Comic Belief: When Islam Inspires Superheroes

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Naif al-Mutawa


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To view images of the characters in The 99, click here for a slide show.

In the wake of 9/11, Naif al-Mutawa made what some might consider an unusual career move for a clinical psychologist. He created a comic book. Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti with multiple degrees from American universities, wanted a series that could counter the anti-Muslim backlash for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The 99, as al-Mutawa named his creation, has everything a good comic book needs--evil in the world and superheroes to fight it. Unlike most comics, however, its stories are told in an Islamic context. The superheroes are boys and girls from all over the world, each of whom finds one of 99 stones created after the destruction of an Iraqi library by Genghis Kahn's descendants. The stones endow the heroes with superpowers based on Allah's 99 virtues--such qualities as wisdom, healing, destruction, and love.

The comic books' popularity has grown quickly, and al-Mutawa's superheroes now have an international audience. On April 26th al-Mutwawa and his company Teshkeel, plan to announce its American debut of the animated series set for this fall. We spoke by phone about his inspiration, his creative process, and what he hopes the series will ultimately achieve.


Did you read comic books as a kid?

I did, I read whatever I could put my hands on. I spent my summers at a camp in New Hampshire from '79 to '88, and that is where I picked up Richie Rich and Casper. I actually read the Bible in comic book format when I was nine or ten which I borrowed from a friend of mine. But was I a comic geek? I wasn't. I am the biggest disappointment when I speak at comic book conventions or comic book clubs. People expect me to be a resource and I'm like, "Listen, five years ago, I didn't know Spider-Man's real name."

How did you come up with the idea of The 99?

It was a combination of factors. When 9/11 happened people talked about how well planned it was--how diabolical. There's the fact that 911 is the emergency call number in the U.S. And quick math told me that 9 times 11 is 99, which is a very important number in Islam. And beyond that, if you look at the numbers 911 and read them from right to left as letters instead of left to right as numbers, it looks like the word Allah or God in Islam.

When I saw that I was a little bit freaked out. And what I couldn't shake was that these people, whoever they were, had changed the way Islam would be defined for my children and other children all over the world. Typically, when things go that crazy in the west, you guys say, "Sounds like a job for Superman." But there was no Superman, so I needed to find a way to grab onto those nines by their stems before they were taken to hell, literally.

Can you explain the creative process behind producing each issue?

Initially it was just me, but now there are literally thousands of people working on the project. Right now, what happens is one of the writers will send me some ideas and I work with them on coming up with a synopsis. They then write the synopsis and send it to me; I then approve it or ask them to change it. Once it is approved they write the script and I read it and edit it and it goes to our pencilers in the UK, including John McCrea, who has worked on Spider-Man and stuff like that. He pencils the story and it comes back for approval. You don't limit the creative person's imagination but, after the fact, I look at it and make sure I don't get in trouble for something that is drawn.

Once I have approved it, it goes to the inker who inks it in Ohio. And then it goes to California where the colorist will color it and then it goes back to New York to our office where the editor in-chief gets it worded in the balloons. And then it comes to us in Kuwait City for the Arab version and then it goes to China for the Chinese version and Turkey and Indonesia and India, depending on the license.

You have said that The 99 is "inspired by Islam, it is not Islamic." Can you explain what that means?

There is no religion in the comics. I am not proselytizing. There is no "how do you pray" or "how do you find God." The characters aren't praying--not that they won't pray or don't pray or that I am saying anything against prayer--but the comic book series is supposed to be for everybody irrespective of their religion. I told my animation writers that it is only when Jewish kids think that the heroes are Jewish and Buddhist kids think they are Buddhist and Christians think they are Christian and so on and so forth that I will have achieved what I am trying to achieve.

That being said, the comics are inspired by Islam in the sense that the positive values that are in them--generosity and mercy and wisdom--these are very positive things that are within Islam and every religion, and frankly within human beings whether or not they believe in God. That is what I am trying to bring out, values that I have in my culture and my heritage and my religion that I share with the rest of humanity.

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Eleanor Smith is an Atlantic senior associate editor.

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