Interview/Slideshow: "Comic Belief"
The creator of The 99 describes how 9/11 moved him to create an team of Muslim superheroes.
On especially thick and gritty days in Kuwait, everything must be done indoors—in cars, malls, hotels, or office buildings. Often, it’s not until you’re in one of those violently air-conditioned high-rise office buildings that you can take in the whole of Kuwait City: urban cylinders of silver and black improbably growing out of nothingness. It’s a strangely drab backdrop for the hyperkinetic Naif al-Mutawa, who sat in a nice tan suit on a couch, and spoke with great enthusiasm and speed. On the walls of his office hung drawings of multicolored characters from his brainchild: The 99, a comic book rooted in Islam that has recently been recast into an animated television series, which may debut in the United States this fall.
“When I gave the direction to the writers in Hollywood for the animation series,” he was saying, “I told them, ‘Only when Jewish kids think these heroes are Jewish, and Christian kids think they’re Christian, will we have achieved something—which is universality.’ Too many people find differences and fight about them. Not enough people are talking about the things that are the same.”
But they seem to want to. The 99’s fledgling success is a publicity story for our times: in 2006, amid growing controversy over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad, a few articles about al-Mutawa’s project appeared. So when people Googled variations of Islam, cartoon, Muslim, and comic, up popped the piece about The 99. Never mind that back in 2006, The 99 didn’t even exist yet in book form. Amid a miserable East-West cultural conflagration, searchers discovered a happier tale (Islam! Heroes! Children!), and al-Mutawa’s phone at his tiny company, Teshkeel, began to ring.
Since then, The 99 has been distributed in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, China, India, the United States, and elsewhere. But the comic books (which veteran illustrators and writers produce under al-Mutawa’s direction) were never the endgame, al-Mutawa told me; television was crucial to making his idea financially viable. In 2008, the European TV conglomerate Endemol snatched up The 99 for an animated series and is currently negotiating to broadcast in Western markets.
The first episode, “Origins,” is set in Baghdad in 1258, when the Islamic world’s most cherished library was destroyed by descendants of Genghis Kahn. In “Origins,” scholars manage to preserve the wisdom of the world’s great books in 99 stones. That there are 99 of them is, of course, no accident; in Islamic tradition, Allah is said to have 99 names, or virtues.
After that issue, the books mostly forgo history for the exploits of the crime-fighting multinational superheroes, who are imbued with special powers from those stones. They come from different countries, and have names like Noora the Light (from the UAE), whose holograms expose the evil in people’s souls; Widad the Loving (the Philippines), who can make people feel love or “the emptiness of hatred”; Sami the Listener (Sudan/France), who is mute but can hear everything; and a curious character from the United States who can “manipulate nerve endings, allowing him to cause or prevent pain.”