Like other kids the world over, Middle Eastern children have long fantasized about superheroes battling injustice in American cities or fighting beasts in Japan. Five years ago, they got some champions of their own to cheer on when Kuwait-born businessman Naif Al-Mutawa created a new breed of superheroes endowed with Muslim traits and virtues. Now Mutawa is on an even greater mission: taking those same Islamic characters around the world.
The 99, a comic-book series based on characters that each personify one of the 99 qualities that the Koran attributes to God, met early resistance in places like Saudi Arabia. Local authorities worried that the series might mock Islam. But after Mutawa guaranteed that he would remain respectful of religion and won backing from a major Islamic bank, the series took off around the Gulf. Initially given away for free with Arabic versions of Marvel comics (the license for which Mutawa owns in the region), The 99 is now a stand-alone success, with some 500,000 copies given away and sold across the region in the past two years.
Now Mutawa wants to spread the word farther. The first of six planned theme parks based on The 99 will open in Kuwait this October, and Mutawa hopes that an animated television show will hit airwaves around the world by late 2010. Working with writers such as Fabian Nicieza, who wrote for the Power Rangers and X-Men comics, and a group of managers including an exRolling Stone publisher and Marvel's former marketing chief, Mutawa believes The 99 can succeed in non-Islamic markets. "Our characters are appealing to kids across the world," he says. "We have been able to sell licenses to India, Bangladesh, France, Spain, the U.K., the United States and Canada."
The 99 is based on a pivotal moment in Islamic history: the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. In Mutawa's series, 99 gemstones encrypted with Baghdad's wisdom and power were scattered around the world, left for superheroes such as "Jabbar the Powerful" and "Noora the Light" to find before their archnemesis Rughal does.
While the 99 represent Allah's myriad attributes everything from wisdom to faithfulness there is no overt mention of religion in the stories. "When you read through the books, there is no mention of Islam, Allah or the Koran," says Mutawa. "I used an Islamic archetype, but the actual stories don't show any Islam, because they are based on values that we all share." Even Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, he says, "are based on religious archetypes. Like the prophets from the Bible, they are all orphans. Superman left his parents on the planet Krypton, and Batman sees his father and mother gunned down in front of him."
Yet the 99 do try to teach virtues valued by Islam, such as working as a team and combining your strengths with those of others. "The goal is to teach children that there are 99 ways to solve a problem," says Mutawa. "In the eighth issue, Jabbar the Powerful must rely on Noora's ability to see the 'light of truth' in others to annihilate the bad guys."
The characters in The 99 include Muslims from all over the world: Fatah, from Indonesia, can open and close gateways at any location; Daar, from the U.S., can inflict pain; and Mumita, with unparalleled agility, is Portuguese. This year, a burqa-wearing character from Yemen named Batina the Hidden will make an appearance. "Even though there are approximately 50 female superheroes, only five will be covered in that way," says Mutawa. "I want to send the message out that there is not only one way to be Muslim."
Mutawa, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master's in business administration from Columbia University, spent 10 years as a psychologist working with the victims of war before founding Teshkeel Media Group in 2004. His patients included men who were part of the Iraqi army that invaded Kuwait. "When you hear these stories of Saddam Hussein, who was cast as a hero and then ended up torturing his own people, you ask yourself what kind of message we are sending our kids about what a hero does," says Mutawa. "With The 99, I wanted to make a difference and give Muslim kids positive role models."
For Jim Kuhoric, the purchasing director at Diamond Comic Distributors (The 99's licensing agent in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.), Mutawa is onto a winner. "Not only are the stories entertaining and the art extraordinary," he says, "but the 99 have also enabled others to understand a wider vision than what they are normally exposed to through the medium, and helped to promote cultural understanding and acceptance."