Sunday, 18 April 2010
Comic Belief: When Islam Inspires Superheroes
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.
Each one of the 99 superheroes is from a different country and has a different superpower, which is based on one of the 99 attributes of Allah. How did you and your writers assign each character and country to a superpower?
The first ten, to be honest, were kind of random. The Saudi character, the American character, the South African one, the Sudanese one--these were all just kind of like, Okay let's just do this. Then we started being taken very seriously very quickly and we had a much bigger responsibility than I had anticipated early on. I knew in the long run we would get there, I didn't know we would get there in a year.
And so what happened is that I put a lot more thought into it. For example, when we launched in Indonesia we introduced an Indonesian member of the 99. One of the 99 attributes is Fattah, "The Opener," because when Islam spreads from country to country or territory to territory it is called an opening for Islam. So God is the opener and the largest place ever opened is Indonesia as it has the most Muslims in the world. The Indonesian character Fattah doesn't open anybody to religion, but metaphorically he opens portals in space with the 99 travel suit.
Are all of the superheroes Muslim?
We don't talk about anybody's religion. The idea is that each one of these characters can be any religion or can be areligous. So that is the difference in having a comic that is Islamic versus inspired by Islam. It is inspired by values and not behavior.
Have all 99 of the superheroes already been created?
No, only the first 26 have been created and a further 10 have been mapped out.
When will all of them have been introduced?
I'm guessing in the next three or four years we will have a good 99. But that being said, we might have more. One of the ideas is that the younger you are, the more power you can get from your Noor stones, but the older you are the more you know how to use them--this whole balance between intelligence and wisdom. Some of the 99 realize that it is best to let go of their stones for someone younger to use, so there will always be new blood coming in. Hitting the end of 99 won't be the end of our characters.The older ones will move into more of an advisory role. They will be former 99s.
Do you have a favorite superhero from The 99, or one that you think is most interesting?
I love all of my children the same!
You are a trained psychologist. How does this influence your approach in creating The 99?
The 99 is all about psychology. I made the decision seven years ago that I was going to take my training as a psychologist to better the perception of Islam--not just for non-Muslims, but for Muslims too. How is Islam being seen by itself? How it is being seen by others? The difference between how Islam is seen and how it thinks it is being seen is where perception lies. That is what I chose as a challenge for myself. Can I make a dent in that space? So, yes, that is all psychology. It is also business. I got my master's in business. Obviously we have to be a viable in business. We are a for-profit company.
You've said that you hope that The 99 provides a less threatening face of Islam to non-Muslims. But what do you hope it achieves within the Muslim world?
A year ago, I gave a lecture at the medical school in Kuwait on the biological basis of behavior. I gave my students a copy of two articles--one from The New York Times and one from New York Magazine--but I removed the name of the reporter, the actor, where it took place. The first article was about a group who wanted to ban Valentine's Day. The second article was about a woman who was complaining that a man she didn't know started to talk to her, pinched her son's cheek, told her he was cute. Then he walked off and some vans pulled up; six bearded men jumped out and interrogated this woman.
I asked my students where they thought these incidents took place. They all said the first incident was in Saudi Arabia. For the second story, the students were torn between Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. It blew their minds when I told them that the first incident took place in India and the second one took place in upstate New York at an ultra-orthodox Jewish community. This is what broke my heart: In the situation in India, people being interviewed, called that behavior "Talibanization." In other words, this is Islam's influence on Hinduism. We don't act this way with Hinduism, said the people in the article. In the second example, the woman called the men "stupid Talibans." Again, this is not Jewish behavior; it is coming from the Muslim world. But my students said, "it is us."
This is what I fear. This is very, very problematic. With The 99, the idea is that we have gone back to the same places from where other people have pulled very negative one-sided fascist messages and created a multicultural theme park. When you have the happy-go-lucky stuff that is based on the same source as the extremism, your average is going to be pushed in a different direction. It confuses the system. That is where I think the impact will come from.
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