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Holy Comic Book, Batman!

May 15th, 2009 (01:43 am)

© 2009
D. Gordon

Ask around and you'll find that most of us ran across comic books as kids, even if we didn't religiously follow them. It might have been through an older sibling, that kid in your class, or the one section of the bookstore, but general comic book lore was a basic part of growing up.

Despite early complaints about pernicious influences, the comic book has lasted across generations. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are a few of the most familiar names that have been in circulation for close to nine decades. In recent years, the art form has also spanned cultures, so that younger adults also know Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Bleach. I remember the cartoon version of Speed Racer from when I was a kid, and part of me still wonders what happened to that Teen Titan comic that disappeared when we moved. But comic books are a very recognizable part of growing up.

Well, I'm here to tell you about a new addition: The 99.

The 99 comics - Origins Issue

Who are The 99, you ask? The story begins with Naif al-Mutawa.

Back in 2003, during a cab ride, al-Mutawa's sister reminded him of a promise he’d made: that after the years of toil to get his doctorate in psychology, he wouldn't forget his interest in writing and would develop his creative side. Out of this promise came the concept for The 99 - a Muslim superhero comic. This isn't about religion at all; the basic structure is very close to Marvel and DC, but the background motivations come from Muslim historical and cultural traditions.

The concept, and the resulting campaign for funding, development, and acceptance, are the focus of the documentary Wham! Bam! Islam by Isaac Solotaroff (who is also working on the animated version of the comic). The film follows al-Mutawa through the Middle East and around the world as he explains his concept to elementary school kids, college students, government and religious authorities, investors, collaborators, and anyone else who will listen, all in an effort to gain new audiences, expand publishing markets, and boldly dodge the occasional fatwa threat.

The documentary itself is a work-in-progress, updated periodically as it charts events around The 99 comic franchise. Shot on bare-bones basic video, it sometimes stretches to keep up with the whirlwhind that is al-Mutawa, which is understandable given the budget constraints faced by both al-Mutawa as creator / publisher and Solotaroff as documentarian (although the men seem to be true friends, their projects are completely independent entities). This doesn't prevent the documentary from coming across as a pseudo-superhero adventure itself: al-Mutawa is charming, funny, forward-thinking - and whatever else he needs to be to grow his project. He can charm the pants off of anyone, but his background helps as well: the product of a conservative Kuwaiti upbringing, he can anticipate cultural sensitivities and objections that might come up, and he's intelligent and quick-witted enough to keep challengers on their toes. Will the Danish cartoons parodying Mohammed cause his nascent efforts to backfire? Will the Saudi Council of Senior Ulema issue a fatwa against the comic? Will the board of the conservative Indonesian publication – framed pictures of Osama bin Laden andSheikh Omar Abdel Rahman looking on - give him a thumbs down, effectively killing his chances in the market? Stay tuned and find out!

Free copies of several issues of the comic were available at the showing. The artwork and layout goes toe-to-toe with any commercial Marvel or DC release (not surprising, since several of the production staff are Marvel and DC veterans). Al-Mutawa seems to have put a high premium on the look and feel, avoiding any appearance of a "poor cousin" to the mainstream publications. And reading through them, they are pretty enjoyable. There's the origin story, steeped in the devastating Battle of Baghdad in 1258 and efforts to save the library and its accumulated knowledge from destruction by storing the information in 99 gemstones. There's the first superhero, Jabbar the Powerful, who unknowingly becomes more than a mere mortal in the act of saving his family. There's the mysterious Dr. Ramzi Razem (who bears more than a passing resemblance to al-Mutawa), who searches for both the gemstones and people suddenly manifesting superpowers (his possible motivations were touched on during the Q and A, but I'm not going to tell). And there are the obligatory "government authorities," who are at a loss as to what to do when citizens suddenly demonstrate uncontrollable talents.

Some of the basic structures of traditional comics - pseudo-magic talismans, powers from a higher "source", ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things – make appearances here as well; there's plenty that's recognizable. But the main difference is that the references more reflect the day-to-day realities of the Middle East, rather than of New York or London or Tokyo. Don't automatically conflate "Muslim" with "religious"; one thing The 99 is not is a religious treatise. There are no specific religious references in the storyline, Muslim or otherwise; rather, it's the basic ideals underlying Islam – things such as hope, purity, wisdom, physical ability, strength – which drive the characters. (The title comes from the 99 names of God; each hero embodies a characteristic derived from different names.) Al-Mutawa was adamant in wanting a story that would relate to all kids, not just Muslim ones. Given that a lot of these characteristics would easily cross cultures, maybe he's created a testament to the commonalities among us all. Good on ya, Dr. al-Mutawa.

Some of al-Matawa's toughest critics might be the adults and parents whose children make up his potential audiences. A number of the adults interviewed in the documentary had questions: whether comics aren't just another example of Western influence; whether a comic based on Islamic concepts, even though avoiding specific religious references, might still be disrespectful or sacrilegious; whether it wouldn't be better to use real historical figures. But it's clear that all the kids loved The 99. They repeatedly declared it better that Superman and Batman; they found something to relate to in it, because it reflects them and their reality. As al-Mutawa points out, you can't stop globalization but you can use it to your own ends. It's working for him so far; a Spanish company has licensed the comic for distribution within the European Union, in a triumphant case of if you can't beat 'em join 'em.

I for one am looking forward to seeing how the comics and the animated series develop. I'm also interested in seeing what kind of reception this gets in the West - where it's known and available, but hasn't had the same push that has gone on so far in the Muslim world. As Neil Gaiman said recently, comics are part of the world currency. It would be good to see some Muslim coin, and the resulting cross-cultural communication, added to that mix.

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