U.S., Muslim superheroes meet at first Middle East ComicCon

Holy changing worlds, Batman! We're in Dubai!

Jess Holland By Jess Holland

From Batman’s Muslim sidekick Nightrunner, a French-Algerian parkour ace, to the recent takeover of World War Three Illustrated by artists from Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, comic-book characters from the Middle East have started seeping into the American consciousness.

The 99 meet The Justice League. (Courtesy of Teshkeel Media)

President Obama is a fan: he praised a 2010 crossover of Kuwaiti comic book  The 99 (superheroes with strengths derived from the ninety-nine attributes of Allah) with American heavyweight comics publisher DC Comic’s Justice League of America for its portrayal of “the teachings and tolerance of Islam.”

Still rare enough to set the blogosphere aflutter, this type of crossover may become more commonplace after this weekend. The inaugural Middle East Film & Comic Con (MEFCC) kicks off in Dubai Friday, and American writers have flown over to autograph their comics and meet their counterparts from the region, including Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, brains behind The 99, and Qais Sedki, creator of the United Arab Emirate’s first manga (a Japanese-style comic form).

Finding a collaborator is part of the plan for New Yorker Mark Sable, whose forthcoming adaption of Shakespeare’s cycle of Henry plays, Scimitar, is set among Arab princes. He will talk on a panel about character creation, and is looking forward to meeting fans from the region, having picked up blog hits from Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“Despite the fact the U.S. is heavily engaged in the Middle East, there have been very few comics set there,” Sable says in an email interview; his own comics include Graveyard of Empires, a zombie comic set in Afghanistan, and Unthinkable, in which Christian fundamentalists bomb Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.

A page from Graveyard of Empires. (Courtesy of Image Comics)

“I think that’s symptomatic of a larger problem in the culture: if you walk around the U.S., you wouldn’t know we’re involved in a war, unless you or your family are in the military, or you’re an Arab-American who’s being harassed,” Sable said. Captain America fought Nazis during comic books’ Golden Age, but now, Sable says, comics aren’t talking about contemporary conflicts – “I think out of fear of offending their audience.”

Americans abroad

One U.S. writer who shares Sable’s interest in the region is Chicago-born Merik Tadros, who will be leading comics-writing workshops at the MEFCC. River Jordan, his semi-autobiographical graphic novel about an Arab-American boy connecting with his father’s past, will be released in Arabic translation at the MEFCC; an English version is already out.

Other Americans at the event include Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery (co-creators of Kill Shakespeare) and Mark Smylie (Artesia). They’ll be joined by actors from fantasy TV series like “Game of Thrones,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Walking Dead” (that last based on a comic book).

As in America, the popularity of comics in the Arab world has come in waves. An Arabic-language Superman hit the Middle East in 1964, disguised as mild-mannered Nabil Fawzi, a reporter for Al-Kawkab Al Yawm. Circulation was in the hundreds of thousands.

By the 2000s, only a few thousand copies of Spiderman were selling, according to Dr. Al-Mutawa, whose publishing house, Teshkeel, put out Arabic versions of Marvel and DC comics. The company decided to develop The 99, and the comic took off. Its characters would go on to populate an internationally franchised TV program, an animated film and even a theme park in Kuwait.

When next we see our heroes…

Driving the genre’s revival in the Middle East  are not publishing giants looking to make a buck (although Marvel has a stall at the Con), but independent artists and writers often printing and distributing their stories themselves.

Hubs of activity are Algiers, which will host its fifth annual comics festival this year; Cairo, where there are plans to build a museum of cartooning, and Beirut, where the non-profit comics anthology Samandal is published in French, English and Arabic. Its stated aim is to “lift the stature of comics to that of a mature art form.”

Ben Caddy, the MEFCC’s British, Star Trek-loving co-organizer, hopes that in future years, the Con will attract more talent from these communities. This year, there are dozens of locals who will be setting up shop in Artist’s Alley, but only a handful of special guests who aren’t from the U.S. or UK.

Manga from the Middle East

Among these is Emirati Qais Sedki, whose Arabic-language manga Gold Ring tells the story of a young boy who takes part in a prestigious falconry competition. The book won a children’s literature award in 2010 and has just been translated into English; Sedki is now mentoring budding manga writers from the region.

Manga characters come to life as part of Abu Dhabi Anime Club's cosplay. (Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Anime Club)

While there’s no longer a market for single-issue comics, collected volumes and manga books are available in the Gulf’s bigger bookstores. Anime, or Japanese animation, is even more ubiquitous, and there are clubs devoted to the Japanese art form in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Tunisia.

“We are taking over the Arab world now,” says Maha Ismail, a member of Abu Dhabi’s anime club, who will be dressing up as Villetta Nu – think silver side-ponytail and a purple robe – for the MEFCC’s cosplay competition. “My family didn’t like the idea at first, because it’s not in our Muslim culture or tradition,” she says, but now “as long as my costume is not revealing they’re OK with it.”

Translating comics and making them available around the world can be a powerful tool against xenophobia according to Dr. Al-Mutawa, who made sure his characters in The 99 were from a multitude of countries and embodied universal values.

“By telling stories you can change an entire generation,” he says. “You know the saying the squeaky wheel gets the attention? We’ve had an exploding wheel. For me, it’s about challenging that with fun, entertaining stuff, so that my own children can feel proud of their culture.”