Comic superheroes inspired by Islam: An interview with Naif al-Mutawa

ISLAMICSUPERHEROESTalking about his Islam-inspired comic-book series, “The 99,” Naif al-Mutawa says, “We’re the first-ever intellectual property that was launched from the region (of Kuwait) that has been able to go global.” Al-Mutawa isn’t bragging — just stating a fact that is truer than ever. “The 99,” which features “Jabbar the Powerful” and other superhero figures, is now an animated television series that al-Mutawa hopes will be shown in the United States, in addition to its already-scheduled run on British TV.

I interviewed al-Mutawa for a feature article published yesterday by GlobalPost, the foreign-affairs news site. Besides chatting about “The 99,” al-Mutawa and I talked about Arab pop culture, Batman’s “parent issues,” al-Mutawa’s upbringing in Kuwait and the United States (where he attended “fat camp”), Pokemon, and other subjects.

“The 99,” which takes its name from the 99 attributes that Muslims have for God, was first published in 2006. Its superheroes get their power from gemstones that emanate from Iraq’s medieval Dar al-Hikma library. Al-Mutawa, who has an MBA from Columbia University and a Ph.D in clinical psychology from Long Island University, divides his time between Kuwait and New York. My GlobalPost article was picked up by the Huffington Post, whose readers debated al-Mutawa’s efforts to show a different side of Islam and its relation to other cultures.

Q: A Canadian TV station referred to “The 99” as “Islamic crime fighters.” You’ve said the characters aren’t 100 percent Islamic – that they’re “Islamic archetypes.” Explain the difference.

A: It’s been interesting walking that line, because from Day 1 they were born of Islamic archetypes. But I knew if I had called the series “The 98” or “The 102,” nobody was going to care, because the last thing the world needs is another group of superheroes. At the same time, we got lucky: In early December of ’05, the New York Times interviewed me for a paragraph in the arts section, and that kept getting pushed to “next week, next week, next week,” and finally I give up. The next thing you know, the world erupts in the Danish cartoon controversy, and I start praying that the New York Times has forgotten about the piece. And the next you know, they do a full page in the Sunday Times, right in the midst of the controversy. It was amazing for us, because what happened was that anyone who was Googling “Islam and cartoon” or “Islam and comic” got us. We got positioned as “the Islamic comic.” (laughs)

In “The 99,” no one’s religion is ever revealed. They’re from 99 different countries, including America. It’s very much based on global storytelling. Even the powers of the 99 come from stones that have in them the knowledge of the Dar al-Hikma library. The caliph at the time the library was built had told his scholars, “Bring me any book you have and translate it into Arabic, and I’ll give you its weight in gold.” By definition, if it had to be translated into Arabic, it wasn’t a Muslim book. His advisers came to him after a few months and said, “Your highness, the scholars are cheating. They’re writing in big hand-writing, to get more gold.” And he said, “Let them be, because what they’re giving our culture is worth a lot more than what we’re paying them in return.” That understanding of the importance of cultural diversity — in the end, all that knowledge is in the power of the stones (featured in “The 99”). So the stones are Islamic knowledge, and Christian knowledge, and Jewish knowledge, and knowledge from the Greek philosophers. At the end of the day, what I wanted was Islamic archetypes, but in fact, the powers come from collective civilization, they’re from 99 countries, it’s a very global (storyline).

Q: In the comic series, you don’t explain this background in detail. Why not?

A: As a psychologist, when I used to make a living seeing patients, one of the things that I always looked out for was whenever someone answers an unasked question, there’s an issue there. So I didn’t want to answer the unasked question in the comic books by saying, “this isn’t this.” Then it’s like I’m hiding something. But when I’m asked the question (by journalists), I answer it.

Q: Before you began “The 99,” you were a trained psychologist. Why did you make the transition to comic-book author?

A: I’m a clinical psychologist who’s licensed to practice in New York state. I lived there for a few years — my boys were all born there. I was training in Bellevue Hospital, in the survivors of political torture program, and heard one too many stories of people growing up who idolized their leaders only to end up being tortured by them. A couple of my patients were part of the Iraqi army that invaded my country in 1990. I treated them in New York. There were people there from all over the world, but I only worked with people who spoke Arabic. Then I needed a break, so I went to business school — I went to Columbia and did my MBA. I was 32, the summer of ’03, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was in a (London) cab with my mother and sister, going from Edgware Road to Harrods, and my sister turned to me and said, ‘I remember you told me you’d go back to writing after school.’ I shrugged her off and said, ‘For me to go back now, it’s got to be a concept that has the potential of Pokemon. I have my Ph.D. and three master’s degrees. Otherwise, it won’t make sense for me.’ It worked – she shut up. But because there’s now a vacuum in silence, I look out the window and started thinking. I said ‘Pokemon,’ and my next thought is that there’d been a fatwa issued against ‘Pokemon,’ because it supposedly has to do with polytheistic gods. And my next thought was, ‘My God – what has happened to Islam?’ and ‘Who are these people making decisions? What happened to the days of the Library of Baghdad?’ My next thought was that Allah must surely be disappointed. My next thought was that Allah had 99 attributes. By the time we got to Harrods, I turned to my sister and said, ‘What do you think of this?’

She liked it. So I ran with it. I wrote the character guide, which everyone else in the world has called “a character bible.” (laughs) I wrote the business plan and the financials, and I went out and raised money. I raised $7 million in a few months. A million dollars came from my classmates in business school, which is why I have investors from the U.S. and China and Lebanon and Egypt and Jordan. I tell people I’m the only Kuwaiti who went to Lebanon and actually came out with money. The rest of (the money) came from investment banks in Kuwait and the largest retailer in the Middle East.

Q: You believe that Superman and other famous comic superheroes come from a Judeo-Christian background. In fact, you pitched your comics to your investors with this in mind.
A
: I said to my investors, ‘If you look at the superheroes that exist in the world today, there are two groups — the group that comes out of North America, and the group that comes out of Japan. The ones that come out of North America are basically all Judeo-Christian-Greek backstory.’ So, like the prophets, all the superheroes have parent issues. Superman’s parents die in Crypton. Batman’s parents die in (a robbery). Spider-man is raised by his aunt and uncle. And all of them have a message delivered from above through a messenger. The prophets get it from God through Gabriel, but Peter Parker is taking a photograph when a spider comes in from above — not below — and gives him a message through a bite. Batman is sitting in his bedroom when (something) flies over his head and sees it as an omen. Superman not only gets it from another planet, or the heavens, but he’s sent to earth like Moses in a pod. And then you hear the voice of his father, speaking from the heavens, saying to earth, ‘I have sent to you my only son.’ That’s the bible. And the reason that’s done is that there are over a billion people that share a common story they learned in Sunday school or elsewhere. So (with “The 99”), I built a new story on older architecture, so it’s familiar and exciting at the same time. That’s why I proposed to do with Islam, and my investors bought into it.

Q: So you specifically said, “Islam”?
A
: These are Islamic archetypes, just like (Batman, Superman, et al.) are Judeo-Christian archtetypes. No one picks up Superman and says, ‘Oh, this is a Christian book.’ Had the cartoon controversy not happened, no one would have picked up “The 99” and said, ‘This is a Muslim book.’ But that being said, no one probably would have known about it. It’s a balance.

Q: “The 99” was criticized by conservative Muslims, and banned initially in Saudi Arabia. Can you talk about that?
A
: I kept being pushed to speak to scholars, to get their permission, and I avoided it. I didn’t want to be a pawn. If scholar A likes me and likes what I’m dong, then scholar B and C who don’t like him . . . So I kept away. And if I got pushed, I’d say, ‘I spoke to Emo Phillips.” And they’d say, ‘Sheikh (Imam) Phillips — we hadn’t heard of him.’ And that’s a good thing because he’s a comedian. Emo Phillips used to say that everyday at the age of 10, he used to pray to God for a bicycle, and at 10 he realized that God didn’t work that way, so he stole the bicycle and started praying for forgiveness. I knew in my heart that if I created this thing, not everyone would like it, but you couldn’t say it was un-Islamic. I grew up in the area. I know my boundaries. We were right. We started getting letters from sheikhs all over the world, including the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. And we were not allowed into the Saudi market. I had to negotiate a couple of times. Because I wasn’t allowed in Saudi Arabia, people were able to spread rumors without us being able to prove they weren’t right. What I did was, when it was time to raise my second round of financing, I raised $18 million from an Islamic investment bank that had seven scholars on their board, and all of them approved what I was doing. So within a couple of months, like magic, we were allowed into Saudi Arabia.

Q: At least one religious cleric said “The 99” was promoting Christianity.
A
: The 99 (superheroes) work in teams of three. In Islam, there’s this concept of, ‘You don’t leave a boy and a girl alone together.’ But I’m not out to prosletyze and my motives aren’t religious, so I thought, ‘Let me deal with this is a way so (the series) can get into the conservative countries without having the criticism.’ So I thought, ‘two girls and a boy; two boys and a girl’ — no problem. Meanwhile, this scholar wrote an essay online in Arabic about how I was working for the Pope and promoting the trinity in Catholicism in the Islamic world. So you really can’t win.

Q: Were you raised in a secular household?
A
: No, no — religious. But I went to summer camp in New Hampshire growing up. My parents wanted me to lose weight. Didn’t work. (laughs.) This was in the late ’70s when there was no satellite television in Kuwait, and you can tell from my height and weight what I must have looked like when I was eight. Like a box. The kids used to make me point up at the sky and say, ‘Boss, boss — the plane, the plane.’ I had no idea what that was until years later. My kids actually go that camp now, too. Basically, it was an amazing place for me. It was a predominantly Jewish summer camp called Camp Robin Hood. It was my first experience alone without my parents. I grew up reading. I was a Hardy Boys addict. And Nancy Drew. (At camp) I read (comics for the first time) comics like Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Q: With “The 99” set to become a TV series around the world, you might achieve a financial success you coudn’t have fathomed when you first began the series as a comic book. Any thoughts?

A: For me, part of the Middle East and the Islamic world for this project is the social dimension, it’s not the financial dimension. To put it in perspective, our episodes cost us on average $400,000 to produce. The leading Arab broadcaster told us, ‘For this — this is amazing; we’ll pay you four times what we usually pay.’ Guess what that is? Five thousand dollars an episode. To put this in perspective, that’s why the content is degenerative (in the Arab world). It doesn’t go anywhere. If this does financially well, it’s going to do financially well because it was been picked up by a U.S. network. But there’s a very big social need for what we’re doing in the region.

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3 Responses to Comic superheroes inspired by Islam: An interview with Naif al-Mutawa

  1. iskid2astop says:

    Great interview.
    Sounds like a great series too. Fresh, coming from a new place in the comic universe. Thanks!!

  2. Neal Ungerleider says:

    Glad to see this fellow is becoming successful. Also, I can’t help but notice that al-Mutawa is from an immigrant background – what is it that attracts so many children of immigrants to working in comics?

    • Great question. I thought of that myself during the interview with al-Mutawa. He’s someone who has a bi-cultural life — and did from an early age. Perhaps becoming an outsider in a new country forces people to imagine how they might change the country if they could. Creating a comic-book series (as an adult, years later) is one way to deal with the cultural confrontation and assimilation. Just a thought.

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