Graphic novels, comic books, and movies based on comics are insanely popular. With hype surrounding movies such as The Dark Knight Rises (Batman) and Man of Steel (Superman), – and let’s certainly not forget The Avengers – with comic book titans DC and Marvel revamping classic characters and story lines, you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the U.S. who doesn’t know Iron Man, the Hulk, Spiderman, or Catwoman. Whether you devour comic books on a regular basis, or are strongly encouraged by loved ones to at least read the really good ones, or have just seen The Avengers movie and think Captain America is oh so dreamy, you are participating in comic culture.
You might be asking, what in the world does this have to do with religion?? Well, in 2006 Dr. Naif A. Al-Mutawa fused faith with the realm of superheroes when he introduced THE 99, a group of characters from around the world of Middle East descent who exemplify “Islamic archetypes that possess values shared by the entire world” (from The 99’s official website).
I love this description of THE 99 from their kid-friendly website:
THE 99 is an international team of young people, each of whom possesses a Noor Stone—an ancient gem of great power and wisdom, created by scholars hundreds of years ago. When bonded with a specific young person, each Noor Stone grants him or her a different gift of power.
THE 99 team performs best—and most frequently—in groups of three, joining their power together in a triad link. Teamwork and cooperation enhances each hero’s abilities, offering each even more of a chance to participate in changing the world for the better.
Each character has a different power they bring to the team: Darr (or John) from the USA can absorb pain; Mumita (or Catarina) from Portugal, has enhanced speed, strength, and agility; Musawwira (or Liza), growing up in Ghana and Harlem, NY, can create order from chaos; Bari (or Haroun) of South Africa, can heal small ailments and injuries.
There will eventually be 99 heroes, from 99 countries, exemplifying 99 attributes of Allah. With heroes ages 8 to early twenties who all have back stories that involve some challenge or struggle, usually with their powers, and a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, these Islam-inspired comic books are beautiful. Dr. Al-Mutawa does a fantastic job weaving traditional comic book elements – super powers, villains, and crises – with common values shared in countries across the globe – acceptance, respect, compassion – all while developing characters that readers from around the world can relate to.
While the characters and stories are inspired by Islam, Dr. Al-Mutawa provides a narrative that speaks to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Atheists alike. And contrary to some comments made when THE 99 was first created, these comics are not intended to convert impressionable kids to Islam and denounce the Western world. On the contrary: Dr. Al-Mutawa told Comics Alliance in 2010 that his hope was to confront radical Muslim values and xenophobic imams (“99 Problems But a Cape Ain’t One”) And where did the inspiration for THE 99, other than Islam, come from?
“My next thought was that there had been a fatwa issued against Pokemon in this region. My next thought was, “My God, who are these people, and who appointed them to be spokespeople for Islam?” My next thought was Allah, and how disappointed he must be. My next thought was that Allah had 99 attributes, and that brought me full circle back to Pokemon, which is a concept of 300 attributes.” (Comics Alliance 2010)
I think creations like this should be more common place, particularly in the United States where a culture of Othering and fear of the foreigner seems to reign. THE 99 counters xenophobia of all sorts, and shows how many forms inter-faith dialogue comes in. Who says inter-faith dialogue has to happen at a round table, or in a conference room? Why not use a comic book to bridge gaps between different traditions, religious and cultural? If I had children, I would happily buy them issues of THE 99, let them watch the animated series, and encourage them to talk about what they read and see. How are we supposed to teach our kids about acceptance and respect for different beliefs, opinions, and behaviors? Just talk at them? (Hint: talking at kids and teens doesn’t generally work real well). THE 99 is a platform for dialogue that appeals to kids and is presented in a way they can understand, drawing on the importance of visual communication.
Comics aren’t just for nerds. Comics aren’t just about violence. Comics aren’t all busty women and bulky men. Comics can send positive and productive messages of teamwork, cooperation, and respect. Comics can deal with weighty issues without attacking cultural, political, or religious groups. Comics can have heroes and heroines that are role models and not just lean, mean, fighting machines. I think it’s time the religious world thinks about distributing more comic books – maybe we’d learn something about our neighbors if we all had publications as well done at THE 99, plus I’d love to see the costume design of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist superheroes. Hint: there probably wouldn’t be a lot of Spandex.
(While I am not a big comic book reader, I highly recommend checking out THE 99. You can get the first issue, THE 99: Beginnings, for free at Comixology. If you want to hear more from Dr. Al-Mutawa about THE 99, watch his 2010 TED talk)