Soubia, which means ‘cuttlefish’ in Tunisian dialect, is a cartoon blog that publishes the work of Aymen Mbarek, 36, (screenwriter) and Seif Eddine Nechi, 43, (comic artist). Today, it encompasses four different comic books: Silence elle tourne! , Fkeren (‘turtles’), Tawahoch (‘savagery’) and Bombyx Mori.
The blog won the Best Electronic Publication award at the CairoComix festival two years in a row: for Tawahoch in 2016 and Bombyx Mori in 2017. It was also a finalist for the Mahmoud Kahil Award in Lebanon. Fanack sat down with Nechi to learn more about how the duo got started and where they hope to go.
Let’s start at the beginning. Who is Seif Eddine Nechi?
A comic artist who started out as a cartoonist. I switched to comics around five years ago when I cofounded LAB619 and then started Soubia, which is a comic book blog that visitors can download for free.
You said that you are ‘a comic artist who started out as a cartoonist’. What caused this shift?
As a cartoonist you are limited to ‘one shot’, which I felt was not enough for me. At the same time, caricatures are mostly reactions to current events and politics. At some point that gets depressing. I didn’t want that. I wanted to create my own universes, my own fictional characters and sets. Basically, I wanted to tell my own stories.
On your website, you describe with a lot of humour how Soubia came to life. How exactly did it come about?
Soubia is a collaboration with Aymen Mbarek. Upon leaving LAB619, we realized we shared similar artistic sensibilities and that his scenarios and my drawings were a great fit. We spent a year considering what our next step would be before deciding to launch our own comic book blog. The main worry we had was that in Tunisia, or the Arab world in general, there are very few published comics, so we didn’t know where this ‘crazy idea’ would take us. In the last couple of years, we both feel that Soubia has started to gain recognition both in this part of the world and beyond.
Indeed. Your most recent work, Bombyx Mori, won Best Electronic Publication at CairoComix 2017. Would you tell us more about it?
Bombyx Mori is the perfect example of the magic of working with Aymen. He has this sensitivity of being able to live and relate experiences even when they’re not his own. The story actually comes from a childhood memory of mine.
When I was still in elementary school, there was this man who would sell us silkworms – their scientific name is Bombyx mori. The uncommonness of what he was selling and his whole presence were always a mystery to me. Years later, I met the same man again in my parent’s hometown of Tazarka. He was not selling silkworms anymore, but I had this strange feeling that I was in front of this character who was transcending time in many ways.
I shared this memory with Aymen and we developed it into a story about a man who helps a young child find his own path, as if the child himself were a silkworm going through the different stages of its development cycle, from a silkworm to a moth.
Soubia now encompasses four different comic books. Is there a link between them, or are they totally independent?
Each one is its own entity. I see Soubia more as [an outlet for] graphic novels than comic books. Comic books are usually periodic, keeping the same set of characters. Graphic novels are independent fictional works. However, we do have some sort of editorial line … more like a dogma. For example, our stories do not teach a moral lesson; they are not based on the eternal struggle between good and evil. We try to navigate differently. We tell the stories the way we see them, and we allow the readers to interpret them as they please.
Where do you usually draw your inspiration from then?
I actually believe in work and production more than inspiration. I choose to be defined by hard work itself. The way I see it is that if you do not draw and wait around for inspiration, you get rusty. That’s why I am always drawing, always experimenting and researching. Before Bombyx Mori, for example, I had never worked with water colours. But I wanted to, so I sat down and practiced over and over again until [the image] came out the way it did.
Finally, what are your future projects? Where do you see Soubia five years from now? Are you considering a printed edition?
Yes. However, we are facing challenges, mainly the fact that the Tunisian market is a small one. We are considering other options, mainly abroad, but it is essential for us to keep our Tunisian dialect. Hopefully, a printed publication with compiled cartoons from Soubia will see the light of day sometime soon.