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The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Characters
a Muslim super-hero team
CAPTION: Five of "The 99," from left: Mumita (speedy), Dr. Razem (a gem expert), Rughal (mystery powers), Jabbar (expandable) and Noora (sees truth).
From: Hassan M. Fattah, "Comics to Battle for Truth, Justice and the Islamic Way", published in The New York Times, 22 January 2006 (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/22/international/middleeast/22comics.html; viewed 18 April 2006):
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 21 - For comic book readers in Arab countries, the world often looks like this: superheroes save American cities, battle beasts in Tokyo and even on occasion solve crimes in the French countryside. But few care about saving the Arab world.
If Naif al-Mutawa has his way, that is about to change. Young Arabs will soon be poring over a new group - and new genre - of superheroes like Jabbar, Mumita and Ramzi Razem, all aimed specifically at young Muslim readers and focusing on Muslim virtues.
Mr. Mutawa's Teshkeel Media, based in Kuwait, says that in September it will begin publishing "The 99," a series of comic books based on superhero characters who battle injustice and fight evil, with each character personifying one of the 99 qualities that Muslims believe God embodies.
A burly, fast-talking Kuwaiti with a dry wit, Mr. Mutawa, 34, said existing superheroes fell into two main genres: the Judeo-Christian archetype of individuals with enormous power who are often disguised or outcasts, like Superman, and the Japanese archetype of small characters who rely on each other to become powerful, like Pokemon.
His superhero characters will be based on an Islamic archetype: by combining individual Muslim virtues - everything from wisdom to generosity - they build collective power that is ultimately an expression of the divine.
"Muslims believe that power is ultimately God, and God has 99 key attributes," Mr. Mutawa said. "Those attributes, if they all come together in one place, essentially become the unity of God." He stresses that only God has them all, however, and 30 of the traits deemed uniquely divine will not be embodied by his characters.
Still, this is tricky territory. Muslim religious authorities reject attempts to personify the powers of God or combine the word of God in the Koran with new myths or imaginative renderings more typical of the West.
But Mr. Mutawa is seeking to reach youngsters who are straddling the cultural divide between East and West. They like comics and Western entertainment, and yet are attached to their roots and intend to hold on to their customs. He, too, faced that divide, going to summer camp in New Hampshire in the 1980's - he says his parents wanted him to lose weight - while grappling with Arab culture and pressures.
In his flowing white robe and traditional Arab headdress, Mr. Mutawa looks every bit the Kuwaiti; when he opens his mouth, however, he is every bit the New Yorker who spent his formative years reading comics and much of his adult life in the United States, training as a psychologist at Bellevue Hospital Center and writing a series of children's books on assimilation, race and prejudice.
"I was the kid that was thrown out of class for not being willing to accept what the teacher was teaching us about Jews," he said. "I had Jewish friends at camp, and I knew that they were not the stereotype." With three boys and a fourth child due soon, Mr. Mutawa says he wants his children to be able to find a balance between East and West.
Others, too, have seized on the opportunity for comics in the Middle East but not graphic representations of the principles of the Koran. In Cairo, AK Comics has published Middle East Heroes, four larger-than-life Arab characters who face the challenges of most Arabs by day and fight for them by night.
Mr. Mutawa, an avid reader of "Archie" and other comics, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, dreamed up his Muslim superheroes during a taxi ride in 2003 with his sister, Samar, in London.
The plot of the series, drawing on stories and history familiar to most Muslim youths, involves the great wisdom and learning that characterized the Muslim world at its apogee, when it reached from northern Pakistan to southern Spain in the late Middle Ages.
The story concerns 99 gems encoded with the wisdom of Baghdad just as the Mongols are invading the city in the 13th century - in his version, to destroy the city's knowledge. The gems are the source of not only wisdom but power, and they have been scattered across the world, sending some 20 superheroes (at least in the first year, leaving another 49 potential heroes for future editions) on a quest to find them before an evil villain does.
"To create the new, you have to tap into the old," Mr. Mutawa says of the deep historic connections in the comic. "The real goal is to teach kids that there's more than one way to solve a problem."
The characters in "The 99" are not all Arabs, but Muslims from all over the world. Jabbar, the enforcer, is a hulking figure from Saudi Arabia with the power to grow immense at a sneer; Mumita is a bombshell from Portugal with unparalleled agility and a degree of bloodlust; and Noora, from the United Arab Emirates, can read the truth in what people say and help them to see the truth in themselves. There is even a character who wears a burka, aptly called Batina, derived from the word meaning hidden.
But that is where religion stops and mythology begins, Mr. Mutawa says. "I don't expect Islamists to like my idea, and I don't want the ultraliberals to like it either," he says. So far, he has managed to get Kuwait's censors to approve the early mock-ups, he says. But to keep the orthodox at ease, he has included women in headscarves and plays it by the book as far as religion goes.
But what may give him the biggest edge is a seasoned team, including writers like Fabian Nicieza, who wrote for X-Men and Power Rangers comics, and a group of managers and advisers who are old hands in the industry.
In addition, "The 99" will piggyback on a distribution network Mr. Mutawa is setting up for a parallel project, publishing all manner of other comics in the region. Teshkeel has signed on with Marvel Comics to translate and distribute their comics in the Middle East, and will soon begin publishing Arabic versions of Marvel's Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, X-Men and others. He said he is in talks with Archie and DC Comics for similar deals. He says that Teshkeel has attracted $7 million from investors, based on the promise that he will turn his company into the largest comics publisher in the Middle East.
Last year, Teshkeel also bought Cracked, a defunct competitor of Mad magazine, which he plans to resume publishing in February pitched to a more mature audience in the United States. He hopes those publications will encourage other media companies to take him more seriously and back his Muslim superheroes concept.
"We got a sense that he was serious about this, and that it wasn't something he was pursuing on a whim," says Bruno Maglione, president of Marvel International, which signed a licensing agreement with Teshkeel last October.
English-language comics, though, are a tough sell in the Middle East; they are typically sold in specialty bookshops, and their distribution is spotty. So almost all of Teshkeel's will be in Arabic, with the expectation that they will be carried in supermarkets and newspaper stands.
Teshkeel will also have to compete against magazines like Space Toon Town, a monthly children's comic, as well as AK Comics.
The religious dimension is the biggest risk for a product whose main market, like all new products in the region, is oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where religion and entertainment rarely mix. Mr. Mutawa has already witnessed the frustration of having a book banned. "Get Your Ties Out of Your Eyes," a children's book featuring Bouncy, a ball who wears a tie - but differently than others - was banned in Kuwait because it seemed to be commenting on the Koran.
"When you're in a place where Bouncy Book 3 doesn't pass the censors, you have to be very creative," he said.
AK Comics' titles include figures like Aya, a Princess of Darkness; Zein, a time-traveling pharaoh; Jalila, an ancient Arabian swordsman who protects the City of All Faiths, and Rakan, a lone warrior entrusted with fighting evil. The characters must help bring order after 55 years of war between two unnamed superpowers, with political undertones running throughout. Unlike Teshkeel, AK's comic books have no mention of religion, based on a company policy that "no religion or faith be perceived as better than another."
Mr. Mutawa says he is taking a riskier path because he wants Muslim youngsters to have role models that fit both their Arab and Western sides. Last summer, his eldest son attended the same summer camp in New Hampshire - Robin Hood - and returned with a new discovery: Archie.
"I want my kids not to have to face the dichotomy all the time," Mr. Mutawa said. "I see this as a way to compete with hate."
From: Radford, Bill, "Holy Superhero! Comic books increasingly making reference to faith", published in Colorado Springs Gazette, 6 May 2006 (http://www.gazette.com/display.php?secid=20; viewed 8 May 2006):
From: Heinen, Tom, "God comics: Illustrated fiction spreads word on religious ideas", published in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 11 Marcy 2006 (http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=407297; viewed 8 May 2006):
Comic books helped Nicieza, who moved from Argentina to the United States as a child, learn to read and write English. They also helped provide a moral foundation, he says.
"Basic moral values that these characters espouse on a regular basis month in and month out, if you're paying attention, eventually they start to sink in."
Nicieza, who has worked on well-known superheroes such as Marvel's X-Men, is co-writer of "The 99," a comic-book series coming from Kuwaitbased Teshkeel Comics.
The superhero team is billed as the world's first based on Islamic culture and history.
"Much as Western heroes reflect underlying Western values, and Asian heroes reflect underlying Asian values, 'The 99' will be based on underlying Islamic values, which in truth are universal," the Teshkeel Web site states.
The characters' powers are based on the attributes of Allah, "which are really positive attributes in any culture, stuff like generosity and strength and wisdom," says Teshkeel founder Naif Al-Mutawa. But "The 99" is not a religious comic book, he stresses.
"There was not an agenda in the least going into this in terms of religion or anything of that nature," Nicieza says. "The agenda going in was to create a new mythology of action-adventure stories that could appeal to children not just in parts of the world that have not had comics or have not been exposed to this kind of heroic-fiction storytelling, but in any part of the world."
A firm that was started in Kuwait by an American-educated psychologist and businessman will soon launch "The 99," an international line of comic books in Arabic and English featuring 99 Islamic superheroes endowed with different powers and attributes that Muslims ascribe to Allah, Arabic for God.
Naif Al-Mutawa, founder and chief executive officer of Teshkeel Media Group, said he raised $7 million three years ago from more than 50 investors around the world by showing a news story about a Hamas supporter selling sticker albums with bloody images of suicide bombers to children in the Middle East.
Al-Mutawa - who is seeking to raise an additional $50 million and announced a partnership four months ago with Marvel Entertainment Inc. to market other comics, paperbacks and magazines in the Arabic language - recalled that he stressed the need for positive images:
"I appealed to investors, 'If we don't do this, no one else will come in to help.' "
In response to children's stickers glorifying suicide bombers, a Kuwaiti firm is launching a comic book series with 99 Muslim superheroes from around the world, "The 99."
From: Rebecca Lee, "Superheroes With a Muslim Message - 99 Islamic Superheroes Find Success on Newsstands...", published 16 May 2007 by ABC News (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/story?id=3181105; viewed 21 June 2007):
Watch out, Captain America. Step aside, Superman. There's a new breed of crime fighting superheroes looking to capture the comic book scene, with 99 characters from around the world with one trait in common amid their superpower strengths -- they are rooted in Islam.
"Islam is not mentioned directly in these comics, but the back story is very much based on Islamic tradition and culture," said Kuwaiti psychologist Naif al Mutawa, who teamed up with cartoon giant Marvel Comics to create the 99.
"The biggest lesson from Spiderman is that 'with great power comes great responsibility,'" said Mutawa. "Is that a Judeo-Christian ethic or an Islamic one? Absolutely not, that is a universal message. And that's what we are trying to achieve with the 99. We are dipping into our own culture and pulling out those messages for a global audience."
And he's hoping that effort will bridge a cultural divide between the East and the West. The 99 launched a year and a half ago, and although it was banned in Saudi Arabia, it has otherwise gained a solid following for its fictional characters.
Like all comic books, there is an intricate backstory for the characters in the 99, although this one is rooted in history. The superheroes are normal individuals who are granted a specific power after finding one of the 99 Noor stones, real, ancient gems that are believed to hold wisdom but were scattered across the globe in 1492 after the mosque which held them was invaded.
The stones are now spawning superheroes as characters in the 99 uncover them and gain a power that relates to the tenets of Islam.
"Muslims believe that power is God, and Allah has 99 attributes," explained Mutawa. "So the idea is a series of heroes each which embodies one of these 99 traits -- things like generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy and dozens of others that, unfortunately, are not used to describe Islam in the media today."
For strength, there is the Saudi Arabian superhero Jabbar who grows to Hulk-like size after one of the stones is accidentally lodged in his body following an explosion. Generosity is demonstrated through Bari, a 15-year-old who gains incredible healing power after finding one of the gems while digging in his native South Africa. The superheroes then come together to build a collective power that is ultimately an expression of the divine.
Finding Success Amid Criticism in the Arab World
Since hitting the shelves in October 2006, the 99 comics have generated a frenzy of media attention.
While Muslim leaders, businessmen, and comic book aficionados have given the comic book their blessing as well as their money -- a whopping $7 million has poured into Mutawa's company, Teshkeel Media, since 2003 -- not all are as excited about this new genre of Arab entertainment.
Banned by Saudi Arabia's religious censors, the 99 has received criticism from Islamic clerics who say it goes against the Muslim religion in its personification of the powers of Allah and its attempt to create new myths that combine the word of God with a more Western storyline.
Mutawa, however, is not deterred by critics of the series. He has received countless e-mails and telephone calls from people across the world praising his work, and insists there is a need for entertainment in the Arab world that helps children and teenagers bridge the cultural gap between East and West.
At present, approximately 10,000 Arabic copies are distributed monthly to newsstands, arcades, supermarkets and hotels in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. English versions can be found in specialty comic book stores across the United States as well as in Cyprus, Taiwan and Mauritius.
"Absolutely, I believe there is a market for this type of work," he said. "What we have here is an international cast of characters, each of which is embodying one of these traits. Basically we are taking the rich Islamic culture and heritage . . . and creating new characters and new storylines based on an old archetype.
"At the end, when you think of it . . . what culture on Earth, Islamic or non-Islamic, religious or atheist, doesn't espouse those traits?" Mutawa asked.
Still, Mutawa sees the success of the 99 as a sign that Muslim youths are looking for an outlet that balances their religious and cultural beliefs with the kind of entertainment they are looking for. Ultimately, he hopes that his comic book will not be seen as a strictly Arab series, but as something kids from across the world can identify with and enjoy.
From: "Islamic super heroes: Are there any?" forum discussion, started 23 August 2005 on "Comic Book Resources" website (http://forums.comicbookresources.com/archive/index.php/t-76010.html; viewed 28 May 2007):
08-23-2005, 10:06 PM
Well, anyways, I was thinking of an idea for a UN-sanctioned super hero team with represenatives from different countries, and one of them is a female telepath from Turkey... named Sultana. And I suddenly realized that for the life of me I can't think of a single Muslim super-hero from either Marvel or DC.
So, are there any? And please don't turn this into a political debate.
08-24-2005, 12:15 PM
AK Comics (http://www.akcomics.com/) recently started publishing comics about Middle Eastern super-heroes.
08-24-2005, 01:11 PM
As noted already, AK Comics (http://www.akcomics.com/indexenglish.htm) is a set of titles specifically about Middle-Eastern superheroes... though they deliberately avoid mentioning any specific religious faith in them.
08-24-2005, 01:26 PM
That AK Comics link is interesting. If anything, it seems to explore concepts that aren't seen as popular representations of Middle Eastern views.
08-25-2005, 03:05 PM
Dude, you should totally check out that AK comics link above. Some of the ideas are cool -- gives you hints on what things concern people there. Like the 'City of All Faiths'.
02-03-2006, 01:53 PM
Next September, and Kuwaiti publisher is coming out with a comic called The 99. It is about a group of people, who gain powers that mirror one of the aspects of Allah.
From: "Comics and Religion", posted 8 March 2006 on "Savior Machine" blog website ("Personal blog of a Kuwaiti who works on building a community for his peers") (http://www.2by4.org/content/2006/03/08/comics-and-religion/; viewed 19 June 2007):
I've never considered what a super hero's religion was; it was a moot point. It was kinda given that Spiderman, or Superman would be raised under some Judo-Christian values, but it was never evident in the writing or the story. All you knew and cared about was that they were the good guys and were fighting the bad guys.
So when I saw this list of comic book characters religions I was amazed to see the level of research in the writing of these guys. Just look how they figured out that Spiderman is Protestant or Sasquatch is Jewish.
There are about 8 or 9 that are Muslims, but that is more obvious due to the natures of their story.
So this got me thinking, imagine the regular super heroes that we know - like Batman, Spiderman, Hulk, etc. - were actually Muslim. Would it change things much? Would Frank Castle still be the Punisher if he wasn't Catholic? I don't think so, because all these characters have ethical and philosophical ideas that make them do what they do. For Spiderman, it is the classic "with great power comes great responsibility". Even Batman and Punisher share the same views when it comes to criminals, but have different methods of acting on these views.
This is one of the cool things about the 99 comics that are cheered as being a Muslim comic book, but that is a minor point. According to the creator of 99 Naif Al-Muttwa:
Our characters intentionally transcend all language and cultural barriers. They offer the most commonly shared ideals of all people as the basis of heroic figures.
Their super powers are based on 99 attributes of Allah that are based as gem stones. So these gem stones can be given to a person of any religion and doesn't have to be Muslim, but [the person must possess] good attributes that all people should have.
From: Abdullah Zain/islamhd, "Muslim SuperHeroes", posted 11 July 2007 on "Islam|HD: Islam In Crystal Clear Quality" blog website (http://islamhd.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/muslim-superheroes/; viewed 12 July 2007):
[Posted collage picture of Muslim super-heroes from: http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/comic_collage.html]
Last time I checked, Drawing people in Islam was not allowed. So then why do people think its okay to come out with muslim superheroes. If you want to write a comic book about a hero, then write it about the greatest hero of all time. Prophet Mohammad (S.W.A.S). You do not have to draw him and the companions but, a comic about his life would be cool.
Now a comic book about the 99 attributes of Allah I do not agree with. Those names are for Allah, not people. To give them to humans does not make sense.
A quote from the creator:
"...there is nothing fundamentally different between Islam and any other belief on Earth or any other way of being human... For me, in the end, the 99 attributes of Allah are attributes that not only all Muslims value, but humanity values. Things like generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy... So my point of what I was trying to do was try to bring us together, versus pull us apart."
Someone might want to tell him that they are the 99 names of Allah, Not the 99 names of humans.
[Link to PBS interview with the creator of "The 99": http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/kuwait605/creator.html]
The Faith of all the SuperHeroes [link to: http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/comic_collage.html]
Batman is a Episcopalian and Anglican. Inshallah he will become Muslim.
From: "Religion/Spirituality" forum discussion, started 16 August 2005 on Comixfan website (http://www.comixfan.com/xfan/forums/printthread.php?t=35225&page=17&pp=20; viewed 17 July 2007):
Jun 6, 2006 01:53 pm
I found the following quote at Comixfan Forums > Marvel Comics Discussions > Marvel Heroes > Marvelous Suggestions:
Quote (Originally Posted by Chrisday): on the subject of an Islamic super-hero group... Using such a concept would be a difficult one because the conventional notion of a super-hero is one who fights for freedom, democracy, freedom of speech, etc. and against totalitarianism, exploitation, censorship, and oppressive ideologies. How can any Islamic/Middle-Eastern super hero or super hero group function within that framework? To fight for those sorts of ideals, they would almost certainly stand out as a minority (perhaps even seen as Anarchistic) amongst their cultural and social surroundings... That's why a Middle-Eastern Super-Hero group can't work, especially is it is published by an American company with Western writers and our notions of what makes Western Civilization better than all others...
[Zero Mk2 then goes to considerable lengths to explain how he disagrees with Chrisday's opinion on this.]
If the majority of Muslim Arab characters should be seen as bad because of Bin Laden, then (if everyone should be considered equally) shouldn't most characters who are Catholic, or German or Caucasian, or Italian or Japanese (Axis nations) be potrayed as Nazis, Neo-Nazis, human trafickers (trading of illegal immigrants as slaves is still done in some parts of Europe) and white-supremacists?
I'm not an Arab myself. But let's hold out Marvel comics for example. So far the Muslim characters are:
- Sage (not a devout one, and she's from Afghanistan, which isn't an Arab nation)
- Dust (a devout one, she's also from Afghanistan, a non-Arab nation)
- Josiah X (so devout that he's a convert and an minister. But he's pure American and not Arab)
Am I missing something or is every other Middle-Eastern/Arab Muslim character I've seen other that DC's al-Sheikh [i.e., "Naif al-Sheikh," a devout Muslim who is a member of Justice League Elite] a terrorist? Hollywood films have been made for many years before 9/11. but according to Wikipedia, , out of more than 900 film appearances of Arab characters, only a dozen were positive and 50 were balanced. I even remember there being Arab terrorists in one of the movies of "Back to the Future". What's with all the American Anti-Semitism? (look up the list in the definition of Semitic)
It wasn't until 2 - 3 weeks ago that it started making sense to me why Marvel Arabs are always terrorists. I saw Avi Arad say on a CBC interview (which was being repeated at 1 o'clock in the morning), that the comics industry was mainly established by Jewish writers. The question is, is it the Arab-Jew thing that's affecting portrayal of Arabs in comics?
Jun 7, 2006 02:32 am
I regret saying that now. What changed my mind was an article about a comic of Islamic super-hero group to be written by Fabian Nicieza called The 99:
about "Comics to Battle for Truth, Justice and the Islamic Way"
If it works then I can't wait to see how it comes out. These are quite challenging issues to deal with.
Webpage created 18 April 2006. Last modified 17 July 2007.
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