Trauma, Politics and Heroes: A New Comic Book Paints Kids of Color as Superheroes with Powers from Islamic Knowledge

Article excerpt

I'M BIASED AGAINST COMIC BOOKS. I have refused to read them ever since I walked into the comic book store in my little hometown in New Jersey and saw page after page of white men with superpowers and tiny black eyes aiming fire at each other. I probably just looked at a few books, but it was enough to bias my 9-year-old mind against them for the next two decades. Comics, I decided, were nothing but a genre about superheroes for white boys.

The Boondocks changed my mind about comics, sort of. Aaron McGruder's Black and biracial kids talked about politics, race and parents the way my friends and I did--uncensored. I enjoyed it but then decided that it wasn't a real comic book. It wasn't about superheroes from communities of color and saving the world against evil with flashes of light that come out of your eyes. That's what I had wanted as a child and what, as an adult, I wasn't counting on anymore.

So, I felt amused and skeptical about The 99, a comic book whose creator, Naif Al-Mutawa, a psychologist turned writer and entrepreneur, purports to offer superheroes who are people of color with special powers derived from Islamic knowledge. The title and the series' press coverage caught my eye. The comic book was hailed by the major press outlets, and Al-Mutawa signed on people with experience in the comic book industry, including Fabian Nicieza, who wrote for the X-Men and Power Rangers. To boot, the company Al-Mutawa founded to distribute The 99--the Teshkeel Media Group based in Kuwait--is now the regional publisher there of Marvel Comics, producing comic books like Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arab.

The 99 is targeted to kids and adult fans in the Arabic-speaking world. Indeed, Al-Mutawa says that some people invested in his company and the idea of The 99 because they wanted something to counteract the sticker collections that featured suicide bombers as heroes. "We gave away thousands of copies of The 99 to children in Palestine through UNESCO on December 31st for the Eid Holiday, and we are on sale in those territories, as well," Al-Mutawa writes in an e-mail interview.

The series is also produced in English and formally hits the United States this fall. And, reading it, I've found it to be as much about imaginary superheroes as it is about psychology, trauma and politics.

The series starts in Baghdad, which is under attack--but not from Bush and an American army. The year is 1258 CE, and soldiers from East Asia are coming to tear down the Islamic city. But the evil-doers aren't content with only killing Muslims. They're going to tear down the center of knowledge, Baghdad's greatest library--Dar Al-Hikma. The Islamic leaders and librarians decide to make an alchemic stew in which they toss all the great books and distill the knowledge into 99 gemstones, known as the Noor Stones. In the Muslim religion, Allah has 99 attributes, including The Compassionate, The Merciful, The Pure and The Peaceful.

Baghdad is destroyed, but the gemstones are carried to Andalusia under the care of special guardians and kept there safely for generations. But then the blue-eyed Rughal is born. He becomes a scientist and tries to steal the power of the gemstones, only to cause an explosion that scatters the sacred stones around the world.

Now, centuries later, the gems are being found by people, mainly children, and the stones' powers are being activated. A girl in the United Arab Emirates finds the stone for light and can see through locks and walls and into people's souls. A Pakistani girl in London gets the stone that enables her brain to work like a mobile data device and a boy in South Africa finds the Noor Stone that enables him to activate people's capacity for healing. A Guyanese girl in Harlem gets the one that enables her to detect patterns, for example in crimes, while a white man in Canada finds the one that turns his brain into an ultrasensitive scanner.

The children don't know what's happening to them until they're found by Dr. …