Until recently, the Middle East and North Africa have been featured mainly as tropes in Western comic books.
Characters have included marginal villains or expendable figures battling heroic protagonists, like Batman’s Ra’s al Ghul (“Demon’s Head”) and Ibn al-Xu’ffasch (“Son of the Bat”).
But in recent years, the US comic book industry has started to integrate and prominently feature Muslim and Arab heroes in their plots. Ms Marvel, revamped from a white woman named Carol Danvers into a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan, has been a consistent bestseller for Marvel Comics.
More significantly, the Muslim and Arab world has begun constructing more of its own comic superheroes, as the demand for comic books burgeons in the Middle East.
Social problems specific to the countries from which the comics originate are often placed dead-centre in the narratives. For instance, Deena Mohamed’s Qahera is a veiled crusader who not only battles sexism in Egypt, where an estimated 99 percent of women have faced sexual harassment, but also rails against Islamophobia.
And Joumana Medlej’s Malaak: Angel of Peace revolves around a superheroine who combats jinn – a type of spirit in Islamic cosmology – while trapped in an alternate reality of endless war, much like Lebanon during its long civil war.
While growing demand for comic books in the Middle East has been tied to Western icons and productions, homegrown comic culture has simultaneously been gaining appeal.
This April, the annual Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) in Dubai was at its most popular since its inception in 2012, drawing around 50,000 attendees to Dubai’s World Trade Centre. That surpasses last year’s attendance by almost 40 percent, making the convention one of the highest-profile pop culture events in the region.
International celebrities like William Shatner and Gillian Anderson were a big draw for their iconic sci-fi roles. But the convention also featured Sohaib Awan, who introduced his digital comic Jinnrise there in 2012 and then showed its animated series pilot this year.
The comic follows a cosmic battle between an invading race of aliens, the Kibrani, who inflict fear using modern technology, and a despised forgotten race of jinn – all witnessed through the eyes of an international student in Morocco.
Taking a cue from MEFCC, the Dubai-based Al Ahli Publishing and Distribution obtained the rights to take best-selling comic books and introduce them in Arabic, as part of a programme run by the United Arab Emirates government to promote the use of Arabic language through pop culture.
Al Ahli is the first company outside the US to have the publishing rights for popular international comic books in English and Arabic. Marvel’s Ironman, Spiderman, Hulk, Thor and The Avengers have already been published in Arabic.
While some have pointed to 9/11 as the main reason behind the rise of characters and settings from the Arab and Muslim world in Western comics, this theory does not account for the surge in comic productions from the region. Awan, the producer of Jinnrise, names globalisation and diversity as factors in the rising interest in Muslim and Arab characters from both the West and Middle East.
“Storytellers recognise our becoming a smaller world when it comes to entertainment,” he told Al Jazeera. “As a result, they are tailoring their stories to be inclusive rather than exclusive. In addition, each culture offers a potential fresh take on well-known themes and stories. There may be only a certain number of stories to tell, but cultural diversity offers a myriad of ways to tell them.”
MEFCC’s public relations director, Arafaat Ali Khan, echoed this sentiment.
Each culture offers a potential fresh take on well-known themes and stories. There may be only a certain number of stories to tell, but cultural diversity offers a myriad of ways to tell them.
“Interests, when it comes to what people expect from pop culture and entertainment in general, have become more diversified,” he said. “I believe that there is a want for new and interesting stories and characters wherever their origins may lie, which means that stories and characters from our part of the world are becoming more prevalent in mainstream titles.”
Comic books have also become more popular worldwide in recent years, a trend that has been reflected in higher sales in the Middle East. Digital versions of comics have made them more accessible than ever, and the platforms on which stories are told have become more diverse.
“One cannot underestimate the impact of transmedia [storytelling across different platforms like television, video games and film]. These projects based on or inspired by comic books are now introducing mainstream audiences to comic books like never before,” Awan said.
Khan has also noted an increase in venues for comic fans in Dubai.
“We’ve seen a number of new stores focused on comic books, comic-related merchandise and more surface over the last few years as Comic Con has grown,” he said.
Besides MEFCC, region-wide institutional support has been growing.
Last year, the American University in Beirut (AUB) began a new academic programme focused on Arab comic art, the Mutaz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative.
In Algeria, the popularity of manga, or Japanese comics, led to the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d’Algiers, where fans from all over the world have been gathering to see exhibits of their favourite artists since 2008.
Some comic series originating in the Middle East, however, have been received negatively.
In 2006, Naif al-Mutawa launched The 99 from Kuwait, a comic about heroes who display superpowers based on the 99 attributes of Allah, such as generosity, faith, and wisdom. The title of the Arabic version is without the definite article “the”, because its use is exclusive to God, according to Islamic tradition.
Even though this served to emphasise the mortality of the characters, the comic’s author became a target of fatwas and death threats, and the hashtag #WhoWillKillDrNaif circulated on Twitter.
And although US President Barack Obama singled out the series for praise, some in the US saw the comic as a means of Muslim “indoctrination”.