The roster of Muslim superheroes in the comic book medium has grown over the years, as has the complexity of their depictions.
A new book -- Muslim Superheroes -- tracks the initial absence, reluctant inclusion, tokenistic employment, and then nuanced scripting of Islamic protagonists in the American superhero comic book market and beyond.
I was honored to contribute my own chapter, "Hero and/or Villain? The 99 and the Hybrid Nature of Popular Culture's Production of Islam."
This scholarly anthology investigates the ways in which Muslim superhero characters fulfill, counter, or complicate Western stereotypes and navigate popular audience expectations globally, under the looming threat of Islamophobia. The contributors consider assumptions buried in the very notion of a character who is both a superhero and a Muslim with an interdisciplinary and international focus characteristic of both Islamic studies and comics studies scholarship. Muslim Superheroes investigates both intranational American racial formation and international American geopolitics, juxtaposed with social developments outside U.S. borders.
Providing unprecedented depth to the study of Muslim superheroes, this collection analyzes, through a series of close readings and comparative studies, how Muslim and non-Muslim comics creators and critics have produced, reproduced, and represented different conceptions of Islam and Muslimness embodied in the genre characters.
My chapter in particular deals with The 99 comic book series, which features a predominately Muslim cast of characters whose gifts and superhero powers embody the ninety-nine attributes of Allah from the Qur’an. Debuted in 2006, The 99 captured imaginations and interest, especially with its protagonists in perpetual battle with Rughal, a character styled, in part, on the likes of dissident jihadi leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Al-Mutawa received praise from U.S. President Barack Obama and other national leaders in the Middle East and Europe, but also faced litigation at home in Kuwait and detractors in the U.S. who believed his characters personify terror and so-called “radical Islam.”
Indeed, in my chapter I make the case that The 99’s contents and creator – situated in their historical and political context and analyzed according to subsequent critical receptions on multiple sides – can be read as hybrid entities that undermine simplistic readings of Islam along the lines of the “clash of civilizations” perspective. The 99 positions Islam as a multivalent religious repository that resists essentialization. The comic does the same with “the West.”