Who can resist the serious study of popular culture, especially something so seductive as the comic strip? Over the past quarter-century, Arabic-speakers have developed a wide range of strips, starting with a derivative Miki (Mickey Mouse) who celebrates Ramadan and ending up with original characters such as Zakiya adh-Dhakiya, the little know-it-all girl from Abu Dhabi. Unlikely as it sounds, fundamentalist Muslims produce comic strips (complete with birds wearing fundamentalist-style modesty kerchiefs). Less surprisingly, Saddam Husayn stars as a comic book hero in a celebration of an attempted assassination of Iraq's president in 1959. Also not surprising, the comic strips produced by second-generation Arabs in France (the Beurs) show far more daring, especially in matters sexual, than those produced in countries lacking freedom of expression.

The authors, a husband-and-wife team, do an excellent job of interpreting the comics, stripping away their externals and revealing their underlying messages (for example, how the absence of fathers in Syria comics points to their being replaced by Hafiz al-Asad). Unfortunately, the authors confine themselves almost exclusively to texts and so do not provide -- as did Frederik L. Schodt in Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983) -- information about the place of comics in society. Who reads them? What impact do they have?