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TEDGlobal: Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and the 99

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is creating one of the world’s most interesting comic books, The 99. (I had the chance to see him at Pop!Tech last year, and my wife Rachel blogged his talk.) He tells us that, in 2010, the Islamic heroes of the 99 will be teaming up with the Justice League.

This isn’t as weird as you think. The Justice League were superheroes fighting against totalitarianism, created mostly by Jewish authors. And these superheroes have something in common with the prophets – they were orphans, and they were given inspiration from above (think of the spider descending to bite Peter Parker.)

The ultimate heroes of The 99 are a group of librarians, who tried to save the knowledge of the Muslim world, and manage to encapsulate some of the power into a set of 99 stones. Those stones spread across the world in the medieval ages. And now there are 99 stones and 99 heroes located throughout the world. The wisdom wasn’t just Arab wisdom – they were the wisest texts from all lands.

The 99 Noor stones have special, mystical powers. You don’t choose them – they choose you. When you discover and start using the stones, you inevitably start abusing it – it’s about the challenge of managing the power you have. The stones have a self-updating mechanism – this is a vision of the Quaran as a living, breathing document. The enemy in the series is determined to prevent the stones from updating themselves, and is trying to create a conformist, consistent army.

The 99 work in teams of three. Why three? In Islam, you don’t leave a boy and a girl alone together, because the third person then is the devil. So the teams are boy-boy-girl, girl-girl-boy, etc. Al-Mutawa has gotten criticized for having subtle trinitarian theory in his work – you can’t please everyone.

Each superhero is from a different country and has different powers. The Yemeni character has his Saudi/Yemeni wife’s eyes – her special power is hiding and invisibility.

Al-Mutawa tells us that he was determined that “this wouldn’t be a fifth-world quality” production. The people drawing the comic are some of the top inkers and colorists in the American comics world.

It was a struggle to get media attention for The 99… up until the Danish cartoons controversy, which helped turn Al-Mutawa into a trending topic. The comics are now licensed in eight languages, and there’s now a theme park in Kuwait based on the characters. The biggest thing done to date is a cartoon series, done with 3D CGI, written by the writers of Spiderman and the recent Star Wars films (oh no!).

Al-Mutawa is trained as a psychologist and worked with survivors of torture. The terrible thing about torture, he tells us, is that your hero is who is hurting you. We need heroes from Islam who don’t embody extremism. He tells us a story about putting two stories of religious extremism in front of a Kuwaiti audience, and asks the audience where these stories came from. They assume the stories are from Islamic nations. One was about Hindu extremists, the other about Orthodox jews in upstate New York, but the Kuwaiti’s saw the behavior as “Talibanization”. We need a vision of Islam, a set of positive linkages to the Quaran that change kids from being proud of suicide bombers and be proud of comic book heroes.

We see the cover of the upcoming DC comics crossover, which shows Batman, Superman and “a fully clothed Wonder Woman” and heroes from the 99. This sort of crossover prompted Barack Obama to recognize Al-Mutawa as an innovator where the Muslim world is crossing over and talking back to the West.