DC Comics' Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are joining forces with Islamic-inspired superheroes The 99 this week. Carole Cadwalladr meets their creator, Dr Naif al-Mutawa
The Observer, Sunday 24 October 2010
Even if you deliberately set out to try to dream up the least probable superhero ever, it's unlikely that you'd manage to come up with a character as far-fetched as Batina the Hidden. Forget Wonder Worm, or a man born with the powers of a newt, Batina is a superhero of a kind the world hasn't until now seen. It's not just that she's a Muslim woman, from a country best known for harbouring al-Qaida operatives – Yemen – but that she wears an altogether new kind of super-person costume: a burqa.
She, along with her fellow crime-fighters, a vast team of characters from around the world, including Jabbar the Powerful from Saudi Arabia and Hadya the Guide from London, collectively known as "The 99", are the world's first Islam-inspired superheroes. And this week, in what is perhaps the ultimate comic-book accolade, they will join forces with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. DC Comics, the US publishing giant, will publish the first of six special crossover issues in which The 99 will be fighting crime alongside the Justice League of America, the fictional superhero team that includes Superman and Batman.
What's even more remarkable is that The 99 only came into being in 2007 with some remarkable firsts: the first comic book superheroes to have Muslim names and be directed at an international audience and the first to come out of the Middle East. Crossovers don't happen often and even less often with characters that are just three years old. Even The 99's creator and mastermind, a Kuwaiti-born, American-educated psychologist and entrepreneur called Naif al-Mutawa, seems to be having some trouble believing the Superman link-up.
"For me, there's a nerd part and a business part. On a business level, it's pretty exciting to be acknowledged as having created something that's considered to be on a level with something that's been around 50 years or more. And that obviously has business ramifications. But the nerd part is the thing that makes my eyes light up."
In his official photographs, Mutawa can seem a rather serious, forbidding figure, but in the flesh, he's talkative verging on garrulous. And he genuinely does seem thrilled. "It is pretty amazing: our characters are going to be hanging out with Batman and Superman!"
It's a fact that becomes steadily more amazing the more contact I have with DC Comics, part of Time Warner, the largest media company in the world. They have a huge office in New York that functions pretty much as the nerve centre of the American and, therefore, global comic industry. I'm due to meet Naif in the city – he lives in Kuwait but bases himself in the US for at least three months a year – but, no, I cannot visit DC's office and, no, I cannot talk to anyone on the phone and, no, I do not have permission to interview the writer who storyboarded the special issue or question anyone on how the crossover came to occur. I can send my questions in an email, which I do and the deadline comes and then goes with no official response forthcoming.
It's a vast corporate entity and it is therefore all the more impressive that somehow – and I have no idea how – Mutawa managed to inveigle himself into the heart of it. But according to Isaac Solotaroff, an American film-maker who's spent a large part of the last five years shadowing him for a documentary on The 99 – called Wham, Bam, Islam, due to be broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service network next year – Naif could probably sell them their own office furniture.
"He's very smart, but he's also a truly remarkable salesman. He will tell you a story that he's already told a thousand times before, that he's already told 100 times that day, and he will tell it as if it's the first time. It's a phenomenal quality and I think that comes from a place of conviction."
That conviction is that nobody from the outside is going to save Islam from its more extremist elements – it's going to have to save itself. And The 99, featuring 99 characters based on the 99 attributes of Allah, is, he hopes, that means: a way of focusing on the positive aspects of the religion, of inculcating peaceful, life-giving virtues in children and of presenting a peaceful, tolerant, multicultural version of Islam to the rest of the world.
It's a conviction that has seen him so far raise in excess of $30m in three rounds of funding from private investors, fight off a ban in Saudi Arabia (he's subsequently been re-banned but he's fighting it again), and persuaded Endemol, the company behind Big Brother, to produce a multimillion-dollar, 26-part animated series, which in the new year will be shown on Hub, the US network previously known as Discovery Kids that goes into 60 million American homes.
Andy Ward, the executive producer of the animation, says Mutawa "talks faster than anybody I know. And his brain seems to work faster. And he's totally committed. He's put his whole life on the line to do this". He calls him a "visionary". But so too does Barack Obama. The president singled out Mutawa for praise at a summit on entrepreneurship in Washington earlier this year designed to help deepen ties between American companies and the Muslim world, praising him for capturing "the imagination of so many young people with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam".
It was an extraordinary moment for Mutawa. "I had no idea it was coming," he says. "Nobody prepped me. Apparently, I was supposed to stand up, but I didn't know."
But he's well qualified to provide a bridge between Middle East and west. He's a genuine product of both worlds, or, as Solotaroff calls him, "a hybrid". "He's infused with American values and yet he went back home," he points out. "There are a whole lot of Arabs who come to study in America and stay, but he's very rooted to Kuwait. He has a very western sensibility but he's pulled between two worlds and I think this has always been the case. My armchair psychologist's view is that he is trying to reconcile these two worlds and has done his entire life.
"And if anybody is well placed to take that on, it's Naif."
Mutawa was born into a prominent, well-to-do Kuwaiti family. His father was what he terms "an investor" and his mother a philosophy teacher ("That's where the crazy stuff comes from"). But he was exposed to American culture from a young age, attending an annual summer camp in New Hampshire. It was his parents' choice and they sent him back year after year, without ever realising that their son was the sole Arab at a predominantly Jewish summer camp. "I mean, it wasn't religiously Jewish, it was culturally Jewish, but we were just kids. There was no way of knowing. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I figured it out."
It was, by his own admission, a profoundly life-informing experience, not least because he was, he says, probably the only Arab child ever to grow up traumatised by the Holocaust. "It had an impact because what I learned at summer school was so inconsistent with what I learned at school in Kuwait."
What sort of things? "Like, 'What are the physical characteristics of Jewish people?' That was an exam question."
What was the answer supposed to be? I ask.
"Sssh," he says, looking around, genuinely alarmed. "We're in New York now. You know… certain antisemitic stuff. And when I wrote, 'Two eyes, two ears and a nose', it was the only time I got less than an A in religion."
It's this experience of difference, of being foreign and different and yet also accepted and welcomed, that's informed so much of what came later. A fundamental interest in what makes people tick led him to study psychology at Tufts University, near Boston, during which time his country was invaded by Iraq, and later pursue a doctorate, winning scholarships all along the way, eventually taking up a post at the Survivors of Political Torture unit of Bellevue hospital in New York. There, he treated soldiers who had been part of Saddam's invading army.
"There's a consistent thread which shadows self-perception because you grow up with this hero, Saddam, who's everywhere and then you get tortured by him. What does that mean? That's pretty intense stuff."
It was also pretty intense work. "I didn't really realise how much it was affecting me until I went to see a movie, Three Kings, with George Clooney. There was a torture scene and I just couldn't sit through it. Nobody else was sensitive to it, but I just couldn't watch it. And I thought, 'OK, I need a break' and that was when I went to business school."
At business school, he came up with his masterplan – to create a Kuwaiti company to conquer the Arab nutraceutical market. "But then America invaded Iraq and trying to raise investment during a war didn't make sense," he says. That's when he had his flash of inspiration. More precisely, it was in the back of a cab travelling from Edgware Road to Harrods or, as he calls it, "a pilgrimage that every Kuwaiti must make at least once a year".
Writing had always been his passion and in his 20s he'd written a satirical allegory about a place called Bouncyland, where everyone is round, apart from one character who is semi-circular, a quality for which he's singled out and vilified. "I wrote it for adults but it won an honourable mention from Unesco for children's literature, and somehow I became a kids' writer."
But two later books ended up being banned – he'd had the temerity to suggest that characters in a place called Tieland where everyone wears the ties of their father, should adapt to a more modern form of dress – and he'd given it up. "And my sister said, 'Naif, you said that after school, you'd go back to writing.' And I said for me to go back now, after three master degrees and a doctorate, it would have to be something with the potential of Pokémon.
"Which was basically my way of saying, 'Shut up.' The idea of being a writer in Kuwait, where I'd been censored before, was not going to happen. But then I began to free associate. And I said 'Pokémon' and remembered there had been a fatwa against Pokémon. And I thought, 'My God what has happened to Islam? Who is making these random decisions?' And my next thought was Allah, God, and how disappointed he must be. My next thought was that God had 99 attributes and by the time I got to Harrods, I was like, 'I've got it!'"
It was only much later that he realised there were certain parallels between his creation and that of Superman and Batman. They were dreamed up by Jewish young men in the 1930s as fascism threatened to engulf the world: super-beings who were sent to save the world from evil. And they, too, seemingly drew their inspiration, whether consciously or not, from certain religious archetypes. Superman, for example, was sent to Earth in a pod, a device that academics and fans for years have argued echoes Moses in a basket.
But like Superman and Batman, there's no overt religion in The 99. Characters never pray. No one's religion is ever mentioned. And although Batina wears the burqa, as most women in Yemen do, and a couple of the other female characters wear headscarves, it's planned that the majority won't (half the characters will eventually be female, but only a handful have so far been introduced).
The characters are "inspired by Islam" rather than "Islamic". "I've never used that word," says Mutawa. But as Andy Ward, the executive producer at Endemol in charge of the animation, says: "Kids aren't interested in that anyway. We respected Naif's motivation but at the same time we had to make sure that it was something that people would want to watch. That it's not worthy or dull, that there's lots of action."
According to Stan Berkowitz, the Emmy award-winning screenwriter of The 99 animation, who has written countless series of Batman and Superman, there's no real difference to writing Superman than there is writing the likes of Batina the Hidden and Noora the Light. "Honestly, the only difference is in the specifics. It's the exact same thing – telling compelling stories and creating characters that are believable. There's virtually no difference at all.
"For me the only challenge was the locations. HL Mencken said that war is God's way of teaching Americans geography. Well, The 99 was for me."
The crossover issue of the Justice League of America will hit the news-stands on Wednesday, the culmination of an inspired piece of deal-making by Mutawa. In February last year, he went to Paul Levitz, the then president of DC and made his pitch. "I said, 'Marvel pulled a cheap shot because they put out a picture of Obama with Spider-Man on inauguration day. But I said, you, Paul, can fulfil Obama's vision of bringing these two worlds closer.' And I pitched him my idea. And he loved it."
The crossover is, says Matthew J Smith, the author of a standard textbook on the subject, The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, quite a feat. "It's pretty rare. The last one, I think, was in the 90s. He's been welcomed into the fold. DC is part of the most powerful media company in the world, so it's quite a thing."
Especially considering the obstacles. Creating new superheroes is fraught with difficulties. "There's a limited market. And we already have these recognised icons. What's interesting is that DC wouldn't be doing this if it didn't think there was a substantial PR or financial benefit, most likely both. And that's interesting. What you have to remember is that Superman is a powerful icon who captures our imagination, but he's also a revenue stream."
But according to Jack Shaheen, emeritus professor of mass communication at Southern Illinois University, and the author of several books including Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11, its significance shouldn't be underestimated. "It couldn't be more significant. All these cartoon superheroes have beaten up on Arab villains at some point in the past. All of them: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman – particularly Batman. They've all had stories in which they've confronted evil Arabs and overcome. This is an incredibly important step. It's a long overdue and necessary corrective. I really do believe that this could be a first step towards change. Naif didn't just sit there and say, 'How awful.' He's done something about it."
Shaheen has spent more than 40 years examining the ways that Arabs and Muslims have been demonised in American culture. "I'm 75 and there has never been a worse time than this. You can say anything you want about a Muslim or an Arab on national television and you can get away with it, which I think is quite tragic."
It is extraordinary that in a country that is so sensitive to racial or ethnic slights, where any hint of antisemitism can fell a Hollywood actor's career, and racist epithets are rigorously policed, that Arabs, including Arab-Americans, are considered fair game, as evidenced by a slew of recent articles on The 99. Its existence and the fact that it's to be shown on a mainstream American television channel, has, in the last week, caught the attention of the religious right. Or as a columnist Andrea Peyser put it in the New York Post earlier this month: "Hide your face and grab the kids. Coming soon to a TV in your child's bedroom is a posse of righteous, sharia-compliant Muslim superheroes… these Islamic butt-kickers are ready to bring truth, justice and indoctrination to impressionable western minds."
Meanwhile, the Patriot Post blog wonders whether the "old-fashioned values" it promises are "'old-fashioned values' such as honour killings and suicide bombings"?
It seems likely that a media firestorm is brewing. On forums last week, DC comics faced accusations of "Muslim pandering" and "treachery", but that's the salient feature of The 99, not just that they're superheroes from four continents fighting crime wherever they find it, but that they – and Mutawa – have to fight enemies and overcome resistance from both the east and the west. "One of the tough things is that people always think I'm working for someone else. In America, it's like, 'Sure, they're private investors.' Back home, they think I'm working for the Americans and here they think I'm working for some sort of Islamic agenda."
It's not just resistance from the likes of the Saudi government but from within his own family. His mother and wife don't cover their heads, but he has cousins who he describes as "hardline-no-pictures-in-the-house-big-beard-Muslims" who tried to dissuade him from his project.
"One of them came to me and his point was that only God can be more powerful than man and why not make the characters pieces of fruit or pencils? And I said, 'Go away, Abdullah. You are not my target market. If you don't like it, don't buy it.'"
For Mutawa, it's a question of freedom of speech. "In Kuwait, it's so sad, it's funny. When I was growing up, Animal Farm was banned. At least in the Soviet Union they understood the problem was that it's about anti-totalitarianism, whereas in Kuwait it was banned because it had a pig on the cover."
In order to try to gain acceptance in the region, he successfully sought part of his funding from an Islamic investment bank with a sharia board. It's this that has led to accusatory headlines in America about children being indoctrinated by "sharia-compliant cartoons". But countering negative perceptions of Islam in the west is, he says, only his secondary concern.
"It's a long-term goal, but it was never my primary plan. That has always been to try to fix Islam from the inside." In this, he's not unlike a certain Dr Ramzi Razem, the leader of The 99, a psychologist, like Mutawa, who sports a beard, like Mutawa, and wears glasses, like Mutawa.
Where on earth did you find your inspiration for him? I joke. The physical resemblance is a coincidence, he says, although a colleague helpfully pointed out that "he's taller and thinner than you'll ever be", but metaphorically, they're not so different. "In that Dr Ramzi is trying to use The 99 to better humanity then, yes, there is a parallel to what I'm doing," he says.