In seeking to change global attitudes toward Muslims, a comic book from the Islamic world faces a challenge fit for a superhero—or 99.
By Jahanzeb Aslam | From the April 18 & 25, 2011, issue
Ron Wagner / Teshkeel Comics
The infidel Mongol hordes have overrun Baghdad, laying waste to the citadel of the Islamic civilization. No one and nothing is safe from the invaders, who have dumped millions of books of the Dar al-Hikma library into the Tigris River. To save this knowledge from the whirlpool of permanent oblivion, Baghdad’s besieged scholars hatch a plan. They gather at a secret ceremony in the dark of night. Ninety-nine gemstones are cast into the river. Magically, these stones absorb all the knowledge that is flowing through the inky Tigris. Centuries later, the stones, scattered across the world, would be discovered by those who could unlock the power within each one of them. Each stone would endow the discoverer with one of the 99 qualities the Quran attributes to Allah. We know these extraordinary men and women today as The 99, heroes whose adventures adorn the Muslim world’s most popular comic book.
It was Naif Al-Mutawa, 40, who introduced the world to these Muslim superheroes. “As a culture, we Muslims don’t have any heroes,” he told NEWSWEEK on phone from New York City. “We have historical figures that are revered, but we don’t have any modern-day heroes.” Al-Mutawa has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.B.A. from Columbia. He splits his time between New York and Kuwait City, where he began publishing The 99 under the banner of his Teshkeel Media Group in 2007 as a counterpoint to the comic book and mainstream narrative that depicts Muslims—a quarter of the world’s population—chiefly as treacherous villains. “After 9/11, I started thinking about role models for my children,” says Al-Mutawa. “I wasn’t happy with how the West saw Islam, and I wasn’t happy with how Islam saw itself.”
The globetrotting exploits of the superheroes Al-Mutawa has created are becoming a worldwide phenomenon and, true to their billing, starting to reshape how the world views Muslims.
“The 99 helps combat not only the negativity we as Muslims have about ourselves, but also gives people a way to discover the history of Islam,” says Ali Khan, associate professor of anthropology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and a lifelong comic fan. “We were people who used to read and learn at one time,” he says of Muslims. “It is amazing that mullahs seem to have a monopoly on what is right and wrong. And to take this back the way Al-Mutawa is doing is a very noble initiative.”
Birthers may wish to note that even U.S. President Barack Obama is a fan. “His comics have captured the imagination of so many young people with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam,” said Obama at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship
in April, 2010. “So in his comic books, Superman and Batman reached out to their Muslim counterparts. And I hear they’re making progress, too,” he quipped, referring to the crossovers Teshkeel has done with DC Comics that have seen globally familiar superheroes teaming up with some of their 99 Muslim counterparts.
The 99 has also inspired changes in the comic-book world. “It’s created greater focus on Middle Eastern characters,” says Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics. “Most Americans are not familiar with much of Middle Eastern history and culture, so it goes without saying that the Islamic extremism we see in our daily headlines paints only a very small picture of the entirety and diversity of one of this planet’s largest cultures,” he told NEWSWEEK via email.
DC Comics has introduced several Muslim characters in recent years, but some remain cynical. When Batman tapped Nightrunner, a French Muslim youth, as his delegate in France, all hell broke loose. Some French and American right-wingers
voiced fears that Bruce Wayne, the American billionaire who moonlights as Batman, could be double-crossed and blown up in a suicide attack for trusting the wrong people. Never mind that both characters are fictional. “There was a compelling story to be told so it was a creatively driven decision to make Nightrunner the disaffected youth that he is, living with tragedy but yearning for a higher purpose,” says Lee.
As noble as the higher purpose of The 99 may be, the comic book averted fatwas by a prayer and because of a powerful patron. The concept, which came to Al-Mutawa in the back of a taxicab in London eight years ago, was potentially inflammatory, even blasphemous. Endowing characters with the 99 attributes of Allah would have been committing blasphemy against God, says Al-Mutawa. The whole thing had to be done very delicately. “We do not portray holy attributes,” he says, “but if you only take a piece of the whole, you take it away from the sacred.” So it is that Jami the Assembler can only apply his powers on machinery, Fattah the Opener can crack open portals to travel to any part of the world, burqa-clad Batina the Hidden can render herself invisible, and Hadya the Guide—a Briton of Pakistani origin, no less—has the ability to find anyone on the planet and create holographic maps for her fellow superheroes. Attempting to further distance The 99 from the intolerant image of Islam portrayed in popular media, almost half of the dramatis personae are women.
The support of Kuwait’s ruler also helped. “He invited me to his court to congratulate me and offer his support if I needed it,” says Al-Mutawa, adding that he has, so far, had no threats hurled at him or any security concerns. Which is just as well since Saudi Arabia banned one of his children’s books, Get Your Ties out of Your Eyes, in 1997, preventing it from being published. It helps that Teshkeel has created some 800 jobs across the world, including Kuwait and India. In 2006, Bahrain’s Unicorn Bank, which also owns a majority share in Pakistan’s Dawood Islamic Bank, bought a 30 percent stake in Al-Mutawa’s Teshkeel citing the company’s successful development of unique content that highlights Islamic culture and heritage. This has further helped quell Islamist suspicions. On paper, the Islamic bank also has the right of final approval of all content published by Teshkeel. Al-Mutawa is not concerned about this. “The bank has been very amazing,” he says, “They have never rejected a single idea.” The interest is global: Al-Mutawa has raised funds from 61 institutional and individual investors, including from Mexico and the U.S.
The comic book strives for universal appeal, studiously avoiding the pitfalls and problems that come with talking and dealing only in religion. So you won’t see any of the characters—all from different countries, and not all Muslims—praying, either. The comic is not about Islam, it is about Muslim virtues. “Only when Jewish kids think that the 99 characters are Jewish, and Christian kids think they’re Christian, and Muslim kids think they’re Muslim, and Hindu kids think they’re Hindu,” wrote Al-Mutawa for the BBC News website in July 2009, “I will consider my vision as having been fully executed.”
Al-Mutawa’s treatment seems to have worked. The comic book is the first licensed entertainment property from the Muslim world, he says. The 99
is available in different languages in France, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, China, and Indonesia. But the money is in merchandising. In 2009, the comic book got the theme park treatment when The 99 Village opened in Kuwait. More parks in the Middle East are in the works. In Kuwait, Teshkeel co-brands bottled water with Nestlé. In Turkey, the characters are everywhere from children’s school bags to lunchboxes. Stay tuned for the 3D animated series
of The 99
being produced by Endemol, the company behind the reality show Big Brother. The 99
has been optioned by networks in the U.S., Ireland, and Turkey for this fall. (Until two years ago, Teshkeel distributed Marvel, DC and Archie titles in Arabic in the Middle East. He packed this up due to poor sales.)
“Comics are a tough business,” says Al-Mutawa. “The 99 doesn’t make any money itself, but the brand sells,” he says. “We give away a lot of comics as promotional material to encourage people to buy the merchandise, which is where our profits come from.” The 99 has a global circulation of one million, which is not bad considering Marvel Comics’ flagship Spider-Man did about two million in 2010.
The 99’s everything-for-everyone outlook doesn’t impress Harris Ejaz, a Pakistani artist who worked with DC Comics on an aborted project. “The book reads as if its intended audience is the West and suffers for it,” he says. “Americanized comics such as The 99 are very hard to reconcile with events in our daily lives,” agrees Nida Shams, who heads Pakistan’s World Comics Network, an organization that seeks to promote peace and sense of community through comics. “Our children relate to events more than people,” she says, adding that Al-Mutawa’s comic book could help in the fight against the militancy if it were available here and localized enough. The 99 is available in Pakistan, but at Rs. 255 per copy, it is not for everyone. Flash Comics Digest, Pakistan’s first comic book which was released in 1997 at a more affordable Rs. 50, was canceled due to low sales after only two issues. Similarly, the Indian Gotham Comics Group was unable to sell comics in Pakistan despite licensing rights to several Marvel and DC characters because they were unable to find distributors.
The 99 initiative has led to Al-Mutawa being named among the 500 most influential Muslims by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2009 and again last year. The 99 is being cited in academic circles from Dartmouth to Kuwait University. “It is already impacting how the world is seeing Islam,” says Al-Mutawa. He credits the success to professional writers, such as Fabian Nicieza, who has helmed the X-Men in the past. Comic books like X-Men appeal to children and young adults and use symbolism as a means of addressing issues like intolerance, racism, and sexuality. The 99 is no different. “I wanted to take on radical Islam and use Muslim archetypes to do that,” says Al-Mutawa. The 99 characters he has created may just be comics, but they are just the heroes Islam has been looking for. Al-Mutawa, it seems, is changing the world, one comic book at a time.
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