Can Comics Change the Arab World?

INTER-'NATH'-IONAL STUDIES

In light of the infamous Danish caricature crisis of 2005, one would expect cartooning to be a dicey practice in the Middle East. The scandal, which provoked reprinting and reprisal the world over, and which—according to some reports—led to more than 100 deaths, satirized the prophet Muhammed and broached the contentious permissibility of religious depiction by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

But recently, creative entrepreneurs in the Middle East have sought to recast cartoon strips as productive instruments of cultural change.

Combining Western looks—think Spider-Man and Batman—with regional and Islamic lore, these panels are designed to provide entertainment and education for youths both in the Arab world and abroad.

SECRET ORIGINS

The January/February 2007 issue of magazine Saudi Aramco World contains a feature article entitled “The Next Generation of Superheroes,” a piece which focuses on the efforts of writer Naif Al-Mutawa to rectify “the lack of heroes” in the Arab world. Al-Mutawa has established the Kuwait-based Teshkeel Media Group as a platform for a comics series called “The 99.”

It’s a project he sees as based on the intertwined mythologies of Islam and the Middle East and as a cultural bridge-builder.

But the series is not alone. “The 99,” which debuted last November, shares its hybridized market niche with “Zein: The Last Pharaoh,” a series produced by Cairo’s AK Comics since 2004. In the Summer 2006 issue of AUCtoday—the American University of Cairo’s newsletter—AK Comics CEO Ayman Kandeel articulated his desire to surmount “the lack of role models in the Middle East.”

But the purpose of the “Zein” series has another aspect: to end the dependency of Arab youth on Western countries for comic book culture.

To that end, the series tends to concern the interrelated specters of terrorism, crime, drug abuse, and corruption, sadly familiar to much of Zein’s readership. In response, the heroes of the series must make use of regional values, described in the magazine by co-manager Marwan El Nashar as “family values, heritage pride and history, as well as interaction in society.”

COMIC COLONIALISM?

But like the Teshkeel Media Group, AK Comics seeks also to transcend the cultural gap between (Middle) East and West, recently signing a distribution contract with a major American publisher.

The AUCtoday article fails to question the sagacity of using traditionally American images to formulate role models and cultural touchstones for Arab youths.

Indeed, many of the images depicted on the covers of AK Comics’ series share compositional similarities to the stock images of Marvel and DC classics. Similarly, according to the Saudi Aramco article, Al-Mutawa’s “The 99” features creative input from Tom DeFalco and Neal Adams, the former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics and a well-known DC Comics illustrator, respectively.

In 2005, Al-Mutawa’s media group was joined by Sven Larsen, former director of marketing and creative services at Marvel.

Perhaps most tellingly, the characters of “The 99” were originally drawn by Dan Panosian, also a contributor to Marvel hits like “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” and “The Hulk.”

WHAT PRICE VICTORY?

As such, there is a clear, indisputably American precedent for the images on the pages of “Zein” and “The 99.” Even so, Teshkeel Media and AK Comics are undertaking culturally productive projects that will benefit their readership.

And yet, there seems to be an implicit cultural tension in the grafting of Arab values to American superhero visuals.

If both companies seek to provide Arab role models for Arab youths, are their products compromised because they draw so heavily on an American form that embodies numerous American values?

Perhaps the inherent problems of this multifaceted identity are muted by the very existence of cartoon strips which emphasize Arab values for Arab heroes. But while it is tempting to hope for this justification, there is distinct visual evidence of American influence on Arab culture, consistent with the American political involvement in the region. The depth of this imprint remains to be seen.

We can hope that through the efforts of Kandeel, Al-Mutawa, and other like-minded creators, the enemies of state might return to their rightful place: within the panels.

—Staff writer Nathaniel Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at nhafrey@fas.harvard.edu.