Burqa-Clad Superhero Batina the Hidden Meets Wonder Woman, the Not So Hidden
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti clinical psychologist living in the United States created The 99 in 2007 — comic book superheroes born from an Islamic archetype. The comics have taken off with an animated TV series on its way and a recent partnership with Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League of America. Al-Mutawa writes in "Concentration Camps and Comic Books":
"Imagine the good that can come from a frank conversation between THE 99’s burqa clad hero, Batina the Hidden, and JLA’s Wonder Woman the, well, the not so hidden. If we can show how perceptions are unfairly formed, we can take great leaps in a single bound towards transforming them. And what better characters to explore such issues than Superman and Batman who were created by Jewish young men from New York and Cleveland at the height of anti-Semitism and THE 99 who were created by a Muslim during the height of Islamophobia."
In his recent TEDTalk (featured above), he shares that his primary goal, though, is to improve the way Muslims self-identify. He tells a story (about minute 13) of a time when he asked students at the University of Kuwait to geographically place two negative news stories and interviews. The students incorrectly guessed they took place in the Middle East:
"But, what breaks my heart and what’s alarming is that, in those two interviews, the people around, who were interviewed as well, refer to that behavior as Talibanization. In other words, good Hindus and good Jews don’t act this way. This is Islam’s influence on Hinduism and Judaism. But what do the students in Kuwait say? They said it’s us. And this is dangerous. It’s dangerous when a group self-identifies itself as extreme.
Keep watching the blog for an upcoming interview with Naif Al-Mutawa in the coming weeks.
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I spent many years absorbed in the world of comic books. Then, after a while, I got sick of the futility of the superhero genre, where nothing of significance ever happened to these heroes. We know that Superman is invulnerable, but most other characters have "character shields" too. You know this from Star Trek (which I also can’t stand): Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Ensign Smith descend onto a planet (you know what happens next). Nothing ever happened to Kirk or the others because they’re commercial properties, not dramatic ones. Commercial properties can’t die.
In any case, I do think the superhero genre — one slice of the medium but by far the most commercially successful — can have moments of superb storytelling, like the mythic Kingdom Come, or the postmodern Astro City, that take on comic books that was grounded in the stories of everyday people. The "Confession" storyline was a favorite of mine. I’m also immersed in the first season of Heroes on DVD (now don’t tell me what happens!).
Comic books are also a global phenomenon, huge in Japan for example as a serious art form. Now there’s even this apparently wildly popular Muslim comic (if I can call it that) called The 99. It’s a secular adventure/superhero comic about a group of 99 individuals who gain special powers through these special stones, each one of which reflects on the the Divine Names of God as found in Islamic theology.
As it turns out, Forbes recently mentioned The 99 as one of the biggest trends of 2008.
I personally find enjoyment from art that starts out in a neutral place and ends up having this beautiful undertone to it that gives me something more to think about, whether it’s religious, spiritual, scientific, philosophical, sociological — the list goes on and on. The archetypal X-Men storyline, for example, is about minority rights, identity and engagement. Chris Claremont, the legendary X-Men writer, said:
The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.
The everyday X-Men storyline, on the other hand, is often a bit more along the lines of a superpowered soap opera, or even Star Trek.
I’m not saying I’m going back to the superhero genre, because I think graphic novels are far more interesting (though I have no time to read them). Watchmen said all that can be said, I think, about the superhero genre, and is in my opinion the finest superhero comic (and possible comic, period) ever written. It plays with the genre and injects the kind of mise en scène we expect from high cinema like Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m much more interested in work that is visual art proper, like Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Still, I’ve downloaded the preview of The 99 off the website and plan to read it. It’s a case of popular art drawing from an Islamic base, as opposed to, say, something like Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code, or what have you, that draw from exclusively Judeo-Christian bases.