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.”
“People think it’s political that I put the American hero in a wheelchair,” said al-Mutawa, who is a clinical psychologist educated at Long Island University and Columbia University.
“I thought it was political because you called him the Afflicter,” I replied.
“Nooooo! Honestly, I didn’t make that decision, it was the [other writers],” he laughed. “My kids are all U.S. citizens, by the way. All five of them.”
Al-Mutawa reiterated that he’d scrubbed the books clean of overt political references. Except for, say, a character wearing a hijab, and a scarcity of violence and skimpy clothing, it’s just a typical comic book—all action, and good triumphing over evil. Al-Mutawa didn’t want to give the censors in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia any opportunity to stop delivery. He also didn’t want to scare off Westerners easily freaked out by all things Islam. In one example of such line-walking, al-Mutawa decided that The 99’s characters should work in teams of three, since pairing an unrelated male and female to work together might be problematic from an Islamic point of view. Even still, one Saudi scholar has suggested that al-Mutawa was sent by the pope to preach the trinity.