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.”
“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.
“So you can’t win,” he said. “It’s fascinating to watch.”
Al-Mutawa’s creation has its admirers. But he may not necessarily win over one crucial and notoriously hard-to-please international group: adult comic-book geeks.
“The problem with the Islamic context of The 99, for me as a reader,” the American comics critic Douglas Wolk told me, “is that it’s not subtext: it’s simply the setting, and the religious content of the series is so neutered that even having that context doesn’t provide any opportunities for actually saying something about what it means to live in the world of Islam as a young person.”
I wondered whether a Kuwaiti expert would feel the same. Faisal al-Duwaisan, a 36-year-old filmmaker, photographer, and comic-book enthusiast, met me at a Caribou Coffee in the Arraya Center, an extravagant but empty shopping mall. Al-Duwaisan, wearing jeans and New Balance sneakers, follows Kevin Smith on Twitter and identifies strongly with Batman. “This culture doesn’t understand the importance of comics,” he explained. “Here, there are no superheroes for kids, no role models. Most writers write about social or political issues. We don’t even have science fiction.”
He looked wistful when I brought up The 99. “I like the image Dr. Naif is bringing with The 99, but unfortunately it’s not very successful here,” he said. Al-Duwaisan still preferred his Batmans to The 99—and not because of too little Islamic subtext, but too much. Al-Duwaisan felt that groups of heroes working collectively missed the very point of the Western comics he adores: the triumph of the individual.
“In the West, there’s one hero,” he said with visible longing. “If there are too many of them, you can’t idolize anyone. I don’t feel the heroism. I am reading Batman because I see part of myself in it.”
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