As Villains or Heroes, Muslims Star in New U.S. Comics
Fights over fundamentalism, and a dearth of role models, are driving forces
Some visitors who arrived recently at a New York airport caused quite a stir— and no wonder. They were using their superpowers to stop two planes from colliding.
But this Homeland Security emergency was part of a comic book tale, written and produced by a U.S.-educated Kuwaiti academic and publisher who hopes to send both U.S. and Middle Eastern readers a positive message about Islam.
[I realized that] “our part of the world was lacking modern-day heroes,” said publisher, Naïf Al-Mutawa, a Columbia Business School grad who also holds a Ph.D in clinical psychology.
Al-Mutawa’s superheroes are a multicultural gang, united by belief in a faith that routs evil. Each superhero embodies one of the 99 qualities that the Koran, the Islamic holy book, attributes to God. There’s “Jabbar the Powerful,” and Noora, whose name means light, and who can see the light and darkness in everyone.
English and Arabic editions of “The 99” are sold in Middle East and in the United States, via al-Mutawa’s company, Teshkeel Media Group.
His books are among dozens of new Islamic-influenced comics and graphic novels circulating in the United States, home to six million Muslims.
But the message can vary. In his forthcoming graphic novel “The Infidel,” the Bronx-born son of Albanian Muslims makes Muslims the villains.
Author Bosch Fawstin, 37, calls himself an ex-Muslim. He says he wasn’t raised religious, beyond going to mosque once a year and avoiding pork. He attended art school at night, published his first graphic novel in 2004 and, inspired by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, began writing “The Infidel.” It focuses on two Muslim brothers, one who embraces fundamentalism and the other who battles extremism. Villains are killed in ways that readers may find disturbing, he admitted. “When I show some people the sketches, they turn away.”
Al-Mutawa’s superheroes battle enemies nonviolently, countering a Western image of Islam as inherently violent.
Al-Mutawa, 36, fell in love with comics during childhood summers at camp in New Hampshire. After college, he worked as a translator for torture survivors, and decided Muslims needed positive role models. That led to his founding Teshkeel Media, which takes its name from the symbols in Arabic script indicating pronunciation. Besides “The 99,” the company distributes Arabic translations of other comic books, including the “Archie” series.
Other religions have also figured more prominently in the comics of recent years. “Buddha,” the comic book series about Buddha’s life, by the late Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka, was reprinted in hardcover in 2003. “Devi,” published by UK-based Virgin Comics in 2006, offers a contemporary spin on the story of the Hindu warrior goddess. In the renowned “Blankets,” (2003) novelist Craig Thompson illustrated his disenchantment with evangelical Christianity. The same themes are creeping into mainstream comics: a 2002 edition of “New X-Men” introduced Dust, an Afghani Muslim super heroine clad in a body-covering burqa.
Religion is a new interest for comics, said Greg Garrett, author of a book on the subject: “Holy Superheroes: Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books.”
“Most comics, like most of our popular culture, homogenized their characters and edited out religious distinctions,” he said. As recently as the 1980s, readers were startled to see X-Men character Kitty Pryde wearing a Star of David. Muslims were non-existent, villanized or stereotyped, he suggested.
But because religion is a force in current events, it naturally informs comics, said Preston Hunter, the webmaster of Adherents.com, a 10-year-old statistical website Hunter said had a database of the religions of 2,000 comic book characters. (Adherents says that Superman, for example, though hailing from the planet Ka-El, was raised in a Methodist household.) When Christian televangelist scandals made the news, many comic book villains appeared as Protestant preachers.
“The 99” is an amalgam of Eastern and Western ideas, said Al-Mutawa, drawing both on Western superheroes’ tendency to act individually, and Eastern comics’ reliance on teamwork (think Pokémon). Characters work in teams of at least three, to solve problems together. Three is a significant number for another reason: it avoids offending Muslims who may have a problem with a man and woman being alone together. (Yet the comics aren’t necessarily conservative; not all superheroines, for example, wear the headscarf).
While raising funds to start his company, Al-Mutawa once showed potential investors another option available to Muslim kids: sticker books a Hamas supporter was selling that depicted suicide bombers.
Concerned that Islam had few modern heroes, Columbia University grad Naif al-Mutawa created a series of comic superheroes to provide positive role models to kids in the Middle East.
Photo Courtesy of Teshkeel Media Group.
“The 99,” a series of comic superheroes meant to offer young Muslims positive modern role models, is one of a spate of recent comics exploring Islamic themes.
Illustration Courtesy of Naif al-Mutawa
Hidayeh, a character from the comic series “The 99,” has a brain that works like a GPS system.
Illustration Courtesy of Naif al-Mutawa