Arabic-Speaking Youth Get Their Own Superheroes

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is creator of The 99, an Islamic-themed superhero comic about 99 teenagers. Each of the youngsters has their own blessed stone providing him or her with a super-power. Al-Mutawa talks about the comics, based on one of the 99 traits of Allah.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

From a super doctor to superheroes on the comics page. American comics book fans live vicariously through Spiderman and Wonder Woman, but Muslim and Arabic-speaking youth haven't had superheroes to call their own - until now.

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa founded Teshkeel Media Group with two things in mind: to distribute Arabic versions of American comics, and to release his own comic, "The 99." "The 99" features the first Islam-inspired superheroes. Dr. Mutawa joins us now from our New York Bureau.

Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. NAIF AL-MUTAWA (Founder, Teshkeel Media Group): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So who are "The 99"? Why are there 99, and why are they super?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Well, basically, the concept of "The 99" is one that's been known to the Islamic world for 15 centuries. The 99 refers to Allah's 99 attributes - attributes like generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy, and dozens of others that, unfortunately, are not used today when one discusses Islam in the media.

So the basis of "The 99" concept is that there are 99 superheroes from 99 different countries: from the U.S., from the U.K. and France and Kuwait and Saudi, Indonesia and China - from all over the world. Each of which having one of these attributes or a derivative of one of these attributes, yet needing to work in a team of three to solve a problem.

MARTIN: Oh, that's interesting. Why three? Does that have some theological or cultural significance in Islam?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: You know, it had a culture - it's actually interesting. And I'm speaking with a smile, but basically, the reason I did three is because in Islam, you know, you're not supposed to leave a man and a woman alone in a room together because the third person or the third entity in there would be the devil. And so I thought, you know, the superheroes are going to be half-boys, half-girls, more or less. They're 99, so, obviously, there will be one more boy than girl. And I didn't want there to be…

MARTIN: Well, it could be one more girl than boy.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Exactly, exactly, exactly. There could be - we don't know yet which way that's going to play. But basically I do want there to be, you know, a boy and a girl alone together. So I said three, that's good. There could be two boys and a girl, two girls and a boy, three girls, three boys, no problem.

But if you do a search on "The 99" in the Arabic-speaking world, one of the conspiracies is that I'm some kind of Vatican emissary, you know, promoting the Trinity, which is amazing.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: You can't please everybody.

MARTIN: No, you sure can't. My goodness. You mentioned that the characters come from around the world. So they aren't all Muslim?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: There is no religion in the books. There's no mention of Islam. There's no mention of being Muslim. There's no prayers. There's no Koran. There's no mention of the Prophet, peace be upon him, or Allah - none of that. Basically, it's as religious as Spiderman. It's based on archetypes that are from religion, but there's nothing overt.

MARTIN: And we couldn't help but notice a couple of things. They've got kind of an adult - ringleader's not the right word, but an adult organizer, a facilitator, somebody who kind of helps them understand their powers. And he would be Dr. Ramzi Razem.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Yes.

MARTIN: He wouldn't be modeled on anybody in particular, would he?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Here's the deal. When I first wrote "The 99" in between investor meetings when I was raising money three and a half years ago, they say always write what you know. And so what I knew was being - about being a psychologist, because I'd spent 10 years working with war trauma in Kuwait and here in New York at Bellevue Hospital.

And so I wrote Dr. Ramzi as a Kuwaiti psychologist. Why? Because that's what I am. And the 99 will have problems, and that's why they came to see him and how he helped deliver them from their problems. But that's all changed. He's no longer a Kuwaiti psychologist, and they no longer have those kinds of problems.

Now when we first did the different sketches on "The 99", I wasn't happy with the way he looked. He kept calling back to me, and we got very close to deadline. And then they came back to me with a sketch, and I looked at him and I said this is a joke, right? And they said, why? I said, he looks like me. And they said, don't flatter yourself. He's tall, he's thin, nothing…

MARTIN: He's pretty handsome. I'm not going to lie. He is kind of handsome.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: He doesn't look like you. I said so I said, okay. I'm going to take this to my mother and see what she thinks. I took it to my mom, and my mom said, no, he doesn't look like you. And I said, okay, this better not be an inside joke that one day, 10 years from now I find out about.

So I've actually gone to the point where when I give presentations, I keep them off the slides so people don't ask is this supposed to be you? You know?

MARTIN: Okay, we'll go with that story. That sounds fine, sure. Well, I also - I noticed that the characters are very ethnically diverse. They're visually diverse. I also noticed, though, that there's a character, Darr the Afflicter.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And his special talent is that he can cause or take away pain. And he seems to be a white American. Is there anything in particular you're talking to us about? Is there something - is there some meaning there?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Basically, the - there's a couple of American characters. One is Darr, one is Allin(ph), who's an Arab-American character. The one thing to keep in mind is that the 99 are all equal in their abilities. So no one character has - you know, is stronger than anybody else, because they're all needed.

So of the 99, three or four have powers that are more kind of, you know, Jabbar who uses his muscles, or Mumita who's the destroyer, or Darr. One of the more interesting characters…

MARTIN: Can I mention this, that Darr is also in a wheelchair?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

MARTIN: And he's kind of irritable, too. He's kind of in a, well, he's kind of like a…

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: He's had a tough life.

MARTIN: …teenager in a bad mood kind of thing…

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: You know, I didn't want to espouse this idea that, you know, it's all peace, love and, you know, and there's no room for conflict in the world because I don't buy into that. I worked for 10 years with war trauma. You know, what I do buy into is that that's not the only way to solve conflicts. And it should be the last thing one resorts to.

MARTIN: How does this work? Do you write the stories. Do you just come up the concept and you hire the people to do the drawing, and how does it work?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Initially, the character guide was pretty much done by myself and my team in Kuwait. And then, we hired an expert, I mean, Fabian Nicieza, who's been an incredible force behind "The 99." He is my co-writer, and he basically - if I can use the word professionalized the character bible that we had, because none of us had done this before and he's been doing it for 20 years, between writing for "X-men" and various well-known comics.

And for the writing, I was more instrumental in the first few issues and less now. I'm more of a cultural editor-in-chief now. I'm involved in the plotting. I go back and I read it and make sure there's nothing in there that I can't dissent if ever asked.

MARTIN: So we are all just now getting access to these comics in the U.S., correct?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: We gave away 40,000 free copies over the summer. We gave away 20,000 copies in July.

MARTIN: But it's already been available overseas, correct?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Yes, overseas, in the Middle East. And also in Indonesia, we launched a month ago.

MARTIN: And how it's going? How - what is the - what's the reception?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: It's been - I mean, media-wise, it's been fantastic. We've been covered positively in every news organization possible. In terms of sales, in Kuwait and Emirates, we've been doing pretty well, sometimes selling as well as "Spiderman," sometimes slightly below. In Saudi, there's an unfair advantage. We haven't been allowed into Saudi Arabia as a comic. And I was…

MARTIN: Are any comics permitted?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Yeah. I have 11 titles inside. I got "Archie, Betty and Veronica" into Saudi…

MARTIN: Wait a minute. I thought that under - sort of, one interpretation of Islam, no depictions of humans are permitted. So how does that work?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Here's the deal. Art is forbidden by those that are very, very concrete, because it could lead to idolatry. It's that simple. So if people are praying, you know, using, you know, propping up Archie and praying to him, they more serious problems than that, right?

So that's the fear. Now in Saudi, we've been able to get 11 of our titles approved, so we sell "Spiderman" in Saudi, "X-men" "Archie," "Batman," "Superman," all those titles we sell in Saudi. The only thing we don't sell in Saudi is "The 99" for now, which is very unfortunate.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: I know why that is. Basically, our distributor was so happy with the concept, he got ahead of himself. And he sent them copies of "The 99" to the Ministry of Information, and between brackets he wrote: Allah's 99 attributes.

MARTIN: Mm.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: That's like walking into a bull pen wearing red from head to foot. It's like saying, please ban us. And it's unfortunate, because the whole world has been talking about the positive values in Islam, and the birthplace of Islam is not allowing the comic in, which is very unfortunate.

Meanwhile, that's because one - that's because one group of censors didn't allow it. The other group of censors who are responsible for newspapers have allowed it in newspapers. So every Friday, there's a full page, full-colored "The 99" story in one of the leading newspapers in Saudi that we get paid for.

MARTIN: Do you think that you will find a receptive audience in the U.S.? And who do you think it will be? People of Muslim or Arab background who are - just like the familiarity, or do you think it will be broader than that?

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: I think it will be much broader than that, because day to day, if you think about, it's a very universal message. The artwork is done by the same people who work on "X-men," and "Spiderman" and "Batman." The writing's also at the same level.

So if it's a good story, it's good entertainment, which I believe it is, it's going to find reception. If it's not, then it won't. We don't segment it by religion. There's nothing, you know, there's nothing remotely religious in the books. That being said, if it was the 98 or the 101, no one would care about this concept. So it's a fine balance that we're walking, and (foreign language spoken), as we say, God willing, it'll work out.

MARTIN: It's very interesting. It's very - I found myself wanting to know what happens next. So it's interesting and it's very diverse. So we'll see.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Good luck. Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa distributes comics, Arabic and American, through his company Teshkeel Media Group. His latest offering, "The 99," is now available in the U.S. He joined us from our New York Bureau.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. AL-MUTAWA: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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