Interview: Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, Creator of the Comic Book The 99

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of the comic book series The 99, which is also currently being produced as an animated series, is the subject of the upcoming documentary Wham! Bam! Islam!, to air on PBS on October 13th. From the website:

Al-Mutawa came up with the concept of The 99: a team of superheroes, each one exemplifying one of the 99 attributes of Allah. His motivations were both entrepreneurial and idealistic — The 99 would exemplify the Islamic virtues of compassion, understanding, and tolerance – qualities not often associated with Islam by the West. Within the Islamic world, Al-Mutawa hoped these new role models would counter the growing tide of political and religious extremism.

I got to speak with Dr. Al-Mutawa before a screening of Wham! Bam! Islam! in San Francisco. After I first geeked out about comic books and specifically The 99, which I only just started reading and have gotten into, I got down to business:

If you had to choose between the power of flight and the power of invisibility, what would you choose and why?

I think I choose invisibility because as it is, I can’t fly, but my thoughts race and I speak very fast so I might as well be flying and it’s not fun. [Laughs] And actually when I lecture, I lecture at the medical school in Kuwait, in the beginning I always tell my students that I speak so fast sometimes my own mother doesn’t understand me.

Being invisible takes the pressure off. We get recognized all over the world and Kuwait has largely kept quiet about us, which is a double edged sword because on one hand you want your country to appreciate what you’re doing culturally. On the other hand, not as many people recognize you, which is not a bad thing when you are with your family in the mall.

You do seem to be in the media a lot over there [Middle East] – is your face plastered around, are you a bit of celebrity?

No, no. I try as much as I can for stuff to be about the characters and not me. For example, we were on the cover of Newsweek and that was just the characters and recently Forbes put us on the cover in the Middle East but they wanted me there so I went there with the comic books. I try to get away with just doing the characters on the cover of Forbes but they pushed to get me on there so I did it. I try as much as I can to make the characters front and center.

Is there any particular character you identify with in the 99? Ramzi or…?

Dr. Ramzi
Ramzi. When I first created him, he was a Kuwaiti psychologist. He’s not Kuwaiti and he’s not a psychologist anymore but they say write what you know and that’s what I knew – I’m a psychologist by background. I wish I could be more like him. He’s calm, well put together, not reactionary. He believes there is good in based on The 99, out there in the world and he’s out there tirelessly trying to find it and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing with the project – he raises money to to help support the foundation, I raise money to help the project. So there are parallels for sure so I say he’s the one I identify with the most.

Last year, you had a crossover with the Justice League. Have you had more recognition in the United States because of that?

We have, and it’s a double edged sword. Last year President Obama in a speech he gave, talked about the crossover and he called it the most innovative response to his Cairo speech: he reached out to the Muslim world and in return, my characters reached right back to the Justice League to implement his vision.

The comic books start out with distrust. In fact, Superman punches Jabbar initially and then they figure out that it’s the bad guys from both universes that caused the distrust and the stories move over to trust and ends with them watching President Obama’s speech for a new beginning.

That’s one of the proudest moments of my life no matter how this thing plays out but one of the unfortunate consequences of recognition is that we start getting attacked by people who don’t like Islam very much. So last October it became an issue during the congressional elections: “Obama is a Muslim and this proves it”, “He’s trying to brainwash your kids with sharia-compliant superheroes”, “Anyone watching The 99 will become radicalized and become a jihadi”. My favorite was “We can’t let the Muslims brainwash our children like the Mexicans did with Dora the Explorer”. I mean, just really amazing stuff. All that led to delaying the broadcast of our animated series even though they [network The Hub] bought and paid for the series a year ago.

Meanwhile, we sold it to Cartoon Network in Asia, we sold it in Turkey, Middle East, Australia and other parts of Europe. The first four episodes of the series, it’s actually 26 episodes, are in CGI, HD format, top-tier animation, some of the best the world has seen on television and the U.S., which was supposed to be our first market, now may end up being our last market, if ever, even though they were the first market to buy it.

The irony is when I first started, I got censored in Saudi – when you grow up they tell you the extremism is there, it’s not here in America. The irony is that it’ll be on Saudi TV before American TV, just to put extremism in perspective.

So is there anything you are trying to go around the controversy here, to allay people’s fears that the series would make people “extreme”?

Well the first four episodes actually played at the New York Film Festival and got amazing reviews. For us, people seeing the content is the equivalent of seeing the President’s birth certificate.

The problem that I have is that the delays that happened are almost like an admission of guilt: “Yes, there must be something, that’s why it’s not being broadcast”. So we found another avenue to do it, we came in as a film and we’re still producing season 2 of the animation. It will get on air, it’s a matter of when.

This is not new. In 1970, Sesame Street introduced an African-American couple and got banned in Mississippi and it took the New York Times to name and shame them for them to reverse their decision. It appears that Corporate America is put in a position where, when bigots go after certain groups, they appease them unless they are exposed for doing so and then they [Corporate American] have to choose – are we on the side of bigots or are we on the side of tolerance?

Not too long ago, there was the release of a report called “Fear, Inc”. Do you think that report will help The 99 here in the United States?

I think it further underscores the importance of the project. These people have inspired murderers and it’s much bigger than me. I complain that they try to kill my characters. My characters are fictional. Now they’re killing real people. I think it’s an eye opener. Some people are making money off of this. That’s the bottom line.

What do you see next for The 99?

Season 2 of the animated series is being produced. We need to get on air in the U.S. and some parts of Europe where they have been resistant, like the UK and France and from there, feature film license, games, toys. I have been able to successfully raise money for this 3 times now. But you get to a point where you need the product to be on air, to be seen. I’m very proud of the team. We’ve created almost 1,000 jobs in the last 5 years on 4 continents – it’s become a very big thing for something that started as an idea I had in the back of a cab. Our social objectives are being met, our financial ones not yet but we are very optimistic.

The 99

Wham! Bam! Islam! airs on October 13th on PBS. Review to come later on this site!

8 thoughts

Leave a Reply