x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'The 99' takes to the air

A comic book series about Muslim teenagers imbued with special powers is being made into a television show.

The cast of characters in the comic book series 'The 99' includes Noora, left, an Emirati undergraduate, and Jabbar, a youth from Saudi Arabia. The creator of the series, Naif al Mutawa, below, is a clinical psychologist by training.
The cast of characters in the comic book series 'The 99' includes Noora, left, an Emirati undergraduate, and Jabbar, a youth from Saudi Arabia. The creator of the series, Naif al Mutawa, below, is a clinical psychologist by training.

NEW YORK // A Kuwaiti comic book about teenage Muslim superheroes is expected to showcase the spiritual values of the Islamic world to global audiences after its creators signed a landmark television deal. The 99 has won fans across the Middle East and Asia since its launch more than two years ago, but an agreement between the comic makers and Endemol International, a Dutch television firm, will project the Gulf brand globally. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Marco Bassetti, chief operating officer of Endemol, makers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Big Brother, said he looked forward to "bringing to life" a comic that "has captured the imaginations of young people" across the Muslim world. The 99's teenage Muslim avatars will be animated in India. Post-production work will be by Endemol UK, and distribution, through DVDs, the internet and television, will be global.

The characters can already be seen on newsstands and children's school backpacks across the Middle East. The comic book series is read by connoisseurs in London and New York and is poised to spawn Gulf theme parks. The first is reportedly to be built in Kuwait City. The creator, Naif al Mutawa, said the success derives as much from timing as it does from his strip's teenage titans, which include a spoilt Sharjah student and a barrel-chested Saudi.

"An article about us appeared in The New York Times [in January 2006 after one appeared in Emirates Today a month earlier] and, what happened three days later? The Islamic world erupted in fury over the Danish cartoon controversy. "So, anybody doing a Google search with the words 'Islam' and 'cartoon' got that article." Eventually, word spread and "everyone knew about The 99. We got worldwide coverage - you name the country, I'll tell you the newspaper. The Red Sea had parted."

Dr Mutawa's company, Teshkeel Media Group, sells about 40,000 copies globally each month, casting a narrative that stretches back to the Golden Age of Islam and Hulagu Khan's siege of Baghdad in 1258. Concerned about the potential loss of Islamic world wisdom, the city's librarians infuse their knowledge into 99 iridescent gemstones and distribute the rocks around the continents - where they remain until the story picks up in the modern era.

Teenagers from around the world are exposed to the gems and develop special powers; a gawky Saudi, Nawaf Al Bilali, morphs into the muscular and mighty Jabbar, while an Emirati undergraduate, Noora, learns to detect falsehoods. The superheroes' new-found characteristics - such as strength, agility and truthfulness - all stem from the Quran, Dr Mutawa said, with each quality based on one of the 99 names of Allah.

The strip is ultimately a tale of good versus evil, with the goateed Dr Ramzi Razem tracking down gems and teaching teenage avatars to use their powers nobly. Rughal, his 500-year-old nemesis, is the baddie of comic-strip tradition. Religion takes a back seat in the unfolding saga, which reads like scenes from X-Men or Power Rangers, prescribing a set of "moral values" akin to Islam and other faiths, Dr Mutawa said.

Even so, Dr Mutawa, 37 and a father of four, has ensured his female superheroes dress more modestly than their Lycra-clad western counterparts, and it took until November 2007 to convince Saudi officials his strips were halal and he could access the kingdom's lucrative market. Since selling a 30-per-cent stake to Bahrain's sharia-compliant Unicorn Islamic Bank last year for almost US$16 million (Dh59m) and securing approval from the institution's partners, Dr Mutawa has had fewer problems presenting pious credentials.

The clinical psychologist, armed with degrees from Columbia University, targeted an increasingly affluent and growing middle class population across Asia and the Middle East. Unlike its floundering Egyptian rival, AK Comics, Teshkeel used the trademark Gulf business model of securing substantial petrodollar investment and headhunting global talent, including marketing executives and illustrators from Marvel.

The 99 does not represent the first use of Islam in comic books. The Infidel, a 2004 graphic novel by Bosch Fawstin, depicts a violent struggle of Muslim extremists and fundamentalists. Marjane Satrapi's illustrated autobiography, Persepolis, achieved massive European success in 2003 with its account of life in post-revolutionary Iran before being made into a film. Marvel introduced a super-Muslim in a 2002 edition of New X-Men, with Dust, a burqa-wearing Afghan Sunni, who uses her ability to transform into sandstorms.

Other faiths have had their share of comic coverage, including Osamu Tezuka's gritty manga epic Buddha, and a recent deluge of Hinduism-inspired strips from India's Virgin Comics, including Devi, about a warrior goddess, and Ramayan 3392AD Reloaded. The blind crime fighter Daredevil hails from a Roman Catholic family, while the Jewish faith ranks X-Men's Kitty Pryde and Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, among its superhero flock.

According to some pundits, the all-powerful and messianic figure of Superman carries biblical overtones. On Clark Kent's home planet of Krypton, his original name is Kal-El, which resembles the Hebrew phrase "voice of God". He then takes a Moses-like journey to Earth where he is raised by Methodists. Greg Garrett, a Texas academic and author of Holy Superheroes: Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books, said religion forms a narrative backbone to many cartoons.

"Comics draw on archetypal stories and myths for much of their power," he said. "Western superhero comics tend to draw very strongly from the Messiah archetype, the idea that one powerful and chosen figure can make a difference in the world when others cannot. "The 99 and some of the offerings from Virgin Comics come from cultures where archetypal stories diverge from the idea of one single powerful figure, and I think they make cultural sense for people steeped in Islamic, Hindu or eastern traditions."

For Prof Garrett, an English tutor at Baylor University, the effect of The 99, other Asian comics and the television deal signifies a profound shift in global dynamics. Asian comics offer a "more co- operative model for heroism" than such omnipotent crusaders as Superman, Prof Garrett said, but recent US titles - such as DC Comics' Trinity - are following this lead and presenting more multilateral forms of crime-busting.

"It makes me wonder if, reading culturally, it's beginning to occur to artists and writers that one superpower cannot hope to triumph alone," Prof Garrett said. "As America's Middle East adventure has shown, alliance is the only way to make a difference in the world, and perhaps American popular culture is coming to recognise some things that have long been obvious to the rest of the world." jreinl@thenational.ae