Desert stormers: a brief history of Arab comic superheroes
Superheroes ruled the box office this summer. Both Marvel's The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises grossed more than US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) worldwide, making them the first and second-biggest earners of the year respectively, and the third and tenth of all time.
In the UAE, data provided by Italia Films shows that The Avengers earned $12.8m at the box office, becoming the country's biggest ever release. So how would the region react to seeing an Arab superhero on the big screen? We all know local interest can spur on the movie-going public - just look at how Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, partially set in Dubai, made $8.9m in the UAE alone. But while Marvel Comics may have created The Avengers back in the 1960s, its attempts at creating an Arabic hero - as in the case of other publishing companies - have been thwarted time and again by cultural stereotypes, rather than the villains they face. Recent developments show promise, however, notably in the form of The 99, a 2006 creation from Kuwait, featuring a team of characters with their abilities linked to the Qur'an. Here are 10 characters bourne out of the region, who are ever-so-slowly changing the face of comic books.
First appearance: Green Lantern No 0 (Sep 2012, DC)
The most recent attempt at an Arab hero from DC Comics could well be the company's best. Simon Baz is a Lebanese-American, and Muslim, and the fifth Earthman to serve in the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic peacekeeping force. Creator Geoff Johns worked with the Arab National Museum in Detroit to create an interesting character that would also defy stereotypes. Ironically, bringing this Green Lantern to the big screen could be an easy way to reboot the film franchise, which disappointed in 2011 with Ryan Reynolds in the lead. DC, are you listening?
First appearance: Detective Comics Annual No 12 (Feb 2011, DC)
Batman has gone global in the comics, with Bruce Wayne now funding and training selected crimefighters in countries all over the world. The Batman of France is Nightrunner, a French-Algerian Muslim called Bilal Asselah, who grew up on the outskirts of Paris. A parkour enthusiast, he was created by writer David Hine as a response to the real-life French-Muslim protests in the Clichy-sous-Bois area, and upon meeting Batman decides to become a symbol like his hero, without bias to race or religion, who can keep the peace on both sides.
First appearance: Ajaaj No 1 (Sep 2007, Watani)
Ajaaj was Dubai's first superhero, developed for a series of 44-page hardback books and printed in both English and Arabic. The idea came from Watani, the UAE organisation charged with protecting the country's heritage. In order to educate younger generations, they came up with Ajaaj (meaning 'sandstorm' in Arabic), a mysterious figure who flies around in a cloud of sand, performing good deeds and teaching traditional values. The character is not human, said to be "of the desert", which is meant to help Arabic children realise their own roots.
First appearance: The 99 No 1 (May 2006, Teshkeel)
Teshkeel Comics is a Kuwaiti publisher that began in 2005 reprinting Spider-Man comics in Arabic. It soon spotted the potential demand for home-grown heroes, and worked with writers and artists from Marvel and DC to create The 99 - a group of teenagers with abilities based on the 99 attributes of God in Islam, such as strength, generosity and faithfulness. Team members include Jabbar the Powerful and Soora the Light. A theme park based on the characters has since opened in Kuwait, and an animated series premiered on MBC3 and Yahoo Maktoob during Ramadan.
First appearance: Zein No 1 (May 2006, AK Comics)
AK Comics made quite a stir when it first started publishing almost 10 years ago. Based in Cairo, the outfit looked to give American companies like DC and Marvel a run for their money, with its own Middle East characters such as Rakan, a warrior with a magical sword from ancient Arabia, Aya, a female vigilante whose parents were murdered, and Jalila, a nuclear scientist with radioactive powers. But the flagship was Zein, dubbed "The Last Pharaoh". Where are they now? According to the AK Comics website (www.akcomics.com), March 2013 will provide an answer.
First appearance: New X-Men No 133 (Dec 2002, Marvel)
Dust can be found in Marvel's X-Men comics. She first appeared in a story involving slave traders in Afghanistan, where she is from, with the X-Men showing up to rescue her. Real name Sooraya Qadir, the character is a mutant like Wolverine or Cyclops, meaning that she was born with special abilities - in this case, turning her body into a cloud of controllable sand-like dust. After the story, Sooraya was enrolled in the Xavier Institute and became one of the Young X-Men. She continued to wear her traditional dress, with an abaya and niqab on her face.
First appearance: New Mutants Annual No 7 (Jan 1991, Marvel)
With the world's media glued to the first Gulf War during the early 1990s, Marvel came up with the idea of an Iraqi superhero team as adversaries to its own heroes. Featuring characters with names like Aminedi, Black Raazer, Sirocco and Veil, joined by Arabian Knight (see above), the team were sent to fight a group of former X-Men villains now working for the US government, called Freedom Force. A battle took place in Kuwait and it wasn't pretty - Veil was killed, and two of its other members perished later on. Only Black Raazer and Sirocco are still active.
First appearance: Incredible Hulk No 257 (Mar 1981, Marvel)
It seems that Marvel didn't look much further than Aladdin for this creation. Abdul Qamar discovers a magical scimitar and a flying carpet inside an ancient tomb, then teams up with the Hulk to help fight off some demons. Later he meets other heroes, and for a while becomes part of the team Desert Sword (see below). A newer version of the character appeared recently in modern military garb, still using the scimitar, but revealing that he had unravelled the flying carpet and used the material to make an indestructible uniform, because quite frankly he looked ridiculous.
First appearance: The Marvel Family No 1 (Dec 1945, Fawcett)
Black Adam was created by Fawcett Comics as a villain for its Captain Marvel character. Originally an ancient Egyptian prince, Black Adam was granted similar powers to Captain Marvel, and would transform into a superhuman by shouting the same magic word, "Shazam!" But Black Adam was corrupted by his abilities and exiled until the present day, when he escaped. Now owned by DC Comics, Black Adam occupies more of a grey area between hero and villain. He has yet to appear since a company-wide reboot last year, but the clues are that he may do very soon.
Ibis the Invincible
First appearance: Whiz Comics No 2 (Feb 1940, Fawcett)
This must be one of the earliest superheroes with a Middle Eastern flavour, making his debut just two years after Superman. The story begins with a prince in ancient Egypt called Amentep, who discovers a powerful talisman called the Ibistick, or basically a magic wand that will do anything he chooses. Using it to place himself in suspended animation, he awakes in modern day New York and decides to become a crimefighter, renaming himself Ibis. The character drifted into obscurity in later years, before DC's purchase of Fawcett saw him making appearances in their own titles.
Updated: October 1, 2012 04:00 AM