Article first published as The 99: Beginnings - Islamic Superheroes on Technorati.
The 99, Teshkeel Comics's effort to create a Muslim superhero comic book series modeled on those long a staple of western pop culture, is the brainchild of Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist and business man educated in the west. His story—the development of the idea and his efforts to make that idea a reality, his successes and his setbacks—is the subject of the documentary Wham! Bam! Islam! to be aired on the season opener of PBS's Independent Lens, Thursday, Oct. 13th at 10 o'clock.
Al-Mutawa's idea was to create a comic that would present the positive values of Islam. The members of The 99 were each to represent one of the 99 attributes of Allah. Each attribute would endow the hero or heroine with a super power, which they would use to fight against evil. The 99: Beginnings is a special issue devoted to the introduction of all the 99's members and the group's back story.
The heroes come from countries all over the world and they range in age from sub-teens through to the early 20's. Some examples: Jabbar the Powerful, whose power is supernatural strength, is 19 and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Wakila the Guardian, whose power is the ability to turn discrimination back on the offender, is a ten year old girl from Bhutan. Darr the Afflictor is a 22 year old from the U.S.A. who is in a wheel chair as a result of an accident his family had with a drunk driver. His power is the ability of inflict or absorb pain. Most of the issue is spent on these introductions. It shows them dealing with the initial recognition that they have an unusual power. It really doesn't show them in action in a full blown narrative.
What there is in the way of story comes from the group's leader, Dr. Ramzi Razem. He describes his own early fascination with the Noor stones which are the sources of the powers. As a young boy, he was taken on a trip to Andalusia where he heard stories of the Caliphate of Cordoba and Seville's great centers of learning and culture, especially the Husn Al-Ma'rifa, the fortress of knowledge where the stones became part of its golden dome. The explanation of how the stones got their powers and how they came to the fortress, its eventual destruction and the stones' dispersal over the world is intertwined with the introductions of the various heroes. It is this legendary tale that is by far the most interesting and exciting part of the issue.
The comic itself is drawn much in the style of the western models. This is intentional. The Independent Lens documentary introduces some of the Marvel Comics veterans that Al-Mutawa hired to being his vision to fruition. Visually there is little to distinguish The 99 from Superman and his ilk. It is in the positive representation of Islamic values through this team of engaging, young multi-cultural heroes that the series aims to distinguish itself.