x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A league of their own

The 99 are an international band of comic book superheroes with a backstory rooted in the Muslim world. Dr Naif al Mutawa, the creator, talks about their origins and their future.

The characters of the 99 bear magical gemstones that were all that remained when the libraries of Baghdad were destroyed in the 13th century. Each jewel reflects one of the divine attributes.
The characters of the 99 bear magical gemstones that were all that remained when the libraries of Baghdad were destroyed in the 13th century. Each jewel reflects one of the divine attributes.

The first thing you should know about The 99, the superhero league invented by Dr Naif al Mutawa: "They're not Arab heroes. They're heroes inspired by Islam." This, he explains, is the key to his creation's recent run of success, a record that includes a Kuwaiti theme park and awards from the UN and the World Economic Forum, and promises to deliver collaborations with DC Comics and an animated TV series. The 99 might draw their powers from the virtues of Allah and comport themselves according to Islamic standards of decency, but this squad is as inclusive a band of uber-mensches as you could wish for. "They have an American hero and a Brazilian hero and Chinese hero," al Mutawa says; "an Indian one and a Pakistani one, a Saudi one and an English one... that's why they have been able to break through: because they were never put in a box to begin with." Ninety-nine heroes. Ninety-nine nations. These are not your grandfather's caped crusaders.

That said, their story is rooted in the religious wars of the Middle Ages. In 1258, Hulagu Khan's Mongol army sacked Baghdad, then the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and centre of learning in the Muslim world. The libraries were destroyed, their knowledge lost - all except what could be preserved in 99 magical gemstones. Cut to the present day, and The 99 are the bearers of these jewels, each one reflecting one of the divine attributes.

There's Jabbar the Powerful, a Saudi teenager whose jewel lets him transform into a giant. There's Widad the Loving, a Filipino aid worker with the power to induce love and compassion. Rather oddly, there's also Musawwira the Organiser, an African-American private investigator whose power seems to amount to obsessive-compulsive disorder and a knack for data mining. As origin stories go, it may lack the iconic zaniness of, say, "bitten by a radioactive spider", but as a pretext for Heroes-style, character-led superheroics, the lost wisdom of Baghdad does the job.

Al Mutawa came up with idea of an international troupe of heroes three years ago. Inspired by his work treating survivors of political imprisonment and torture in New York and Kuwait, he had already produced books for children designed to address the problem of cultural intolerance. In addition, his comics imprint Teshkeel was distributing DC's venerable comics throughout the Middle East. Al Mutawa saw an opportunity to advance his humanitarian mission and at the same time gain a toehold in the lucrative world of superhero branding - something that would require him to look beyond the Arab world in any case.

"I wanted to have intellectual property created and therefore protected in as many places as possible," he says in rapid, US-accented English. "If you think about it, there are a zillion million people in the US. That's a market. There are0 a zillion million people in the Arab world, but the only place that has money and people is Saudi." Al Mutawa talks as fast as anyone I've yet caught on tape, easily topping 150 words a minute. He's scarily cogent, too, which is presumably what a PhD in clinical psychology, a Columbia MBA and sidelines as an author and humanitarian advocate will do for you. According to al Mutawa, the trouble is that "you have places with people and no money, and places with money and no people". Not a great environment to launch a mass-market brand. But that isn't the half of it. He sighs. "We're in a region where, in Ramadan, some show gets pulled off the air. Some producer loses money because it offended somebody somewhere... When I do stuff - and this is more the way God created me, I'm not trying to say I do things better than other people - but when I do stuff I invest myself 150 per cent. I sacrifice time with my kids. I really work, you know? And the idea for me to really work and take a risk that huge on our region? I just couldn't do it."

And yet, in a sense, he has. The 99 is pitched precisely for acceptability to a Middle Eastern audience. As al Mutawa says: "The social part of what I'm doing is really the reach into the Arab and Muslim world. Our region is worth making an asset for." The question was, how? The challenges don't end with the small markets and unpredictable sensitivities. There's also the fragmentation, the problem of distributing goods within such a culturally and economically heterogenous region. "As a Kuwait-based publisher, when I send books to Egypt, I lose money," al Mutawa says. "I have to send it by air because I can't send it any way else. I can't send it by car" - not with Israel in the way - "and number two, I have to sell it at such a low price point because it's Egypt versus Kuwait. I still do it ... I lose money but I do it. I do it to be in the market." Not that that guarantees a return from what you do manage to sell: "You're in a region where there are more pirates than lawyers. There's no respect for intellectual property."

The trick is to balance losses and liabilities in one market against present and future gains in another. "The only way I could come up with to deal with that was by creating something that, God forbid, somebody doesn't like what I'm doing, it's not going to kill the business. So from day one it was done for international appeal ... We built this to be a global property." That meant, first of all, American-standard production values. To help develop the concept, al Mutawa enlisted the help of DC and Marvel comics veterans such as Stuart Moore and John McCrea. Every level of the creative team has been filled, as al Mutawa says, with "top-tier people... the writers from Spider-Man and Iron Man, pencil and inking by the penciller for Batman and Superman - who to this day pencils this stuff." Al Mutawa doesn't write the comic himself. He keeps "a hand in it", he says, "in terms of quality control, making sure that the characters represent what they're supposed to represent, stuff like that". In fact The 99's long-standing writer is Fabian Nicieza, best known for his work on X-Men.

Yet despite this all-star line-up, al-Mutawa insists that the comic "was never seen as a way to make profit. It was more of a research and development". The real money is in other platforms - TV, for instance. And there's an irony here: the territory that helped The 99 cross over turned out to be one of al Mutawa's biggest headaches. "The guy from Endemol actually saw it in Egypt," he laughs. That's Endemol as in Big Brother. Al Mutawa is the first to concede the role of chance in his idea's success - "blind dumb luck, or fate, depending on how you want to look at the world", he says. The way that TV happened upon The 99 suggests that isn't all false modesty. A senior producer at Endemol was in Egypt, so the story goes, visiting a friend. "His friend's daughter pulled out 10 issues of The 99 that she's collecting under her bed, to show her uncle, in quotes, what she's been reading," al Mutawa explains, clearly delighted. "And he'd never seen it. He was like: 'Wow, what's this?' And then he e-mails and the rest is history."

More concretely, the rest is this: the company has signed a partnership with Teshkeel, al Mutawa's publishing company, to co-produce 26 episodes of a 99 cartoon series ready for airing late next year. "Bear in mind," he says, "this is the first time in their history that they actually produced something that they don't own - this is where they see significant potential profits." Once again, it's a high-quality production. "It's being written by top Hollywood talent," al Mutawa says. "The writers from the Spider-Man animation series and the Batman animation series, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You could probably find writers who are as good but you'd be hard pressed to find writers who are better."

Al Mutawa knows they have to "hit it out of the park". "From the very beginning I told my investors," he says, "this is either Superman, or it's not worth my time or your money." Well, if it isn't Superman itself, it's going to get pretty close. Al Mutawa has agreed on a crossover with DC Comics' Justice League, meaning The 99 will get to collaborate with the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman and the Man of Steel himself. "I approached them and said, hey, President Obama is reaching out to the Muslim world at this moment - this happened pre-June 4 - and I said, what do you think of having a series where we implement his vision on a metaphorical basis? And they liked it." He doesn't know what kind of plot lines might emerge when the two universes collide, but he's confident that the writing team, who have worked both beats and know all the 99 and DC characters backwards, will come up with something satisfying. "It was a match made in heaven," he says. "Metaphorically, of course." That's for the fans to decide. Still, knocking down the boundaries between worlds has brought The 99 this far. Who knows what they might achieve if they put down roots in Superman's turf?