Up close with the creators of ‘Mibdul’, Malta’s first serialised comic for adults

Teodor Reljić and Inez Kristina on creating Malta’s first-ever serialised comic book series ‘Mibdul’

Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

Merlin Books have published Malta’s first-ever serialised comic book series for adults.  

Mibdul is a cutting-edge series in six monthly instalments that uses science fiction and horror to “mercilessly satirise the environmental mess, construction orgy and corruption going on in a certain island.”

Mibdul is written by Teodor Reljić and illustrated by Inez Kristina and published, with funding by the Malta Book Fund, in monthly instalments by Merlin Publishers.

The first issue is already out and can be purchased from Merlin publisher’s website, while the second issue will be out on 12 May.

MaltaToday spoke to Reljić and Inez Kristina about the creation of Mibdul and what readers can expect from the six-issue comic.

What was the inspiration behind creating Mibdul?

TR: Funnily enough, for me it was triggered into being by the announcement that virgin land at Zonqor Point in Marsascala was to be taken up by the American University in Malta – announced by then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Workers’ Day (of all days) back in 2015. I lived a literal stone’s throw away from the proposed site at the time, and the news was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the ongoing eradication of Malta’s natural landscape (as was the case with many others, and as evidenced by the unprecedented wave of protest that the proposed development unwittingly jolted into being). I wanted to transmute my frustration into something tangible that also spoke to my primary creative instincts and impulses – reaching all the way back to my childhood and adolescence. And a ‘space fantasy’ comic was the most aesthetically and emotionally accessible allegory for me at the time.

Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

IZ: Teodor approached me at some point in 2016 saying he had been working on this idea for a comic series, and after talking for a while we found out we were pretty aligned about how angry we were not only regarding Malta’s lack of respect for our natural environment but also about the proposed American University which would have been built in Zonqor, Marsascala. Since Marsaskala is my hometown and I feel very strongly about it (and both Teo and I were living there back then), I jumped wholeheartedly on board.

Can you tell us about the process of creating Mibdul? How did go from an idea to something tangible?

TR: After Inez got involved, the project began to grow more or less organically on my part, because I knew I could continue writing out the story, safe in the knowledge that my ideas will be understood, incorporated and given visual life by an intelligent and capable artist! (We both happened to live in Marsascala for a bulk of Mibdul’s creation, so that was also quite handy.) The writing underwent a fairly standard process of chipping away at the initial ideas, concepts and characters and dividing it all up into the serialised six-part journey. It ultimately all boiled down to two key challenges: making sure that I could fit the story into the 22/24-page six-issue format, and making sure that each individual issue, while being part of a larger whole, both advances the story forward and is a dynamic read in its own right. Overall, I’m very proud of the way the story is structured – readers will notice its peaks and troughs as they read along in the coming months – and I’m both nervous and excited to see it finally be released in monthly instalments in the ‘real’ world!

IZ: It was definitely a huge challenge! I had never worked on a project this ambitious before, so it took some getting used to being thrown in the deep end. Luckily Teo was super to collaborate with since he would get very excited whenever I would show him sketches or tell him my ideas, so we had a great back and forth discussing story, characters, designs, layouts, etc.... from script to final page. In the beginning we had some early concept sketches from Mark Scicluna to riff off (who was on the project before me) but we ended up taking the designs and the vibe in a totally different direction, as the project grew. The art also gets progressively better throughout the series as my skills developed. I was very happy that Chris Gruppetta from Merlin was on board from the very beginning and supported us through the entire process which lasted way longer than we had expected. I learned a lot about time management, work-life balance and expectations through drawing all these pages (the project took 5 years to complete, instead of the originally planned 1, due to life and financial circumstances, as well as a total lack of experience) but it was our passion project and little by little, we pulled through.

What was the reason behind choosing to use a comic book format to tell the story?

TR: I’ve worked both as a film critic and a screenwriter, and my academic background is in English Literature, but when we get right down to it – comics are my first love. I’ve loved them since I was a kid and committed to collecting them on a regular basis during my teen years... which required some effort in mid-to-late ‘90s Malta. In short, I’ve always wanted to write a comic book. And with Mibdul, the opportunity finally presented itself, thanks to both Inez and our brave, risk-taking publisher (Chris Gruppetta at Merlin) taking the plunge.

IZ: I’ve always wanted to draw comics since I was a little girl, and this was the perfect opportunity for me.

What does Mibdul offer that other comics out there do not?

TR: The fact that it’s Malta’s first serialised comic book from a mainstream publisher is a ‘historical’ milestone. However, I’d say it also offers a uniquely Maltese take on certain archetypal stories: Maltese fans of properties such as Star WarsArcaneDune or Mad Max will find a Maltese strand added to that particular set of influences. The comic will also be an exaggerated, expanded take on certain very Maltese topical issues... along with some ‘Easter Eggs’ of local flavour which eagle-eyed readers will have fun spotting.

IZ: I think readers will enjoy the rawness of it. It’s very human and emotional at times, but also really silly. It’s also very Maltese in many ways, but not overtly so – I think people will enjoy drawing parallels between the world of Mibdul and Malta, but it’s also a universal story that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone. I don’t think it’s that important for us to be ‘groundbreaking’ with Mibdul – we just wanted to make something that expresses how we felt, in a way that is ours. I think it can be rough around the edges in parts, which I think can be charming.

Yourself, do you read a lot of comics? What are your influences?

TR: Of course I read comics! After a lull in my late teens, I picked them up again with gusto while final-year exams at University were pummelling me into a stupor (you reach out for your first love in times of need and desperation). In terms of direct influences on Mibdul... not to sound lofty – and I’m in no way comparing us to those juggernauts – but Moebius’ collaborations with Alejandro Jodorowsky (particularly The Incal). Less for its sheer brilliance, and more for how they take a zanily humorous, satirically inventive – and occasionally psychedelic – spin on the space fantasy/sci-fi genre.

IZ: Surprisingly, I don’t read that many comics anymore. I used to way more when I was younger, but I got too caught up in drawing the thing and finishing my animation studies to actually enjoy reading comics or watching animated shorts and movies. It’s only now that I have some free time, that I get to rediscover the things that got me into doing this in the first place. I don’t really have any specific influences though, since literally anything could tickle my fancy at any moment. I suppose I just pick stuff up that I like subconsciously and it comes out on the page through osmosis.

Midbul is a 6 issue comic series, do you plan to continue to create other comics together once it’s over?

TR: If it were up to me, Mibdul would already be on its second or third volume! But the six issues were a massive undertaking, particularly for Inez. But we’re certainly committed to collaborating on more stuff in the future, even at a smaller scale. Starting off big – as we did with Mibdul’s six-issue run – may not have been the wisest course of action, but it’s proven that our collaboration is strong enough to handle all the challenges that such an undertaking implies. I certainly look forward to more!

IZ: I would love to! For now, I feel a little bit creatively burnt out from producing Mibdul (to any young artists out there, as I was when I started this project at age 19 – committing yourself to 6 issues is not a joke) as well as the myriad of other projects I’ve done, so I’m taking a break to gather my bearings and recharge. I agree with Teo that our collaboration is strong and has been for quite some years now, and we’ve already started talking about what we could possibly do next. I look forward to the future!