By GEORGE GENE GUSTINES
Published: October 12, 2011
New York Times (Copyright: All Rights Reserved)
Muslim children need new role models. That is the message at the heart of The 99, a comic book of superheroes who each exemplify one of the 99 qualities that Muslims believe Allah embodies, like generosity, strength and patience.
The man behind these figures is Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist whose quest to develop, publish and promote them is the subject of “Wham! Bam! Islam!,” the season premiere of PBS’s “Independent Lens” series. (Broadcast nationally on Thursday and in New York on Sunday, it was shown at the New York Film Festival this month.)
The impetus for the comic book came in part from a story Dr. Mutawa heard about a sticker book developed for children in the West Bank. It championed suicide bombers and martyrdom while depicting bloody scenes of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
“I wanted to reposition Islam for Muslims,” Dr. Mutawa said during a recent interview in New York. “My message was secular, not religious.”
But his efforts to turn The 99 — whose characters he likened to Superman and Batman, as opposed to those in “Veggie Tales,” the animated series with Christian themes, values and lessons — into reality met with mixed success. “Wham! Bam! Islam!” captures those highs and lows.
Whereas American heroes often wear skintight costumes, The 99 figures must be clad more modestly. Relying on the heroes, rather than God, proved a problem for some religious authorities, as were expressions of vengefulness, as when a villain cries, “I’ll tear you into pieces!”
Dr. Mutawa, who wrote The 99 with Fabian Nicieza, a comic book writer, embarked on a tour of the Middle East to raise awareness for the comic and the money to publish it. In the film, there is even a door-to-door effort to convince bookstores to carry it. It’s a tough sell.
“Giving Allah’s name to people is prohibited,” a merchant says. “Suggesting that humans have the power of Allah is wrong. What is the Islam in this?”
It’s a fine line. The characters are extolling the virtues of Allah yet not personifying him, Dr. Mutawa argues, but it’s a message he must repeat again and again. He recalls a meeting in Saudi Arabia with an official at the Ministry of Information who found the comic book subversive and banned it. Compounding Dr. Mutawa’s frustration was the suggestion that a bribe could grease the wheels. “He’s standing on a religious platform, but it’s hollow and full of cash,” he says in the film.
Directed by Isaac Solotaroff, the film includes animated images shown as pages of a comic book are flipped from one scene to another.
“I was intrigued by what seemed to be this crazy social experiment,” Mr. Solotaroff said. “I was becoming aware of the various fault lines that existed in the Middle East, between the fundamentalists who want to anchor society to a way of doing things that were done 1,400 years ago and people who were trying to secularize and modernize. As Naif and I joked, he was the canary in the coal mine.”
By some measures, the experiment was a success. DC Comics published a six-part story that teamed Superman and its other top heroes with The 99. Dr. Mutawa also signed deals for lunch boxes and other merchandise, as well as for a theme park in Kuwait. An animated series based on the comic, produced by Endemol, was a global affair: the scripts were written in Hollywood, while the series was put together in India and Britain. Last year the Hub channel announced it would broadcast the show, meaning it could potentially reach 60 million homes in the United States.
But that’s where the superheroes stumbled. In The New York Post, Andrea Peyser wrote that the series would “bring truth, justice and indoctrination to impressionable Western minds.” That kicked up a dust storm that resulted in the broadcast being indefinitely postponed.
The Hub controversy is noted in a postscript, but Mr. Solotaroff has received financing to revise the ending to include the clash.
“Naif has become much more public about the last six months,” he said. “The revised third act will be what happened to The 99 when it came to the United States.”
Dr. Mutawa said the adventures of The 99 will begin airing in Asia and other international markets next year. After his many run-ins with authorities and others, he says if he himself had a superpower, it would be “the ability to expose bigots.”