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Naif Al Mutawa, a clinical psychologist, created the comic book franchise The 99 eight years ago and it is now set to be turned into an animated series.
Naif Al Mutawa, a clinical psychologist, created the comic book franchise The 99 eight years ago and it is now set to be turned into an animated series.

Islamic comic superheroes The 99 to air on US television

Created with the team behind Big Brother, Deal or No Deal and Star Academy the animated series of The 99, which will air in the US in the autumn, will be equally game-changing.

Naif Al Mutawa is on a roll. But the Kuwaiti creator of the global comic franchise The 99 refuses to pause to savour the moment.

This is not, he explains, out of exaggerated modesty. Instead, he fears that if he stops his punishing schedule of promoting and developing the brand, he may wake up and realise the past eight years were just a dream.

This is why he has rarely visited The 99 Village Theme Park since it opened in his homeland two years ago.

"To see my kids on the rides with The 99 logo on them - to take that in is all great," he said. "But I don't go often because it feels too good when I am there.''

You can see his point. The story of the success of The 99 could be lifted straight from a movie script: a young Muslim clinical psychologist, despairing of the accusations levelled at his faith, decides to create a comic book using characters embodying the best attributes of Islam. The comic's immediate success helps challenge people's perception of the faith and spawns a global franchise including the theme park and awards from the United Nations and the World Economic forum. Now Al Mutawa is set to bring his creation to the screen.

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. Book reviews, festivals and all things literary
. A league of their own
. Do not let Islamophobes defeat 'The 99' everyday heroes
. Comic book goes up, up and away on US airwaves

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Created with the production company Endemol, the team behind Big Brother, Deal or No Deal and Star Academy, Al Mutawa promises that the animated series of The 99, which will air in the US in the autumn, will be equally game-changing.

"It is really high quality," he says. "It's one of the first animated series in the world with a [high definition] format and the writing is from people who did Batman, Superman, Ben 10, its all top-tier stuff."

A seven-minute-long preview of the series can be viewed on The 99's official website.

The 3D animation and the exquisitely rendered graphics suggest Al Mutawa's prediction is far from hubris. It also hints at a confidence born from a well planned and executed project.

Last year The 99 teamed up with DC Comics' Justice League of America for a six-part crossover mini-series. Al Mutawa describes seeing his Muslim characters Darr the Reflector and Samda the Invulnerable team up with Spider-Man and Batman as a "geek's dream".

But The 99 project is not just about breaking social boundaries.

Al Mutawa, who is also the chief executive of Teshkeel comics, the imprint publishing the series, says the franchise has to be equally profitable to make a true impact.

"We are still not over the hump yet," he cautions. "The project is not philosophy, we are a for-profit company, we are a social entrepreneurial company and we have a double bottom line of social return and financial return.''

Sitting in a cafeteria in NYU Abu Dhabi last month, ahead of a free public lecture on The 99 that formed part of the NYUAD events calender, Al Mutawa was a ball of energy. His speech, delivered at rapid-fire pace, often plays catch-up with a mind on overdrive.

He speaks about The 99's success as part of "the plan" or "the game". He is just as much a steely businessman as the creative force behind The 99.

Perhaps it is his constant eye on the greater vision, that stops him from basking in the comic's burgeoning success.

With a PhD in psychology and an MBA from Columbia University, Al Mutawa peppers his responses with both business and psychoanalytic terms. He credits his first love of storytelling with laying the seeds for The 99.

"I remember when I was nine I told my parents that when I grew up I was going to become a writer,'' he recalls. "They said it was a hobby and don't think about doing it for work.''

Born to a prominent Kuwaiti family, Al Mutawa's initial interest in western culture came at a young age when he regularly attended an annual US summer school camp in New Hampshire.

It was in these camps, where he was often the sole Arab and Muslim, he realised what it was to be an outsider. This experience, and a desire to understand the other, partly formed his decision to study psychology and carve out a successful career working as a clinical psychologist in New York's Bellevue Hospital.

But it was Al Mutawa's love for a good story that laid the seeds for The 99.

While Al Mutawa did take his parents advice and went to university, while he was studying he kept his creative flame alive by writing children's books which dealt with tolerance, and were published in English and Arabic in Kuwait. Then, in 2003, his dormant writing urge returned. He describes the experience as his "do or die moment".

"I was talking about wanting to write so long that I started to become bored with myself," he says. "And that's when The 99 came to me out of the blue." Al Mutawa describes it as a flash of inspiration, but it is a natural progression from his prior writing spell in the mid 1990s, when he wrote children's books with a theme of tolerance.

But in 2003, Mutawa's message was going against a backdrop of September 11, the war on terror and a generation of young people growing increasingly cynical and digital. He began sketching plot outlines that would become The 99.

He says the aim from day one was to counter the negative narratives and symbolism seducing marginalised Muslim youth.

"There are always going to be people who don't have enough serotonin as they should in the brain, so when they look at stuff they pull out negative messaging and you can't deal with that,'' he says. "What you can do is to create as much positive content to average it out."

After raising $7 million (Dh 25.7 million) in seed money from banks, university friends and "people who knew me", Al Mutawa set to work in creating "a world-class product". This meant raiding the comic industry's twin giants DC and Marvel Comics and headhunting its best writers and illustrators.

Al Mutawa said the strategy was simply "business school 101". "When you launch a product, if there is too much newness, the chances of success would become less,'' he says. "I didn't want to recreate the wheel. I wanted to work with people who had done this before and add my own spices, not my own ingredients."

The result was a totally new comic brand which retained familiar style of illustration and plot. Al Mutawa's characters, who span 99 different countries and whose names derive from the 99 attributes of Allah, have that mix of the unique and the familiar.

Al Jabaar the Powerful is a gawky Saudi Arabian teenager who transforms into a He Man-like figure.

And there is a bit of the Wonder Woman in Noora The Light, an 18-year-old Emirati who has the ability to see the truth in others.

Al Mutawa says the response has been overwhelming. Since Teshkeel Comics published the first edition in 2009 with 20,000 copies in English and Arabic, it has now been licensed to eight countries including China, Indonesia and Turkey.

While he is happy The 99 is crossing oceans and culture, Al Mutawa says the reaction in the Muslim world will determine the overall success of his mission. He says the television series will be the best gauge on how far he has progressed in inspiring young Muslim minds.

"The comic is not enough to measure by. It's not until it's watched on television by hundreds of millions of people that I will know how much we have had an effect," he says.

"That being said, if somebody says terrorism isn't among the first three things that come to mind [when discussing Islam] and The 99 is, then for me, that's a measure."

And how does Al Mutawa himself measure his progress? He admits, rather ruefully, that as a result of his characteristic planning, feeling genuinely surprised about the comic's success is rare.

However he admits to being stunned when the US President Barack Obama publicly signalled him out for praise at an American entrepreneurial summit in May last year.

"That didn't go according to plan, and that felt really good," he laughs. "Maybe the president should do it again sometime."

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