam they know little about, he regrets.

At this stage, he started wondering how to draw a bridge between his skills and his convictions. He looked for “Islamic” comic books on the market and found some storyboards on the history of Islam published in Lebanon or Egypt that were “poorly drawn and incomprehensible.” Another question then arose : that of the representation of characters, unauthorized according to some Islamic texts : “There are diverging views on the topic, and I thought about it for a long time. I respect both religious opinions. I got started because I received the backing of a Muslim scholar”, he says. This is how the comic Muslim Show came out in 2009, followed in 2010 by Bdouin Studios, the first publisher of Islamic comic books in Europe. The adventure began on a blog. Although well known in the field, Allam kept a low profile.

What is the purpose ? “Telling the daily life of Muslim people with humor”. He writes the scripts, does the coloring and works on the project with the support of Greg Blondin. “We have great scholars and intellectuals ; the comic book is just a work made by a Muslim for Muslims. It talks about Muslim people, their doubts, their fears, their desires, their hopes and their contradictions. The comic relates their feelings on all subjects”, Allam explains.

Edutainment humor

The first volume of the comic strip was dedicated to Ramadan, the second to marriage and the third to relations with neighbors. Almost every day, storyboards - original ones or extracts from the books - are published on social networks. All issues are addressed : relationships, wearing of the veil, alms for needy people, children’s education, and most importantly, the denouncing of bad behavior (good behavior being a key aspect of Islamic religion). In Neighbor, neighbor, for instance, we discover how a non-Muslim family maliciously takes advantage of rules prevailing in Islam on treating neighbors. The wife pretends to be ill so that her Muslim neighbor will take care of her, while the husband pretends to have sprained his knee so that his neighbor will mow the law for him.

Allam has no particular knowledge or religious qualification enabling him to pass a legitimate judgment on Islam and its practices. He is cautious therefore about taking any moral stance or passing judgment: “The goal is to make people think, to hold up a mirror; to offend would be counterproductive. Actually, I constantly think about quitting this project”, he confesses. Underlining that he does not belong to any school or movement, he says that “the weight and responsibility from an Islamic standpoint are heavy”. The texts are validated by a francophone scholar (mufti) who prefers to keep anonymous. “He fears that such an exception could be considered as a public fatwa that would be used inappropriately”, explains Allam.

On the left ’Good Deeds’, on the right ’Bad Deeds’ ; ’Yoohoo ! I’m Warning You All Against This Brother!’

To meet the expectations of a wide audience, the author, together with Fateh Kimouche from the Al Kanz site and Professor Mohammad Patel, created ADABéo as well as avatars used as "profile pictures” on Twitter and Facebook. These series, depicting characters with faces that cannot be distinguished, focus more specifically on the practice of Islam : attitudes in the mosque, preparation of ramadan, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, but also racism and relations with non-Muslims, based on the hadith. ADABéo works very well in providing an edutainment content ; it is less effective when it comes to telling stories : identification is less obvious with faceless characters.”

Themes that cross borders

In a national context characterized by strong Islamophobia, this project has closed doors that were once wide open in France for Allam, but it has opened those of dozens of Arab and/or Muslim countries for Allam. The young man, still surprised by such a success, is enthusiastic : “In Indonesia, Turkey - a daily newspaper will publish three episodes weekly. In Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, Qatar - we’ll also give drawing lessons and produce content ; the comic is available in more than thirty countries and translated into ten languages - Arabic, Indonesian, Malaysian, Japanese, Bangla, Russian, Turkish, German, Urdu, Spanish, Chinese, and soon in other languages !”

What makes the daily life of French Muslims so attractive to people in faraway countries ? “Our drawings take on a life of their own. In one case, some have seen a confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, in others a confrontation between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the army.” Although Allam claims to keep away from politics, he admits that some storyboards take a engaged stance such as those make a subtle reference to the killing of Rabea Al-Addawiya. But the recipe for this success lies elsewhere. “In fact, our subjects are universal and timeless. Beyond feelings, we talk about what I consider to be the real clash of cultures : the opposition between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’. Wearing the veil or a beard, modesty, and respect are considered outdated. We want to tell Muslims that they can be proud of their practices and that these are modern”.

Dissemination in France does not follow

What about France then ? “We are working on a fourth volume dedicated to Islamic finance which should be released in September 2014, but it is complicated. Almost 13,000 copies of volume 1, published with Dargaud were sold, of which 12,000 very quickly at the Fnac stores ; for the next volume, 9,000 copies were sold. The comic is hardly available anywhere and takes four to five weeks to receive after ordering from Fnac. Press and comic book festivals shun us. With Astérix and Léa Parker, I was invited to fifty festivals a year, now we are boycotted... Many think that this topic doesn’t interest a wide audience. Unlike in the past, we are hardly ever invited anywhere !” However, non-Muslim readers are also interested. “Sometimes, there is a misunderstanding with the media and the public : the comic was not created to give a good image of Islam and promote interfaith dialogue. However, it allows people from other religions to catch a glimpse of a daily life that they may not be familiar with. Some readers write to tell us that they recognize themselves in values such as mutual assistance, solidarity, modesty and the fight against materialism.”

The situation is not better on the front of Muslim distribution and publishing networks : according to Allam, they are poorly organized and not devoid of jealousy. But the author continues to believe in what he does : he is in talks with a French television channel to adapt his work into an animated cartoon series. If the project succeeds, a young audience will discover the adventures of a character in the Muslim Show, which could be a crucial first step towards access to European and global channels.

Meanwhile, Bdouin continues to bet on the web to develop its projects in full independence. A crowdfunding platform is under construction. But Allam is skeptical. “The behavior of some Muslim readers is paradoxical : we have nearly 270,000 Facebook fans on the French page1 where we post unpublished story-boards and over 7,300 followers on Twitter, but that does not translate into sales. We do not make our living out of the Muslim Show.” Allam and his colleagues, however, decided to call for donations. “The idea is to invite readers to contribute to the making of the Muslim Show by supporting us with a small donation. One, two or three euros are plenty if everyone chips in ! We want to continue to offer entertainment and move forward, together”.

1More than 492,000 for the English page.