Middle Eastern Superheroes

Malaak, Lebanese superheroine.

Superhero comics almost invariably have a political subtext, often involving nationalism and war. In his fledgling incarnation in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Superman stood for America, a nation weakened by the great depression (hence looking like the nebbish Clark Kent) but ready to spring forth and assume its world historical destiny. Similar nationalist allegories flowed through stories about Captain America, Wonder Woman and other early crime fighters. The heroes of the 1960s – the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-men – enacted Cold War fears, often these characters were children of radiation and the atom haphazardly and uneasily using science to grapple with a changing world.

It’s not surprising the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is producing as a side-effect many local superhero comics. The best of the lot is Joumana Medlej’s Malaak, Angel of Peace, a Lebanese superheroine who protects her ancestral city from demons bent on inciting civil strife.  Medlej has a pleasingly cartoony style, half-way between manga and the Belgian clear-line tradition. The introductory storyline nicely juggles young adult soap opera (like Spider-Man, Malaak has to balance her studies, her romantic life and her heroics) with a fantasy storyline rooted in Lebanon’s recent history of civil war. The ambiance and architecture of Lebanon is very well evoked. The spirit of the “Cedar Revolution” infuses the comic, with its suggestion that Lebanon’s turmoil is being fostered by outside forces. Interestingly, Malaak’s religious identity is deliberately obscure (it’s not even clear if she’s a Christian or a Muslim); indeed her origin has a vaguely pagan feel, sprouting as she does from the cedars that guard the city just as if she were a Greek or Roman goddess.

While Medlej’s comic is free-spirited and independent, the Kuwaiti-based Teshkeel Comics are closer to the American mainstream, albeit with an Islamic twist. Their flagship title The 99 is  about a superhero group very much done in the Marvel tradition, with flashy art and a lot of exposition (and indeed Teshkeel also publishes a lot of American comics from Marvel, DC, and Archie). Each member of The 99 takes his or her power from one of the major attributes of Allah, said to number one short of 100.  Underlying the adventures of the heroes is a message about the need for Islamic culture to recover the spirit of inquiry it enjoyed during the Middle Ages. 

The first issue of The 99 opens with a tale of the sack of Baghdad by barbarian armies in Middle Ages and the resulting loss of cultural treasures — a story with obvious contemporary parallels. As a sociological phenomenon, The 99 is very interesting but I have to say I found the first issue to be a bit too didactic and text heavy.  (You can download the first issue of The 99 here.)

I haven’t been able to find any stories from the Egyptian-based AK_Comics but I’m curious to know what they are like. From press accounts they seem more seculiar than The 99, but still with a political subtext (one storyline seems to involve the need for Jesusalem to be under international control).

The fascinating thing about these Middle Eastern superhero comics is how moderate they are politically: a call for Lebanon to be free of outside interference, for Islam to reclaim the spirit of scientific questioning, and for Jerusalem to be shared by people of all faiths. These are all very centrist, foreward-looking ideas. Those who ask where the moderates are in the Middle East might want to inspect these comics. 

For more on Middle Eastern superheroes, you can listen to this short radio report (found here as an mp3 file), which ran on Public Radio International earlier this week. I make a brief comment towards the end.

6 thoughts on “Middle Eastern Superheroes

  1. In the Feb. 25 issue of Time Magazine, Deepak Chopra is asked ina short Q&A what led to his work with comic books. His answer:

    “I grew up reading them and living a mythical life. I think we need to restore mythology for our collective healing. Imagine a Superwoman or Wonder Woman who is the product of an Iraqi and an American. That would bring more healing than all the talk.”

    What do you make of Chopra’s comment, Jeet?

  2. Hmm… I guess the sentiment is noble enough and in a broad sense true (that peace has to come from cultural contact) but I’m not sure if what Chopra’s suggesting has any practical bearings on the real problems in Iraq right now, alas.

  3. Agree – I thought it sounded pretty flaky, but I wasn’t sure if you would have some further insight given your comics expertise and your interest in Iraq.

    (I think an American withdrawal might be a good step towards healing, much more than either talk or comics, but that is a topic for another day).

  4. Hello!
    I just came across your blog entry on my comic, Malaak, and was delighted by your review. You pegged her “pagan” affiliation, in the sense she’s a product of natural forces older than religion. The jinn are not actually meant to represent foreign interference (or the story to call for freedom from it), though it’s interesting to me that you saw that in it. I would like to quote your review on my “clippings and reviews” page, if that’s ok with you?

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