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Sep 25, 2008

A Kuwaiti-born businessman is giving an American institution an Eastern makeover.

By page 6, Baghdad is burning. Amid shattered glass, billowing smoke and prone bodies, it’s a scene that evokes the horror of the evening news. But in the panels of The 99, it is an 800-year-old catalyst for action—a tragedy that inspires its young, multicultural heroes to work for peace and tolerance.
For creator Naif al-Mutawa, bringing this comic to life was a journey that began in the summer of 1994, when he went home to Kuwait City and put his Tufts psychology degree to work treating citizens still reeling from the Iraqi invasion. After returning to the U.S. for clinical training, he joined a program for survivors of political torture.
Among his patients were Iraqi soldiers who had seen Saddam Hussein revered and idolized in statues and posters, even as he tortured his own people.
“One of the things that comes up in these stories, whether its his regime or others: Is this what people aspire to become? You become big enough to step on the small people?” says al-Mutawa. “There was a need to create heroes for that part of the world—heroes that wouldn’t be politicized, that would not disappoint.”
Flash forward to 2003—in the midst of another Iraqi war—to a taxicab in London, where al-Mutawa’s sister urged him to return to his childhood hobby. Al-Mutawa responded that he didn’t want to tell stories unless they had the potential to be as big as Pokemon.
That was a seed of The 99, a series of comics that has exploded across the Middle East and North Africa, entering global markets and spawning a six theme park deal (the first will open in Kuwait in December) as well as prospects for a television program in 2010. In the Gulf region, Indonesia and India, total circulation for The 99 is about one million copies per year. Weekly stories also appear in major newspapers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with France soon to follow.
Like al-Mutawa himself (who spent childhood summers at camp in New Hampshire), The 99 is an amalgam of East and West. Its medium is distinctly American, and its writers and editor are veterans of superhero institutions such as X-Men and Ironman.
But at its core, the comic’s motifs are Muslim. The title refers to the 99 attributes of Allah cited in the Quran, with each “superhero” in the series embodying one of the characteristics (i.e. Noora the Light, Jabbar the Powerful, Darr the Afflicter and so on).

Watch an animated movie of The 99.

In our interactive graphic, find out the Quranic sources for the 16 characters already in production, and the qualities and names of all of the 99 superheroes slated for the series.

Moreover, the series’s origins story is based on a milestone event in Islamic history: the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, when Mongol conquerors destroyed the Grand Library of Baghdad, tossing innumerable books and historical documents into the Tigris River. The premise of The 99 centers around the preservation of that knowledge in river stones, as found by its young heroes.

Watch an animated video from The 99 about the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258.

Even though the concept for The 99 is deeply rooted in Islamic theology, religion itself is completely absent from the storylines, which aim to emphasize universal values. The Quran gets nary a mention, and the characters are never seen expressing faith or observing rituals such as prayer or fasting.
Maintaining that separation can be tough, according to editor Marie Javins, as it is dependent on the shared cultural assumptions of the reader: “The idea is that you know Peter Parker is a Christian, even though they never say it.”

In our video, Al-Mutawa discusses the challenges and rewards of marketing in the Middle East, with footage from the upcoming documentary Wham! Bam! Islam!, from Isaac Solotaroff and Endeavor Films.

From Zeus to Batman
Even though it employs a decidedly Eastern spin, The 99 still taps into the same relationships with religious motifs and archetypes that comics have explored since their origins in Depression-era America. Originally, comics “were kind of dime store versions of the Gods,” explains Professor Christopher Sharrett of Seton Hall University, “ways of giving hope in a hopeless world.”
“Religion is often the way in which people present their most fundamental values,” says Harry Brod, professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa. “Comics, as a fundamental part of American culture, draw on the same themes.”

From Batman to Wonder Woman, experts explain the role of spiritualism in the creation of American comic icons in our interactive graphic.

In practice, that means an emphasis on epic tales and larger-than-life stories that generally revolve around the “hero model” that Joseph Campbell identified in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his seminal work on comparative mythology.
According to Campbell, these tales tend to begin with a young child (most often a male whose parents harbor some mystery) who is called into action by a crisis.
The hero suffers and receives supernatural aid from a protective figure and then is reborn after spending time in an unfamiliar world (think of Luke Skywalker’s training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, or the time Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne spends in the mountains with Liam Neeson’s Raz Al Ghul in Batman Begins). He then undergoes a series of trials, resolves questions about his identity and ultimately returns to help his fellow man.
“It’s the same story if it’s Moses or Jesus or Luke Skywalker or Superman,” says Brod. “We recognize it, and that’s why it resonates.”
Other experts go even further, arguing that many popular comic heroes derive from specific figures in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, as well as from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Sharrett’s view, for example, the Green Lantern recalls Apollo, Wonder Woman is Hippolyta (the Amazonian queen and daughter of Ares) and Superman is a composite of Zeus and Jesus.

In our interactive slideshow, read sample pages from The 99.

A Spy or a Zealot?
Search for The 99 in English-language comic news groups, and some unsavory items may turn up.
“The big joke is that now Archie can marry both Betty and Veronica,” says Javins. “I just ignore that stuff…I assume they don’t know any better.”
For his part, al-Mutawa has heard cracks about when Osama bin Laden will join The 99, or whether the superpowers depicted include blowing people up.
“I think the challenge is that people are going to think I’m selling some kind of hidden message. But that’s the challenge in the Islamic world, too. There, they think I’m working for the CIA. And here, they think I’m working for the fundamentalists,” he says. “But that’s the extremes, and I don’t worry about the extremes.”
In terms of acceptance, The 99 had a breakthrough last November. For two years, the comics were banned in Saudi Arabia, where censors viewed the use of God’s name as blasphemous. Saudi Arabia’s large population and substantial wealth makes it the Arab world’s most important market.
To compensate for the lost sales and revenue, al-Mutawa was forced to invest further abroad, self-publishing in the U.S. and selling licenses in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Spain. Plans are also underway for France, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Dubai.
Since the Saudi government has now given consent to sell the comics in their country following the approval of a major Islamic bank, al-Mutawa is returning much of his promotional push to the Gulf—a market that’s close to his heart.
He remembers his entertainment and cultural options being limited during his formative years in Kuwait City. He mainly read English-language books, because anything in Arabic—or at least the material that the censors could understand—was off limits. (An Arabic version of “Sesame Street,” for example, did make it to television, but Animal Farm was banned due to the pig depicted on its cover.)
In promoting The 99, al-Mutawa isn’t trying to undermine the opportunities kids in the Middle East have to read Western mainstays like Batman and the Archie series. In fact, his company, Teshkeel Media, sells Arabic translations of many of those series with which he grew up.
“I think it’s all important. I think Spiderman is important, X-Men. I think all stories are important. But I also think they can be easily dismissed by people as being Western. And so I want something that can’t be dismissed…I think it’s important to have stuff that’s based on one’s culture.”

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