For an average comic book reader in the Arab world, the term Superhero has always been synonymous with classic American action idols like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man – you get the drift.
Then there are the Japanese Manga comics such as Captain Tsubasa or Pokémon for younger generations.
For years, various Arab writers have tried to invent authentic local superheroes but their efforts, due mainly to poor marketing and bizarre, insipid plots, have always failed instantly.
This is finally about to change with the latest Arabic comic book series The 99 and its creators, the Tashkeel Media group.
Naif A. Al-Mutawa, 35, founder and CEO of Tashkeel, spoke to The Daily Star Egypt over a phone interview about The 99, and the obstacles he faced before launching the series and the potential of comic books that are based on integral Islamic beliefs.
Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti businessman and father of four boys, had never been a real comic book fanatic when he was a little kid.
He was a big reader though, growing up on Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie. But he had to postpone his plans of becoming a writer to obtain a PhD in clinical psychology from Long Island University.
During the Gulf War, Al-Mutawa was working as a clinical psychologist with former prisoners of war in Kuwait, in New York City. Ironically, I found myself tending to an Iraqi patient, he said.
That brought things full-circle to me. I realized then how small this world is.
This precise experience fostered Al-Mutawa s beliefs in the necessity of tolerance, peace and forgiveness everywhere and led him to write To Bounce or Not to Bounce, a children s story with an eye for teaching kids the concepts of accepting cultural diversity and understanding other nations.
The book went on to sell thousands of copies as well as win a Unesco award of children s literature in the service of tolerance.
But the idea of The 99 came to him after a “fatwa (religious edict) was issued against the Pokémon books and films.
I felt sorry for the deteriorating state of the Muslim world and I thought that I must do something about it.
Al-Mutawa wanted to create Arab comic books that have the commercial potential of Pokémon with themes rooted in Islamic history and other religious themes.
All the greatest superheroes, from Superman to Batman, were receiving their forces from external, powerful upper forces, he said. These comic books contained religious subtext that is quite obvious.
The 99 is based on the Islamic 99 attributes to God with 99 characters, each personifying one of these traits and is set in the year 1258 when the Mongols were about to invade Baghdad.
In order to save the civilization s accumulated knowledge, the ancient scholars decide to hide all their information in 99 mystical gemstones that expand into a supernatural source of power.
The gems are scattered across the globe to accidentally inject 99 young men and women from different countries and races with their powers, sending them on a quest to find one another before the series villain does.
The powers these characters possess are unique and original. Noora has the power to overcome darkness and see the truth in people; Darr has the ability to stimulate an organism s nociceptors and thus, cause physical pain; Jabbar has a Hulk-like physique with unbounded strength, while Widad has the ability to infuse others with happiness, persuading them to comply with her demands.
The superheroes work in triples; each three activating a specific power to leave a room for countless abilities and tricks, Al-Mutawa commented.
When asked whether he believes that the large number of his superheroes might distract and confuse his readers, he said: Well Marvel has more than 150 characters and they re all recognizable and well known, he replied. [Besides] Muslims already know the 99 attributes by heart so it wouldn t be hard for them to remember each character and what he/she represents, he added.
The 99 has lots of international potential because the characters are just cool, Al-Mutawa stated.
And it’s true. The three characters released with their books so far are interesting and yes, cool as well.
Each one has a past marked by dark aspects that enrich them with more dimensions, more conflicts and endless possibilities for what could turn out to be magnificent storylines.
In addition, the books are immersed in Arab and Muslim traditions, ideals and lifestyle. Eight of the numerous female characters wear hijab (headscarf) in eight different ways to represent the wide spectrum of Muslim fashion around the world.
The books also display, and promote, the group structure of the East and the importance of teamwork in everyday life.
The stories, and characters, remain unrefined for the time being, which is natural for a project of such magnitude. The drawings and illustrations are top-notch and far superior to other Arabic, religion-free, AK Comics.
Al-Mutawa announced that he s just signed a deal with an American company that would distribute The 99 inside the US while Tashkeel has acquired the rights to distribute Marvel Comics in Arabic.