If you know anything about wishes — be they granted by djinn, monkey’s paws, or some other magical way — you know there’s often a price to be paid. But what if the price was monetary; what if the more you paid for a wish, the more likely it would come true, and with no strings attached? This is the premise (sans the djinn) of Deena Mohamed’s first graphic novel, Shubeik Lubeik (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Mohamed explains where she got the idea for this urban fantasy tale, and what influenced it.
I’d like to start with the story. What is Shubeik Lubeik about, and when and where does it take place?
Shubeik Lubeik is about a world where you can buy and sell wishes, and the more expensive they are the more powerful their ability to fulfill your desire. So, for example, if you buy a first-class wish for a million dollars, it will grant exactly what you want, but if you buy a cheap wish for five hundred Egyptian pounds, it may deceive you like a monkey’s paw.
The book itself tells the story of three first-class wishes in a street kiosk, whose owner has refused to use or sell so far because he believes wishes are against his religion. Because of his debts, he decides to sell them at a huge discount, and the book is about who buys each of his three wishes. It takes place in an alternate modern-day Egypt, mostly in Cairo.
Where did you get the idea for Shubeik Lubeik?
It was inspired by my interest in Cairo kiosks, the corner stalls on many streets where you can buy drinks and cigarettes and many other things. I’ve always found them visually really interesting, because they’re always so colorful and customized in the middle of everything else. I wanted to write a story about a kiosk that sold a magical item, and when I thought of a kiosk that would sell wishes, I started to think what a universe where you could buy a wish from a kiosk would look like.
It sounds like Shubeik Lubeik may be a fantasy story, but I’m not quite sure. How do you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?
I usually describe it as an urban fantasy, though I suppose it also fits speculative fiction, because I find those to be the most suitable descriptors.
Shubeik Lubeik is your first graphic novel, though you’ve written other things, including a still ongoing webcomic called Qahera. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Shubeik Lubeik, but not on anything else you’ve written? And by “writers” and “stories,” I mean prose as well comic.
Shubeik Lubeik came after I had just completed my undergraduate thesis on the history of Egyptian comics. I was deeply inspired by contemporary Egyptian comics artists, though most of their work was usually short comics in anthologies, and I frequently found myself wishing it was longer. There aren’t many Egyptian graphic novels, about five or six, but I was always so happy to read them and they ignited my love of the medium. I was really itching to create something along the lines; having been through the webcomic experience I wanted to try everything in comics I hadn’t had a chance to try yet: traditional publishing, Arabic-only, an Egyptian graphic novel that people could just walk into a bookstore and buy. My webcomic is also satirical social commentary: direct, issue-based series of stand-alone short comics, and I wanted to try longer-form storytelling that is closer to my actual tastes. Shubeik Lubeik was inspired primarily by Egyptian comics artists such as Shennawy, Mohamed Salah, Tawfik, Sherif Adel and Ganzeer. Conceptually, there is a little bit of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (an Egyptian sci-fi and speculative fiction author). I used to like a fantasy series called the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud as a child, and occasionally I can see its influence there. There’s probably a little bit of everything I’ve ever read and enjoyed in it.
And how about non-literary influences; was Shubeik Lubeik influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Recently, someone pointed out there is a clear Shrek influence to it. I can’t deny it.
Moving on to the art, the art in Shubeik Lubeik starts out full color but then becomes black & white. Which is uncommon in American comics, especially superhero stuff, but rather common in manga. Is that where you got the idea to do this?
Actually, rather than manga it was something I used to see in Arabic Tintin comics we had. There would be one color spread, followed by a black-and-white spread. The original comics are full-color, but the Arabic translations weren’t, so I assume it had to do with the cost of printing. I was also aware printing a full-color book would be impossible (also due to printing costs), so I thought of doing a full-color introduction as a sort of attention-grabber to appeal to Egyptian readers who may not be used to reading graphic novels. It was also a good way to separate the introduction from the rest of the story.
So then who do you see as being the biggest influences on the color pages, and who do you see as being the biggest influences on the black & white ones?
For the color pages…probably Egyptian artists Shennawy, Tawfik, and Makhlouf. The latter two tend to use bold, bright cel-shading that I really like visually, while Shennawy is more influenced by the Franco-Belgian style and uses softer palettes and color combinations that are incredibly visually appealing. I think I went for some combination of these factors while coloring.
For the general aesthetic, I used Egyptian editorial cartoons (such as Doaa el-Adl, Mohy el Din Al-Labad, Bahgat Osman, and others) as inspiration for some of the character design and inking, because I know Egyptians tend to find humorous and exaggerated facial expressions the most visually familiar to read but I also needed a sense of realism for the story to land emotionally. But for the inking style specifically, I think I was occasionally influenced by manga such as Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist, where they tend to rely on high-contrast black and white and less on screentones and greyscale. I knew I didn’t want to use greyscale at all, so I probably looked at some of those pages as I was inking.
And was the art influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not particularly. At the time I was very focused on Egyptian books and art because I wanted the book to be published for an Egyptian audience.
Now, the reason we’re doing this interview is because Shubeik Lubeik is being released in English for the first time; you originally wrote it in Arabic. But aside from it being translated, this version features the entire story, while the original was presented in three parts. Whose idea was it to publishing it as a single edition?
It was partly my agent, Anjali Singh. When we were pitching, I had self-published part 1 in Arabic already, but I told her I had plans for all 3 parts. Anjali suggesting pitching them as one big book as part 1 was around 80 pages back then, and bigger publishing houses would be more interested in a bigger volume. I found it appealing because it meant a bigger advance, which meant longer time to work on the Arabic editions, and it would feel like a conclusive end to all 3 parts published in Arabic to have it collected into one volume. I was also excited to just have a really massive, substantial graphic novel at the end of it, because I love buying those and reading them.
Did you have to make any changes to Shubeik Lubeik to make it work as a single volume?
I definitely made a few; there were some pages added to the English edition for context because I had the extra time to expand on things that might not be clear to English-speaking readers. I also added infographic “separators” between each part. In the Arabic, the infographics are at the back of the book or were distributed as additional pamphlets with the book. But for the English I needed to create some sort of pause between each part, so that readers would recognize they were originally published as three separate stories, and I used the infographics for that.
As you know, Hollywood loves making movies, TV shows, and games based on graphic novels. Do you think Shubeik Lubeik could work as a movie, show, or game?
It’s actually, at its core, quite dense and philosophical. I think you could adapt the more fun aspect (the world-building) of Shubeik Lubeik into just about any medium and genre, but the stories I told specifically in this world would be quite difficult.
Finally, if someone enjoys Shubeik Lubeik, what graphic novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?