Spotlight on Nadia Shammas

Part of a page from “Summer in Brooklyn” by writer Nadia Shammas, artist Sally Cantirino, colorist Sergey Nazarov, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou depicting children playing in water from a hydrant

Recently announced as the writer of a Ms. Marvel graphic novel to be published by Scholastic, Nadia Shammas might be a new name to some of you, but she isn’t new to comics. A former Marvel intern, Shammas edited CORPUS: A Comic Anthology of Bodily Ailments (which was covered by WWAC here and here), co-wrote Care Bears: Unlock the Magic with Matthew Erman, and is currently working on SQUIRE with the co-creator of Marvel’s Amulet, Sara Alfageeh, for HarperCollins. She’s also contributed to a number of anthologies, including THE GOOD FIGHT: A Peaceful Stand Against Bigotry and Racism, and self-published work like “Summer in Brooklyn.” In anticipation of SQUIRE and the Ms. Marvel GN, I read “Summer” and “No Olive Branch for Me.”

“No Olive Branch for Me”
Natasha Alterici (artist), Aditya Bidikar (letters)

Shammas, artist Alterici, and letterer Bidikar’s “No Olive Branch for Me” originally appeared in (and was one of the stronger contributions to) THE GOOD FIGHT, edited by Adam Ferris and Danny Lore. Following its appearance in THE GOOD FIGHT, Shammas republished the comic alongside essays from other Palestinian American creators in an eponymous print and digital zine. The comic opens in Bethlehem, Palestine, and follows Shammas’ mother and her family from there to the United States, where Shammas grew up. They emigrated, in part, because her maternal family lost the farm on which they grew olive trees. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, and they represent both the Palestinian people and their relationship to Palestinian land. Israeli settlers have uprooted more than 800,000 olive trees — like those on Shammas’ family’s farm — since 1967. As Shammas narrates against a background of fallen olive branches, which symbolize offers of peace, “… the metaphor is too obvious.”

Panel from "No Olive Branch for Me" by writer Nadia Shammas, artist Natasha Alterici, and letterer Aditya Bidikar depicting fallen olive branches

Bidikar differentiates between Shammas’ narration and the dialogue of the comic by using square caption boxes with italicized text for the former and rounded speech balloons with unformatted text for the latter, with a few exceptions, when either bold or bold and italics are used for emphasis. That emphasis is used sparingly: it appears when a white American woman speaks to a young Nadia and her mother (“Well honestly I don’t think anyone should have the land since they can’t get along.”), only twice when Nadia narrates, and when, at the end of the comic, an adult Nadia replies to another white American woman asking about her background (“I’m Palestinian.”) The white women, who otherwise appear in the same skin tone as the Palestinian characters, wear white shirts, unlike Shammas’ mother (who wears green) and Shammas’ avatar (who wears red). At different points in the comic, Nadia and her mother both wear black and white keffiyeh. Green, red, black, and white — the colors of “No Olive Branch” — are drawn from the Palestinian flag. Alterici’s colors appear more vibrant in the print zine version of this comic than they do in THE GOOD FIGHT: her greens and reds are richer in the zine than they are in the anthology.

Panel from "No Olive Branch for Me" by writer Nadia Shammas, artist Natasha Alterici, and letterer Aditya Bidikar depicting a woman wearing a keffiyeh in front of the Palestinian flag

Echoing the comic, Shammas poses three questions to the Palestinian American creators who contributed to the zine (including comics creator Iasmin Omar Ata [Mis(h)adra]): when did their families leave Palestine (for Shammas, after the loss of the family farm and business), if they have a responsibility as Palestinian Americans (for Shammas, yes, to be publicly Palestinian), and how their identities intersect with their creative work (for Shammas, as a writer of comics like “No Olive Branch” and “Summer in Brooklyn”).

“Summer in Brooklyn”
Sally Cantirino (pencils/inks), Sergey Nazarov (colors), Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (letters)

Shammas, Cantirino, Nazarov, and Otsmane-Elhaou’s “Summer in Brooklyn” was published as a standalone comic. It opens not with Shammas’ mother, but her father and a preteen Nadia at the family store in Brooklyn, New York. It follows Nadia through a summer day: from chores at the store to the library to a fast food lunch to the family’s residence to the local bodega and back home again.

Cantirino’s lines carry different weights according to different degrees of detail: outlines are thick while the creases of skin at bent knees and around eyes, open or closed, are thin. Her lines tend to be more static than dynamic, although in a way that makes the panels feel like snapshots of what Shammas describes as “one particularly great day growing up in Brooklyn on the cusp of becoming a teenager.” Daytime panels and pages are, like all of “No Olive Branch,” colored in warm tones by Nazarov, while those at night are colored in cool tones. A notable exception, concerning both Nazarov’s colors and the dynamism of Cantirino’s lines, is the two-page splash over which Nadia and her friends play in water released from a fire hydrant: the water’s light blue stands out against the yellows of the sunset soaked sidewalk, and the use of inset panels showing kids playing and, most importantly, feet moving convey motion.

Page from “Summer in Brooklyn” by writer Nadia Shammas, artist Sally Cantirino, colorist Sergey Nazarov, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou depicting children playing in water from a hydrant

On this same two-page spread, and throughout the comic, Arabic is spoken. First indicated using Arabic script, Otsmane-Elhaou later (and predominantly) uses brackets and color (orange) to indicate the shift away from English while providing English translations of Arabic dialogue. Nadia, her mother, her friend, and the person manning the register at the bodega all speak Arabic casually. However, the use of both brackets and color — as opposed to brackets or color — marks the translated Arabic as different from English rather than interchangeable with it. That may be for the benefit of the reader, but it necessarily presumes a reader who is not fluent in Arabic, potentially alienating those who are fluent and would not need a translation let alone multiple visual markers of difference.

All of the text in the comic is dialogue, mostly contained in rounded speech balloons. Balloons representing more guttural sounds or yelling change shape to indicate enunciation (or the lack thereof) and volume. All of the balloons, regardless of shape, have two-colored tails. In contrast to Cantirino’s outlines, which are closed, the two-colored tails, which are white and black, make it appear as if the balloons are open and distinguish them from the artwork.

Panel from “Summer in Brooklyn” by writer Nadia Shammas, artist Sally Cantirino, colorist Sergey Nazarov, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou depicting Nadia speaking to her mother

“Summer in Brooklyn” is grounded in Shammas’ experience and personhood, both through the representation of the Arab American community in Brooklyn and, even more specifically, in the representation of Nadia as a Type 1 diabetic (her own CORPUS comic, “Low” with artist Becca Farrow, is about her diagnosis). Its specificity, like that of “No Olive Branch for Me,” is a strength. Without those specifics, “Summer in Brooklyn” could easily be a summer in any city in America, but it isn’t. Likewise, “No Olive Branch” is stronger for its personal narrative, for the fact that Shammas does not present her family’s history as universally representative of the Palestinian disapora but, instead, as a facet of it. There is an awareness, across these works, of the singularity of the writer’s biographical avatar, and that, in concert with the creative work done by the artists and letterers, is what makes them worth reading.