An earlier version of this article about a Kuwaiti comic-book creator, Naif al-Mutawa, misstated the number of degrees he has earned. He has one doctorate and three master's degrees.
Author Looks to the Koran For 99 New Superheroes
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
KUWAIT CITY -- Naif al-Mutawa was in a London taxi with his sister when she asked when he'd go back to writing children's books. Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist with two doctorates and an MBA from Columbia, said the question sparked a chain of thoughts:
To go back to writing after all that education, it would have to be something big, something with the potential of Pokémon, the Japanese cartoon that was briefly banned by Saudi religious authorities. God would have been disappointed by that, he thought; God has 99 attributes, or names, including tolerance.
"And then the idea formed in my mind," Mutawa said. "Heroes with the 99 attributes."
He mixed his deep religious faith, business acumen and firsthand experience with other cultures -- his childhood summers were spent at a predominantly Jewish camp in New Hampshire -- to create The 99, a comic-book series about superheroes imbued with the 99 attributes of God. Those traits represent one of Islam's most recognizable concepts.
Mutawa's superheroes are modern, secular and spiritual, moving seamlessly between East and West. They come from 99 countries and are split between males and females.
The heroes include Darr the Afflicter, an American paraplegic named John Wheeler, who manipulates nerve endings to transmit or prevent pain. Noora the Light -- Dana Ibrahim, a university student from the United Arab Emirates -- shows people the light and dark inside themselves. Mumita the Destroyer, a ferocious fighter, is Catarina Barbarosa, a Portuguese bombshell in tight clothes.
They distribute aid to starving Afghan villagers, battle elephant poachers in Africa, fight the evil Rughal and train to increase their powers.
"I wanted to create something that would be a classic, not another made-in-the-fifth-world product," said Mutawa, 37, who has four sons. "It was either going to be Spiderman or nothing."
After returning from London to Kuwait, Mutawa raised $7 million -- some from his old Columbia classmates, the rest from Persian Gulf investors -- and set up the Teshkeel media group in 2004. He hired some of the best people in the industry, including writers and artists who had worked at Marvel and DC Comics. His current writing partner, Stuart Moore, is a writer on the new Iron Man comics.
In November 2006, Mutawa's first comic book hit the newsstands.
Since then, his creation has gained many fans but also faced a rumble of criticism across the Muslim world. Some have disapproved of heroines' makeup and tight clothing. Others view the personification of God's attributes as blasphemous. One Kuwaiti cleric said the series promotes reliance on humans instead of God, counter to the Koran's teachings.
Mutawa acknowledges he did not consult a cleric before creating the series. "We should not allow a very limited number of people to tell us how to practice our religion. An Islam where I can be an active participant is the only Islam I can belong to. I believe in Islam and I also believe in evolution," he said, sitting in his office in a traditional long white robe and headdress.