Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Origin Story: Wham! Bam! Islam!

In late 2005, intolerant Islamists were calling for the death of twelve Danish cartoonists who dared depict Muhammad in terms that would have been considered mild had they been applied to Christ by Bill Maher or Ricky Gervais. It was a hard to time be raising seed capital for an Islamic comic-book featuring super-heroes whose powers corresponded to the ninety-nine attributes of Allah, but that is where Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa found himself. The birth and growing pains of THE 99, Al-Mutawa’s Islamic super team, are documented in Isaac Solotaroff’s Wham! Bam! Islam! (promo here), which launches the tenth season of PBS’s Independent Lens, on its new night this coming Thursday.

The dearth of legitimate hero figures for young Islamic children concerned Al-Mutawa. He was particularly appalled by news reports of a sticker book sold to Palestinian children glorifying suicide bombers and demonizing Israelis. As he explains, THE 99 were conceived to fill that void with positive, life-affirming Muslim super-role models.

A feel good project, Al-Mutawa attracted decent support from Kuwaiti investors and recruited several Marvel Comics alumni. Yet, the project faced considerable opposition from Islamist quarters. Al-Mutawa and his team repeatedly stress their characters do not have the power of Allah. Rather they have the heightened but still imperfect human traits corresponding to each attribute. It seems this distinction was rather lost on the fatwa-issuing set. Of course, their uniforms could never be loose-fitting and modest enough to pass muster and the uncovered faces of the heroines were unacceptable under any circumstances.

In addition to examining the clash of culture and religion, Wham is very much a business story. It was frequently unclear whether Al-Mutawa’s Teshkeel Comics would make a go of it not, but it appears the international publicity THE 99 generated created enough brand awareness to draw more investment and open up the Saudi market. Yet, one wonders at what price? Suddenly, there is almost no conflict of any kind in the comic books, as per the instructions of the Islamic advisors. Indeed, the special English language origins issue is not merely tame. It is frankly dull.

The truth is the Indonesian publication of I Found the Meaning of Jihad, the life story of former terrorist turned counter-radicalization activist Nasir Abas, raises the bar for moderate Islamic comics. Simply being pleasant and ostensibly peaceful pales in comparison to his forthright repudiation of Islamic terror.

It is pretty fascinating to watch Al-Mutawa build a mini-empire atop a brand name with relatively few readers. Solotaroff clearly had ready access to the Teshkeel team, capturing them at some of their lowest moments. He keeps it all moving along briskly and includes some cool animated sequences to help set the mood. Still, just how significant THE 99 will really be remains a much more open question than Wham would have us believe. A bit boosterish, but undeniably intriguing viewing just the same, Wham airs on most PBS outlets this Thursday (10/13) as part of the new season of Independent Lens.