From Lebanon With Love: Preserving A Cultural History & Capturing The Joys Of Arabic Childhood Through Comic Books – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Henry Matthews, Collector & Comic Book Historian…December 30, 2014
Imagine a man who collects tens of thousands of comic books – can you envision such a person? And then can you imagine that person NOT being related to me? No, I couldn’t either.
“I want to publish books and histories, which is really most important to me. And I do hope eventually, if I get funding, to start a center to preserve all children’s books and comic books in the Arab world.” Henry Matthews
Henry Matthews is a historian and collector of a multitude of Arab, French and American comic titles and also my cousin. A few years younger than Mr. Magazine™, Henry is the first person in my family that I’ve had the pleasure of “magazine-infecting.” His passion is palpable when he talks about preserving the Arab world’s culture through comic books.
On a recent trip back home to Lebanon, I visited with Henry and we talked about his ardor for comics and children’s books in general. The zeal for anything in magazine or book form certainly runs in the blood. Henry’s vision is to document each one of the comics and books in his collection and ultimately see the day when documentation centers for other countries and their cultures are erected so that children’s publications can be preserved for future generations. It’s a noble cause and certainly within the realm of possibility.
Our discussion was tightly focused around that possibility and the history of comics in the Arab world. I hope you enjoy our family conversation.
And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Henry Matthews, Collector & Comic Book Historian…
But first the sound-bites:
On how he began collecting comic books: My mother got me issue no. 7 of an Arabic comic book called Bissat El-Reeh, which is flying carpet in English. This magazine turned my life upside down. It was so beautiful that it was painfully beautiful.
On the progression his comic passion took him from day one until now: Eventually, with the comics, I decided that I wanted to keep them and ultimately preserve every single book for children, written books too that weren’t necessarily comic books. I think this was really a natural progression for me.
On the comic market in Lebanon and whether it is mainly a children’s genre there: It’s changing, but of course, it’s not as quick as in the Western world. But nowadays here, adults are reading comic books. But it is still, generally speaking, a genre for children.
On the most influential type of comic book in Lebanon: If you want to look at what the reader wants, the young reader of comic books in the Arab world wants to be thrilled, to enjoy what they’re reading. This is what made Superman and Little Lulu in Arabic such great successes.
On Lebanon and whether it’s the center of comic publishing in the Arab world: Lebanon and Egypt were always neck-in-neck in the comics publishing competition. The beginning was with Egypt in the early 50s, well, even before that.
On how large his collection is: I have around 20,000 or 30,000 American comics and a similar number of Lebanese comics and I also have French comics and a limited number of other languages, like German and Japanese.
On what his plans are for his collection after he documents them: I want to publish books and histories, which is really most important to me. And I do hope eventually, if I get funding, to start a center to preserve all children’s books and comic books in the Arab world, because there are no other kinds like we have.
On his thoughts for the future of comics and children’s publications in the Arab world: I’m more optimistic than I was last year or the year before about comics. Of course, it will not be a widespread phenomenon like in the past, say the 60s or 70s, but we will have at least a small but solid contingent of comics’ readership and publications in the Arab world.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Henry Matthews, Collector & Comic Book Historian…
Samir Husni: Tell me a little bit about your beginnings. How did you start in the business of collecting comics?
Henry Matthews: My mother got me issue no. 7 of an Arabic comic book called Bissat El-Reeh, which is flying carpet in English. This magazine turned my life upside down. It was so beautiful that it was painfully beautiful. On the cover it had Aladdin riding high in the sky on a flying horse. I still remember the blue sky in the background and the stars; it was a beautiful cover. And it made me love comics in a passionate way. I started collecting then.
Samir Husni: The similarities between you and I are incredible. I fell in love with Superman at an early age, but I fell more in love with ink on paper than with the actual comics. You took the comic route and became an historian of Arabic comics in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. Describe that progression from day one when you fell in love with comics until today.
Henry Matthews: When I was a kid, I was always hearing about you. This very, for lack of a better word, eccentric guy who was my cousin, and collected all sorts of papers and magazines. (Laughs) I was becoming like you and everyone was telling me that I was the new Samir of the family. And of course, I loved it.
Indeed, I started only with comics, but I always wanted to collect other magazines, but it wasn’t possible because they were always getting thrown away. I had to just concentrate on comics because the other magazines were for grownups that my family received every week. My father was a good reader and loved his magazines. I always wanted to keep them, but they never let me. So, I was not very different from you.
Eventually, with the comics, I decided that I wanted to keep them and ultimately preserve every single book for children, written books too that weren’t necessarily comic books. I think this was really a natural progression for me.Samir Husni: You’ve published a few books and histories of specific magazines; how and what impact do you think preserving the comics in Lebanese and in the Arabic world, how does it reflect the culture and the changing atmosphere for children’s magazines since as far back as your collections go, which is the 1940s? How do you see this progression going and in the United States and Europe, a lot of the comics are read by adults; in Lebanon is the genre still mainly a children’s market or do you see a change in that market?
Henry Matthews: It’s changing, but of course, it’s not as quick as in the Western world. But nowadays here, adults are reading comic books. But it is still, generally speaking, a genre for children.
But you see new experiments, new publications of comic books that are just for adults. These are being published all around. But it is still a very limited change; it’s going to take some time to establish itself.
Samir Husni: What do you think, throughout history, say, the last century; what do you think has been the most influential comic books started? Because we have two types of comic books in the Middle East: we have those that were translated from the West, from France, Belgium or the States, and we have those that were founded in this region.
Henry Matthews: This has really been a continuing dilemma for every publisher because in the beginning, especially in the 50s and 60s, they always wanted to boast that their comics were homegrown. But the homegrown comics were not always of good quality or very well drawn.
If you want to look at what the reader wants, the young reader of comic books in the Arab world wants to be thrilled, to enjoy what they’re reading. This is what made Superman and Little Lulu in Arabic such great successes.
So it depends. If you’re trying to sell your comic books and you’re not funded by any party or government, you’ll have to find a way to interest young readers in your magazine. And the most interesting have always been the ones translated from the West, made in the U.S., Superman, Batman etc. the Superheroes.
Samir Husni: As you know, the magazine that ignited my passion and love for all magazines was Superman. But in your case, you concentrated more on the homegrown magazines…
Henry Matthews: Well, not really. When my passion started it was a mixture of homegrown comics and the translated comics from Belgium.
All through the history of comics in the Arab world, the homegrown comics were not really the issue. Typically, you had a lot of competition between translated comics that were started in the U.S. and French comics. Basically, this is where the real competition lay, because readers wanted something really enjoyable to read. And at the time the locally-made comics were not really made to the standards. So it was really a duel between the American comics on one side and the French and European comics on the other side. And the Americans won. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: What about the homegrown Egyptian comics? When I was growing up there was one called “Samir,” definitely named after me. (Laughs) And one called “Mickey” which was a Disney licensee. What was the first comic book that you can recall being published in the Arab world?
Henry Matthews: There was “Sinbad” which started even before “Samir.” And there were other experiments that didn’t last long. For example, there was “Ali Baba” and even comics which tried, in Egypt, to use stories from the movies. They would take a cowboy movie, run a summary of it and put pictures of the movie along with the comics they were including. These comics could have been “The Phantom” or war comics, for example. So this happened even before “Samir” started publishing. I’m talking about around the 1940s or early 1950s.
When I saw the first comic book in the Arab world, “Samir” was the first one to have great success and that was a great advantage for it. And it continues to this day.
“Samir” and the period we’re talking about included a mixture of locally-made comics and translated American comics. “Flash Gordon” for example. And there was one guy who drew comics in “Samir” that were superbly beautiful “Flash Gordon” comic strips and you would have thought they came straight from the States. But he was a local artist who did them. And in “Samir” you had guys drawing comic strips from Western and American heroes, but they were locally-made. This is one of the interesting points of history.
Samir Husni: “Samir” was published in Egypt. Did Lebanon ever become the center for comic publishing?
Henry Matthews: Lebanon and Egypt were always neck-in-neck in the comics publishing competition. The beginning was with Egypt in the early 50s, well, even before that. They started “Sinbad” magazine in Egypt in 1952 and it was quite a successful experiment. It lasted for 9 years.
It was “Sinbad” I think that affected publishers in Lebanon. In 1955, you had publisher, Laurine Rihani in Lebanon, who started doing Dunia Al-Ahdath. It was the first Lebanese comic book and it was the same format as “Sinbad,” and a little bit like it.
Just like with “Sinbad”, it took a few issues to get things started with comic strips in Lebanon. Their main problem was, in Egypt and in Lebanon, they wanted to convince schools that these publications were good for the children, so they had to include something like grammar, dictation and curriculum material with the comic books to make them palatable for the schools’ administrations. And this is what happened with Al-Ahdath.
So, in the beginning you only had a few pages of actual comics and many pages of text.
Samir Husni: Tell me about your collection. I see boxes and boxes and boxes. (Laughs) It’s a scary reminder of my own office.
Basically, I concentrate on comics and children’s books, but I also have other collections of stories. For example, you know Arsène Lupin, a very famous French gentleman thief, was such a popular character in the Arabic publications that you have thousands and thousands of titles about Arsène Lupin in Arabic, much more than what was published about him in France.
In Egypt and then later in the Arabic world, every single publisher had to start a line for Arsène Lupin if they wanted to have some kind of success. And sometimes I think they even got stories that were not originally starring Arsène Lupin and they made him the hero anyway.
So, although we did not have Arsène Lupin in Arabic comic books, every week, even during WWII, we had Egyptian publishers producing at least 10 or 12 issues for Arsène Lupin. So, this is the history that I’m trying to preserve. Not just the comics, but also those imaginary heroes of stories which really were attractive to the Arab masses in the mid-twentieth century.
Samir Husni: How large is your collection?
Henry Matthews: It’s not as large as I want it to be. (Laughs) I want it to be as large as possible. I have around 20,000 or 30,000 American comics and a similar number of Lebanese comics and I also have French comics and a limited number of other languages, like German and Japanese.
Samir Husni: What’s your most prized possession among all of your comics?
Henry Matthews: I’m not thinking of monetary value. I don’t have any very rare American comic, that’s not what I’m thinking of, but what I am thinking of is how easy it is to find a comic. For example, if you have the right amount of money you can always find the American comics that you want to buy. You have to pay a lot, but you can get them.
The first issues of Superman and these are really my prized possessions, if you lose an issue of colors, you cannot find it anymore, because no one really bothered to preserve them. This is the main difference between the Arab world and the Western one, especially in the U.S. There they preserve the comics and have an industry based on buying old comics and collecting them. Here it’s a fairly new trend. So, a lot has been lost and I’m trying to document all this.
Samir Husni: And what’s your plan after you finish documenting all of them? What do you want to do with them then?
Henry Matthews: Well, I want to publish books and histories, which is really most important to me. And I do hope eventually, if I get funding, to start a center to preserve all children’s books and comic books in the Arab world, because there are no other kinds like we have. And what I really hope, of course this is fantasizing, I really think what should be done is every country and every culture should preserve its publications for children. And this should be adopted by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) so that in every country there will be a UNESCO documentation for children’s publications, from past to present.
You would end up around the world with many UNESCO centers for documenting children’s publications in their native languages.
Samir Husni: We live in a digital age; do you think the digital revolution is going to help that preservation or hurt it?
Henry Matthews: Let me put it this way, in Lebanon there was a time when we felt that there was nobody reading anymore, but recently they had an Arab book fair in Beirut, it ended a few days ago, and I was amazed when I discovered that people were flocking to it and buying books, even more than before. I think now the trend is changing, people are buying books again.
Last year was different, the year before that it was absolutely zero almost. But now people are buying books and magazines and also buying a lot of comics. You would be amazed at how people sort of compete to buy what they want. This was unheard of in the past. Now people just want to buy beautiful magazines and books, especially children’s books. Everybody is printing in the best, most colorful way, with very attractive covers and artwork. I think it’s a booming business in Lebanon now.
Samir Husni: What do you think the future holds for children’s magazines and books?
Henry Matthews: I’m more optimistic than I was last year or the year before about comics. Of course, it will not be a widespread phenomenon like in the past, say the 60s or 70s, but we will have at least a small but solid contingent of comics’ readership and publications in the Arab world.
And my hope, for example, is to establish a comic’s documentation center. It will not just be to preserve the comic books, but to digitize them and that way someone could be sitting in their home, for example, and could go to the website of the center and access the old magazines, maybe 70 years old, that you want to look at and see it all on the website. This is what I hope to achieve.
Samir Husni: As they told me in Russia, the problem with digitizing material now is that every few years you have to update the whole computerized system. While you have books and magazines from hundreds of years ago that still exist and do not need to be updated.
Henry Matthews: Of course, it was much simpler then. If you think of the possibilities, a virus attack for example, you could end up losing all of your material. Even if you back everything up, it’s still a scary thought.
Samir Husni: What’s your current position; what’s your real job? (Laughs)
Henry Matthews: (Laughs too) I’m editor in the information office of the American University of Beirut (A.U.B.) and I’ve been there since 1985. And I love it. Even during the war, I’d risk my life to go there and I remember the shells falling and I’d still want to stay. I’d document all as a journalist and publish it in the University newsletter. And I’m still working there as an editor. It’s always been one of my passions.
I tried to convince them to start a history office, an office of A.U.B history, much like NASA History Office, for example. I wanted A.U.B to have a history office documenting just A.U.B.
My other passions are space exploration and aviation and I also paint. I’m a painter. And if I have anything left during the day, I use it to organize my collections.
Samir Husni: Thank you.