May 16, 2007 -- Watch out, Captain America. Step aside, Superman. There's a new breed of crime fighting superheroes looking to capture the comic book scene, with 99 characters from around the world with one trait in common amid their superpower strengths -- they are rooted in Islam.
"Islam is not mentioned directly in these comics, but the back story is very much based on Islamic tradition and culture," said Kuwaiti psychologist Naif al Mutawa, who teamed up with cartoon giant Marvel Comics to create the 99.
"The biggest lesson from Spiderman is that 'with great power comes great responsibility,'" said Mutawa. "Is that a Judeo-Christian ethic or an Islamic one? Absolutely not, that is a universal message. And that's what we are trying to achieve with the 99. We are dipping into our own culture and pulling out those messages for a global audience."
And he's hoping that effort will bridge a cultural divide between the East and the West. The 99 launched a year and a half ago, and although it was banned in Saudi Arabia, it has otherwise gained a solid following for its fictional characters.
Like all comic books, there is an intricate backstory for the characters in the 99, although this one is rooted in history. The superheroes are normal individuals who are granted a specific power after finding one of the 99 Noor stones, real, ancient gems that are believed to hold wisdom but were scattered across the globe in 1492 after the mosque which held them was invaded.
The stones are now spawning superheroes as characters in the 99 uncover them and gain a power that relates to the tenets of Islam.
"Muslims believe that power is God, and Allah has 99 attributes," explained Mutawa. "So the idea is a series of heroes each which embodies one of these 99 traits -- things like generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy and dozens of others that, unfortunately, are not used to describe Islam in the media today."
For strength, there is the Saudi Arabian superhero Jabbar who grows to Hulk-like size after one of the stones is accidentally lodged in his body following an explosion. Generosity is demonstrated through Bari, a 15-year-old who gains incredible healing power after finding one of the gems while digging in his native South Africa. The superheroes then come together to build a collective power that is ultimately an expression of the divine.
Finding Success Amid Criticism in the Arab World
Since hitting the shelves in October 2006, the 99 comics have generated a frenzy of media attention.
While Muslim leaders, businessmen, and comic book aficionados have given the comic book their blessing as well as their money -- a whopping $7 million has poured into Mutawa's company, Teshkeel Media, since 2003 -- not all are as excited about this new genre of Arab entertainment.
Banned by Saudi Arabia's religious censors, the 99 has received criticism from Islamic clerics who say it goes against the Muslim religion in its personification of the powers of Allah and its attempt to create new myths that combine the word of God with a more Western storyline.
Mutawa, however, is not deterred by critics of the series. He has received countless e-mails and telephone calls from people across the world praising his work, and insists there is a need for entertainment in the Arab world that helps children and teenagers bridge the cultural gap between East and West.
At present, approximately 10,000 Arabic copies are distributed monthly to newsstands, arcades, supermarkets and hotels in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. English versions can be found in specialty comic book stores across the United States as well as in Cyprus, Taiwan and Mauritius.
"Absolutely, I believe there is a market for this type of work," he said. "What we have here is an international cast of characters, each of which is embodying one of these traits. Basically we are taking the rich Islamic culture and heritage … and creating new characters and new storylines based on an old archetype.
"At the end, when you think of it … what culture on Earth, Islamic or non-Islamic, religious or atheist, doesn't espouse those traits?" Mutawa asked.
Still, Mutawa sees the success of the 99 as a sign that Muslim youths are looking for an outlet that balances their religious and cultural beliefs with the kind of entertainment they are looking for. Ultimately, he hopes that his comic book will not be seen as a strictly Arab series, but as something kids from across the world can identify with and enjoy.