For comic book readers in Arab countries, the world often looks like this: Superheroes save US cities, battle beasts in Tokyo, and even on occasion solve crimes in the French countryside. But few care about saving the Arab world.
If Naif al-Mutawa has his way, that is about to change. Young Arabs will soon be poring over a new group -- and new genre -- of superheroes like Jabbar, Mumita and Ramzi Razem, all aimed specifically at young Muslim readers and focusing on Muslim virtues.
Mutawa's Teshkeel Media, based in Kuwait, says that in September it will begin publishing The 99, a series of comic books based on superhero characters that battle injustice and fight evil, with each character personifying one of the 99 qualities that Muslims believe God embodies.
A burly, fast-talking Kuwaiti with a dry wit, Mutawa, 34, said existing superheroes fall into two main genres: the Judaeo-Christian archetype of individuals with enormous power who are often disguised or outcasts, like Superman, and the Japanese archetype of small characters who rely on each other to become powerful, like Pokemon.
His superhero characters will be based on an Islamic archetype: by combining individual Muslim virtues -- everything from wisdom to generosity -- they build collective power that is ultimately an expression of the divine.
"Muslims believe that power is ultimately God, and God has 99 key attributes," Mutawa said. "Those attributes, if they all come together in one place, essentially become the unity of God."
He stresses that only God has them all, however, and 30 of the traits deemed uniquely divine will not be embodied by his characters.
Still, this is tricky territory. Muslim religious authorities reject attempts to personify the powers of God or combine the word of God in the Koran with new myths or imaginative renderings more typical of the West.
But Mutawa is seeking to reach youngsters who are straddling the cultural divide between East and West. They like comics and Western entertainment, and yet are attached to their roots and intend to hold on to their customs. He, too, faced that divide, going to summer camp in New Hampshire in the 1980s -- he says his parents wanted him to lose weight -- while grappling with Arab culture and pressures.
In his flowing white robe and traditional Arab headdress, Mutawa looks every bit the Kuwaiti; when he opens his mouth, however, he is every bit the New Yorker who spent his formative years reading comics and much of his adult life in the US, training as a psychologist at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York and writing a series of children's books on assimilation, race and prejudice.
With three boys and a fourth child due soon, Mutawa says he wants his children to be able to find a balance between East and West.
Mutawa, an avid reader of Archie and other comics, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and an MBA from Columbia University, dreamed up his Muslim superheroes during a taxi ride in 2003 with his sister, Samar, in London.
The story concerns 99 gems encoded with the wisdom of Baghdad just as the Mongols are invading the city in the 13th century -- in his version, to destroy the city's knowledge.
The characters in The 99 are not all Arabs, but Muslims from all over the world. Jabbar, the enforcer, is a hulking figure from Saudi Arabia with the power to grow immense at a sneer; Mumita is a bombshell from Portugal with unparalleled agility and a degree of bloodlust; Noora, from the United Arab Emirates, can read the truth in what people say and help them to see the truth in themselves.