I’m biased against comic books. I have refused to read them ever since I walked into the comic book store in my little hometown in New Jersey and saw page after page of white men with superpowers and tiny black eyes aiming fire at each other. I probably just looked at a few books, but it was enough to bias my 9-year-old mind against them for the next two decades. Comics, I decided, were nothing but a genre about superheroes for white boys.
The Boondocks changed my mind about comics, sort of. Aaron McGruder’s Black and biracial kids talked about politics, race and parents the way my friends and I did—uncensored. I enjoyed it but then decided that it wasn’t a real comic book. It wasn’t about superheroes from communities of color and saving the world against evil with flashes of light that come out of your eyes. That’s what I had wanted as a child and what, as an adult, I wasn’t counting on anymore.
So, I felt amused and skeptical about The 99, a comic book whose creator, Naif Al-Mutawa, a psychologist turned writer and entrepreneur, purports to offer superheroes who are people of color with special powers derived from Islamic knowledge. The title and the series’ press coverage caught my eye. The comic book was hailed by the major press outlets, and Al-Mutawa signed on people with experience in the comic book industry, including Fabian Nicieza, who wrote for the X-Men and Power Rangers. To boot, the company Al-Mutawa founded to distribute The 99—the Teshkeel Media Group based in Kuwait—is now the regional publisher there of Marvel Comics, producing comic books like Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arab.
The 99 is targeted to kids and adult fans in the Arabic-speaking world. Indeed, Al-Mutawa says that some people invested in his company and the idea of The 99 because they wanted something to counteract the sticker collections that featured suicide bombers as heroes. “We gave away thousands of copies of The 99 to children in Palestine through UNESCO on December 31st for the Eid Holiday, and we are on sale in those territories, as well,” Al-Mutawa writes in an e-mail interview.
The series is also produced in English and formally hits the United States this fall. And, reading it, I’ve found it to be as much about imaginary superheroes as it is about psychology, trauma and politics.
The series starts in Baghdad, which is under attack—but not from Bush and an American army. The year is 1258 CE, and soldiers from East Asia are coming to tear down the Islamic city. But the evil-doers aren’t content with only killing Muslims. They’re going to tear down the center of knowledge, Baghdad’s greatest library—Dar Al-Hikma. The Islamic leaders and librarians decide to make an alchemic stew in which they toss all the great books and distill the knowledge into 99 gemstones, known as the Noor Stones. In the Muslim religion, Allah has 99 attributes, including The Compassionate, The Merciful, The Pure and The Peaceful.
Baghdad is destroyed, but the gemstones are carried to Andalusia under the care of special guardians and kept there safely for generations. But then the blue-eyed Rughal is born. He becomes a scientist and tries to steal the power of the gemstones, only to cause an explosion that scatters the sacred stones around the world.
Now, centuries later, the gems are being found by people, mainly children, and the stones’ powers are being activated. A girl in the United Arab Emirates finds the stone for light and can see through locks and walls and into people’s souls. A Pakistani girl in London gets the stone that enables her brain to work like a mobile data device and a boy in South Africa finds the Noor Stone that enables him to activate people’s capacity for healing. A Guyanese girl in Harlem gets the one that enables her to detect patterns, for example in crimes, while a white man in Canada finds the one that turns his brain into an ultrasensitive scanner.
The children don’t know what’s happening to them until they’re found by Dr. Ramzi, an enigmatic character who runs an NGO and knows about the stones. It’s unclear what Ramzi’s true motives are, but he seems to think the stones are the key to building a peaceful world, and to that end he has the NGO focused on the task of finding the Noor Stones and their bearers. He and the new superheroes, however, are up against Rughal. Yes, the blue-eyed evil-doer has traveled across time, determined to get back the stones and all their powers.
The appeal of The 99 is multilayered. Al-Mutawa created a team that has illustrated for Marvel and DC Comics, and the drawings are what Western audiences would expect. The characters are vivid, and there are angst-ridden adult faces and children’s scared or determined eyes. The storyline also moves quickly across time and location. One minute the superheroes are in Paris, the next they’re in the States or Saudi Arabia. The lure of The 99 is that it presumes its audience is multiracial and as comfortable in American comics as it is in the history of Islam and the genre of science fiction.
The 99’s real attraction is this: In a world filled with violence and tragedy, how do ordinary people, and in particular ordinary kids of color, keep their faith in humanity?
The first three children whom Dr. Ramzi finds have gone through trauma. Dana was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates, Nawaf and his family fled men trying to kill his father in Saudi Araba and John was paralyzed in a car accident with a drunk driver in the United States. It’s fairly easy here to conclude that The 99’s creator drew on his own work history for the comic book. As a therapist, he spent 10 years working with survivors of torture. He not only counseled prisoners of war in Kuwait, but also worked at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he worked with people who had been tortured in Arab prisons for opposing totalitarian regimes.
“Listening to those stories confirmed my feeling that there are no current heroes in the Islamic World,” Al-Mutawa says. “There are historic figures that—depending on one’s sect—one sees as a hero or traitor, but those who are cast as heroes are the very people who are torturing their populace.”
The work of The 99 character Dr. Ramzi, I imagine, is much like that of Al-Mutawa. He counsels each child through their trauma, and then each child has the option of being a prisoner to their new superpowers or using them in a beneficial way. There’s a choice between believing that you can make change happen in this world and throwing in the towel, and in that single choice rests the comic book’s emotional tug.
Al-Mutawa, who has authored two children’s books, may have created the series because of his own need for heroes, but the timing isn’t surprising. Since Sept. 11 and Bush’s war in Iraq, the issue of heroes, whether super or ordinary, has been in the realm of the public imagination here and in the Middle East. It’s in this year’s movies (300 and Spider-Man 3) and last year’s too (United 93), and it’s snuck its way into the immigration debates wherein immigrants are described as heroes of their communities for the risks taken with being deported. As political life reels farther away from the hands of ordinary people, we become increasingly attached to the idea of heroes.
Sadly, Al-Mutawa insists his comic book isn’t political. And his company’s promotional literature uses the safe words of “diversity” and “multicultural” rather than talk about the war on terror and the racism in which his multiracial team of superheroes find themselves engulfed. He enjoys talking about how the 99 stones will fall into the hands of kids and adults from 99 countries, all of which will treat each other with respect.
I’m afraid that’s where the comic book will eventually stumble.
After all, it will be hard to identify over the long term with a Black superhero or a Pakistani one that walks in a world where their race and religion never matter. Regardless of her superpowers, a hero’s strength doesn’t come from avoiding conflict or imagining respect any more than it really comes from the yellow light shooting out of her eyes. It comes from making the same decision that The 99 kids are called on to consider: believing that whether or not you can change the world, it’s a task worth trying.