Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Not an Islamic Comic Book Enterprise?

Storytelling doesn't have to be digital to catalyze rapid social change. It can also be the basis for a social enterprise. Consider the fastest-selling comic book in the Arab world, called The 99. Since its debut in Kuwait in 2006, The 99 has been translated and published in several languages, and was recently named one of The Top 20 Global Trends by Forbes. Decidedly un-Western, The 99’s cast features 99 Islamic superheroes on a quest to find legendary, mystical Noor Stones needed to save the world.

Why 99? All characters are based on the concept of Allah's 99 attributes, including wisdom and generosity, as taught in the Koran. One past issue of The 99 follows some of the superheroes as they race to stop two planes from colliding at a New York airport.

I first caught up with the creator of The 99, Naif Al-Mutawa, in Oxford in 2008; I ran into him again late last month at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. Al-Mutawa says he's been a fan of America's Marvel comics and The Hardy Boys mysteries since he attended summer camp in New Hampshire as a child.

Al-Mutawa is now 38, a Columbia University Business School graduate with a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Masters’ Degree in Organizational Psychology. After attending college in the States, he worked as a translator for torture survivors, and decided Muslims needed positive role models. In 2005, he founded Teshkeel Media Group in Kuwait City, where he was born and raised. In July 2007, less than a year ago, Teshkeel began publishing The 99 (as well as select, Arabic versions of Spiderman and other Marvel comics) in the United States and across the Middle East.

Al-Mutawa, the father and stepfather of seven children, all born in New York, says he hopes the comic books will spread a moderate, modern image of Islam to the world and create new role models. "The Islamic world has had suicide bombers as heroes and needed new heroes," Al-Mutawa said. “…I heard one too many stories of people who’d grown up idolizing their leader as a hero, only to grow up and be tortured by him. Imagine that it’s the hero who’s torturing you—the person you’ve been aspiring to become.”

Al-Mutawa told PopTech conferees that he was motivated to make a business out of the comic books because superhero stories tend to either come out of the United States or out of Japan, and American superheroes often arise out of a Judeo-Christian mold. Superman’s message comes from another place entirely. “I told my investors I was going to repackage the Qur’an” — to repurpose it to tell positive, multicultural stories, al-Mutawa said. “I told them that this was going to be [as big as] Superman, or not worth my time and money,” Al-Mutawa said it wasn’t easy at first. “Imagine going to NYC after 9/11 and telling them you wanted to make comics based on Islam,” he said. He now has investors in 15 countries interested in educating the world about the positive aspects of Islamic culture and traditions; in 2005, Teshkeel established a partnership with Marvel Comics to publish the series.

Characters in The 99 include Noora the Light, 18, (a former university student in Sharjah—the third-largest emirate in the UAE—who is now "a light to overcome the darkness"); Mumita the Destroyer, 17 (a street-smart runaway teen from the UAE who is being recruited by both the forces of good and evil to fight), and Dr. Ramzi Razem, 35 (a psychologist, historian, and UNESCO official who lives in Paris as a sort-of Arab version of Indiana Jones, hungry to learn more about the Noor stones and to mobilize the 99 for global peace).

There also is Jabbar the Powerful—a 19-year-old whose online profile says he was once "an average Saudi Arabian teen" until he stepped on a land mine and was transformed by hidden gem shards into a "man-mountain, a giant standing over two meters tall and weighing almost 200 kilograms." The good guys, led by Dr. Ramzi, seek to keep Jabbar out of the control of Muslim extremists. How powerful is Jabbar? If he sneezes, his profile adds, Jabbar "could level a house."

In recent weeks and months, Al-Mutawa has been busy launching The 99 in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, countries outside the Arab Middle East where Islamic culture and history are widespread.

For a short video on The 99 , see this:

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