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Preserving cultural history through comic books

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LAU graduate Henry Matthews signs copies of his newly published Encyclopedia of Lebanese Comic Books, on June 21 at the RectoVerso bookshop in Beirut.

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The "life changing" cover of Lebanese comic Bissat El-Reeh that influenced Matthews to study fine arts at LAU.

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Matthews at his comic book exhibition in May 2007, at the American University of Beirut, where he works in the Office of Communications.

Click on any photo above to view all three images.

July 7, 2010—

Since he was five years old, LAU graduate Henry Matthews has been somewhat of a comic book guru.

Over the decades, Matthews, a local artist and writer who is now in his early 50s, has collected about 14,000 American comics alone, and thousands more in French and Arabic, describing the latter as the “jewel in the crown.”

Regarding Lebanese comics as an emblem of the country’s vanishing and forgotten history and cultural heritage, Matthews has been trying for years to secure financing for a project to preserve their legacy through an encyclopedia.

“I hate for things to disappear in the mists of time, especially when some projects have had so much love and passion and hard work, and so much creativity, put into them,” Matthews says.

The opportunity came last year after the Ministry of Culture, in light of the Beirut World Book Capital 2009, began calling for project proposals.

Matthews submitted his proposal, received approval, and after many sleepless nights, unveiled the fruits of his labor, the 240-page Encyclopedia of Lebanese Comic Books.

“You really have to be a nut case to do what I did,” he says, describing the painstaking process of single-handedly cross-checking information, scanning images, and designing the layout — all within a small time frame he was given to complete the project.

The encyclopedia includes the cover art and a synopsis of every single known comic book series published in Lebanon — both local comics and foreign comics that were translated into Arabic.

“I was exhausted in the end when I delivered the book in May, but I’m glad I did it,” he says. He officially launched the book with a signing on June 21, at the RectoVerso bookshop in Beirut.

A common reaction to the encyclopedia, he says, was amazement and surprise by the number of comics that had existed in the past, but that are completely unknown today.

“When they started in the 1950s, Lebanese publishers were very prolific and very ambitious. They did a lot, but nothing remains. All the publishers are gone and no public library cares to preserve those comic books,” he says, with a tinge of frustration.

Matthews graduated from LAU (then Beirut University College) in 1980 with a degree in fine arts, a major he chose to pursue because of the “life changing” cover art of a 1962 issue of Lebanese comic Bissat El-Reeh that depicted Aladdin riding a flying horse.

Matthews hopes to hold a book signing and exhibition at LAU soon. He last held a comic book exhibition in 2007 at the American University of Beirut, where he works in the Office of Communications.

Matthews says one of his future goals is to establish a heritage center for Arabic comic books, children’s publications, and recreational publications for adults, which would include thousands of translated suspense and adventure novels such as Tarzan, Arsène Lupin and Sherlock Holmes that have been published in Lebanon and Egypt since the 1920s.

“I want to preserve history, not just comic books,” he says, explaining how magazines and even children’s books have simply been tossed out for decades with no regard for their historical and cultural value.

“Why do we keep newspapers that are hundreds of years old, but not bother with magazines,” he says. “Pop culture is a part of our heritage — It should be preserved [too].”


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