The most populous country in the Middle East — and the one that supplies most of the Arab-speaking world’s movies, music and television — Egypt remains caught between terror and totalitarianism. The country could use a hero. And thanks to a trio of creators, it now has its own league fighting for truth, justice and the Egyptian way of life … in comic form.
Their name is El3osba (derived from the Arabic “العُصبة” for league and a play on the Arabic word for a criminal gang, “عصابة”). The team of six flawed and engagingly human superheroes — initially viewed as outlaw vigilantes by the general population — must contend with issues like tyranny, security and human rights in a fictional, but often accurate, depiction of Egypt.
The heroes are also tasked with thwarting an ancient evil that seeks to corrupt and destroy the people of Egypt, led by Horus, a high-tech version of the ancient Egyptian deity, resurrected in his homeland’s darkest hour. Joining him are Alpha (an extra-dimensional being), shapeshifter Microbusgy, Kaf (an Egyptian intelligence officer with a spell-casting alter ego), Walhan (a reformed terrorist) and Miriam, a doctor with healing superpowers — as the strong, only female member of the group, her character challenges commonly held conservative beliefs about women in Egypt.
The team behind El3osba have their eyes set on becoming the DC or Marvel of the Middle East.
El3osba began as short stories on Facebook by John Maher in 2012. When scriptwriter Maged Raafat joined in 2013, the heroes and their stories began taking a more concrete shape. Ahmed Raafat joined as an artist in 2014 — his signature art style over the current four issues is appropriately dark, evoking comparisons to comic legends like Jack Kirby and Mike Mignola. Similarly, El3osba’s writers draw inspiration from the progenitors of gritty modern superhero tales such as Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Alan Moore’s iconic Watchmen.
In the past, Egyptian comics have tended to follow the Franco-Belgian style. Think more Tintin than The Avengers. However, the team behind El3osba have their eyes set on becoming the DC or Marvel of the Middle East. But the “Old Guard” of the Egyptian publishing still consider comics as just for kids, Ahmed suggests, even though millions of Egyptians have watched American superhero movies in the past decade. Few people realize comics can actually “tell serious stories that can address social issues,” he adds.
Still, Maher says, the reaction to El3osba has been overwhelmingly positive. “People have been waiting for Egyptian superheroes,” he says, and the El3osba characters, who address corruption and other issues facing Egyptians, can hopefully teach and inspire ordinary citizens how to be heroes themselves. The team even set up a booth at Cairo’s famous RiseUp entrepreneurial summit this year in an effort to secure funding for their ambitious plans to build their own publishing company to house their characters’ universe. “We’re writers and artists, not businessmen,” Ahmed laughs. Still, comic properties are big business and, according to Maher, investors are taking note.
El3osba’s four current issues are available digitally in Arabic via the Kotobna and Rusumat apps — the creators hope to have translations in English and other languages out in 2018. As the Western comic giants face calls for greater diversity and representation in their superhero pantheons, the El3osba team hopes that their stories can fuel change by giving Egyptian storytellers a platform to dispel stereotypes and show the world that there is more to their country than, as Maher puts it, camels and bedouins in the desert.
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