The Friday Times, July 2nd
99 Muslim comic book heroes??
There used to be a little book shop in Fortress Stadium in Lahore, where as a child, my mother would take me to buy comic books. This was the early nineties, and the comics were often yellowing since most of them were from the 80’s and 70’s. My favourites were the X-men and Wonder Woman. An older cousin of mine would always sift through them for Spider Man. And my mother would look for Star Trek and Archie comics. She herself liked them and felt that action comics would build character (she of course insisted on Enid Blyton as well). And the best part was that each comic book cost only 5 rupees.
Thus obviously, I was labelled a geek in school in my teens I was on a ceaseless quest to protect my comic books from being sent to the kabaria by mistake since most of were really fragile after having been read more than Harry Potter. As I grew up things got more and more ridiculous to the extent that I wanted to do my Masters dissertation on the relationship between politics and civil rights and, well, comic book narratives. My professor loved the idea, but my father clutched his forehead and shook his head (I eventually wrote about Gramscian theory in case you were shaking your head as well).
Getting to the point, reading comic books in Pakistan, is an activity that is somewhat out of the ordinary. Archie digests, of course, were once very popular, but on the whole the comic book experience has a niche market of consumers in Pakistan. Yet, most of us have has significant exposure from movies, cartoons and TV shows. So I was thinking about Pakistan, and how it’s portrayed in foreign films, and then how the terrorist villain in Iron Man also speaks Urdu. There has to be some reference to Pakistan in the traditional canonical comics right?
Not so much. In a passing reference, Iron Man talks to guerrillas near the afghan border and Ms Marvel has a villain bothering her called Ghazi Rashid who is allegedly a Taliban.
Pakistani comic books are very rare. In 1998, OUP published The Quaid- Jinnah and The Story of Pakistan, written in a comic book fashion as part of a ‘Muslim Heroes’ series. There is no X-man with x-ray vision hailing from Quetta. Most protagonists are American, Wolverine is Canadian with some other X-men being of diverse nationalities, other than that there are no famous desi heroes. But there is a comic book that offers Muslim superheroes!
In 2008, Tashkeel Comics published The 99, the first attempt at a positive illustration of Muslims, and desis, in mainstream comics. The 99 are a band of Muslim superheroes each from a different country who each possess a superpowers after discovering one of the 99 Noor jewels that were hidden after Halagu Khan invaded Baghdad. The heroes each possess the qualities exhibited by the 99 monikers of Allah. The effort to have a cultural impact based on a modern and telling of Islamic values has been well received by the west with the comic books being available in the US. Saudi Arabia banned the comic already, but sales are booming in Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and Malaysia. All in all, the Muslim Superheroes are a success but I firmly believe that its import into Pakistan will be met with many a fatwa and death threats. I actually don’t think the comic book is bad having read the first issue and would like it to flourish, so I won’t write more about it in case its creator, Naif Al-Mutawa, has to go into hiding. It is a comic book created for culturally contextual entertainment, and should not be taken too seriously. If you are a comic book enthusiast, go search for it.
I await the time, when we have some writers in Pakistan who can draw up some superheroes that can capture the hearts minds of little children and they can marvel at The Adventures of Zindabadman and Chaudhry Chamkeela.