Archive for Religion

This Week in Comic Book Diversity


It’s been a weirdly excellent week for diversity in the comic book world.

The biggest news has been the announcement that Marvel was introducing a new Ms. Marvel, a shapeshifting Muslim teenager who idolized the current Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers. Kamala Khan made a very brief debut in this week’s issue of “Captain Marvel” and will be appearing in her own comic book in February. She isn’t the first Muslim female character in a comic book, but it’s very likely she’s the first to grab her own starring role in a comic from the Big Two.

As was pointed out to me by a friend, while this is good news, it would be even better news if Marvel hadn’t even felt the need to publicize this — that woulda meant that having characters who were not white straight male Christians was no longer considered shocking or surprising or uncommon — that there was no longer an “other,” just people who had interesting stories we could tell.

Nevertheless, a lot of the excitement about this is because readers are excited that there are new interesting characters to read about and who are happy that the comics world is becoming a more open, less exclusionary place.

Outside of the printed page, there’s a lot of other news about TV shows. DC announced that the CW would bring a new superhero to the screen. No, not Wonder Woman — she’s still considered too weird and obscure and non-penis-endowed for TV. Instead, they’re going with Hourman. Yeah, a little-known Golden Age character who only has powers for an hour at a time after taking a pill. That’s so much more mainstream and cool and sensible than Wonder Woman, isn’t it?

On the other hand, the CW also announced that they’d be producing a new TV show based on Chris Roberson and Michael Allred’s “iZombie,” which of course stars a female character. This sounds like it may be a bit more interesting — the CW’s superhero shows (Well, “Arrow” — more are planned, of course) seem to be oriented around brooding shirtless hunks being angsty. A zombie who solves crimes by snacking on brains sounds like a meatier premise, though still probably pretty angsty, too.

Perhaps more encouraging on the TV front is that Netflix is going to make a number of shows based on Marvel characters, including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and the Defenders. This is pretty exciting news — Marvel has been a lot more successful with superheroes in the mass media, and it means that Marvel stands a very good chance of beating DC to getting a female superhero into a starring role on TV. If there’s anything that could push DC into taking Wonder Woman seriously as a media property, it might be Marvel stealing their thunder again.

(Though on a semi-related note, what’s up with Marvel still not starting up a Black Widow movie? You’ve got one of the most famous, most marketable movie stars on the planet playing backup roles in other people’s movies, guys. For the sake of Croesus, make a Black Widow movie and put Scarlett Johansson’s name above the title.)

And finally, dropping back to comics, former Lubbock artist Rachael Anderson was just spotlighted in Comics Alliance’s new “Hire this Woman” feature! We have our fingers crossed that this will help draw more attention to a really outstanding artist. We’d love to see her name on big-name comics soon.

Does all this big pro-diversity news mean the struggle is over, or even close to over? Obviously not. For one thing, DC Comics still exists, and it’ll be years before they let go of the “Comics are only for white male geeks” paradigm. But any progress forward is good news, and if television success can drag the comics industry a bit closer to the 21st century, I’m all for it.

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Role Reversals

The Mirage by Matt Ruff

This is really not the typical book I’d be reviewing here. Primarily, it’s a pretty high class novel, and as you know, we ‘uns down heah lahk to spit on th’ floor frum tahm to tahm, and even read them funnybooks what they got down at the drugstore.

Anyway, believe it or not, this novel has a few very important elements we’d recognize as comic readers. It’s essentially a story about a parallel universe, and it closely matches up with the concept of the mirror universe, where good and evil are switched around, like on “Star Trek” or DC’s Earth-3. But in “The Mirage,” it’s not good and evil that are switched — it’s East and West, and Christianity and Islam.

Here, the Muslim world is wealthy and powerful, the world leader in almost all areas. America and Europe are mostly uneducated backwaters, poor, fractured into many smaller nations, and dominated by fundamentalist Christians, including a faction of extremists who crashed jetliners into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad back on 11/9/2001, kicking off a war in which the United Arab States launched a War on Terror by invading America in an attempt to bring democracy to its shores.

I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing when I read the description the first time. But the interesting thing here is that it’s just the religions and hemispheres that get switched in prominence — good doesn’t replace evil or vice versa. The villains we’ve come to know remain villains in this other world, too. Saddam Hussein and his sons are turned into crime bosses; Osama bin Laden is a corrupt, insane, and genocidal senator; even as far back as World War II, Hitler remains the mad dictator, just with his aggression directed toward Africa and the Middle East rather than to Europe and America.

Our lead characters in this story are a group of Arab Homeland Security agents — Mustafa al Baghdadi, Amal bint Shamal, and Samir Nadim — who stumble onto the discovery that many terrorists — and many civilians as well — believe in something they call the Mirage — that the world as everyone else knows it is a lie, a reversal of the way things are supposed to be, with America on top and the Muslim world on the bottom. It sounds like some mad theory cooked up by a bunch of cranks — but sometimes they have evidence with them — newspapers, clippings, videos, and more that seem to be from this mirror universe. And many people — both American and European terrorists as well as powerful UAS conspirators — are dedicated to destroying the Mirage and getting the world back to the way it was. Can the Homeland Security agents stop them? Should they stop them at all?

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a fantastic piece of high concept, isn’t it? Takes a little bit to get the idea of it across, but once it does, you just wanna track it down to see how it all goes down. I loved our main characters, I loved the wonderful tics and twists in their personalities, and how they got mired in all these bizarre adventures while trying to track down the mystery of the Mirage.

I loved the concept of including passages from The Library of Alexandria, the alternate-dimension version of Wikipedia, to tell a lot of the backstory of the world’s prominent people, history, and culture. And the culture is definitely different — what we’re looking at isn’t just “America with an Arabian flavor.” The UAS is a vastly more conservative place than the USA is — alcohol is mostly illegal, it’s still highly controversial that there are female politicians, and a search on The Library of Alexandria for “gay rights movement” pulls up nothing at all. The UAS is a place that’s a lot more liberal-minded than real-world nations like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, but it’s still being run on the very conservative principles of Islam, which means it looks like a vastly different place than we’re used to as more secular Westerners.

If the book has a failing, it’s that it probably overdoes the alternate-universe cameos by famous (and infamous) people. Our heroes meet up with bin Laden, Saddam, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and many, many more. We even discover that in the altered history of this world, LBJ was somehow the president clear up to the end of the 20th century. While you do get a thrill of discovery when you meet many of these alternate-universe versions of these folks, after a while, it starts to become a bit too familiar. This is a trick that should be used sparingly, but it’s really used far, far too often. Excusable, I think, when we’re talking about the UAS version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” starring Omar Sharif, but a bit tedious when we meet up with a few too many mirror-universe celebrities.

Still, for all that, it’s a hugely interesting and entertaining book. Challenging in a lot of ways, probably infuriating for some folks, but still definitely worth reading. Go pick it up.

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Dungeon Crawling


Today, the Duffster wrote about Dungeons and Dragons and how it seems to make some folks a bit crazy.

Parents and church leaders are so determined to protect their kids from phantom Satanists they can’t see the real benefits of gaming. In an age when our culture is encouraging kids to be bad at math, hopeless at science and functionally illiterate, D&D inspires literacy, imagination, logical thinking and familiarity with basic math.

Most critics reject D&D for religious reasons, but I’ve known parents who didn’t approve of Star Wars or Star Trek games, either – as if the very act of using your imagination is offensive to God.

How many writers have we lost because of this? How many artists? How many poets? How many scientists and teachers have we lost because acts of imagination were dismissed as frivilous or wrong?

I had lots of fun playing D&D back when I was in junior high. It’s fantastic escapism when you’re at that age when your hormones are freaking out and when you’re too shrimpy to keep the jocks from shoving you around the hallways and you’re too awkward to keep from stammering and sweating every time you talk to a pretty girl. It was great to have an activity where you could, at least for a few hours, be the hero who saves the princess and dismembers the orcs.

Heck, it’s not even like you have to be in junior high to enjoy it. D&D is wonderful escapism no matter what age you are. Ain’t nothing wrong with escapism. It’s why we read comics, watch TV and movies, play video games, read books. Everyone needs some fantasy in their lives sometimes.

For some reason, roleplaying games like D&D really set some people off. I remember back in the 1980s hearing from people who’d claim that D&D was a sure way to turn a kid into a Satanist, that it taught you how to contact demons, that its casual violence would transform seemingly normal people into cackling serial killers. Funnily enough, they said the same thing about rock and roll (including Bon Jovi, the Eagles, and Madonna), video games (including the cartoonish fantasy “Dragon’s Lair” game), and jewelry (for some reason, while girls could wear earrings safely, guys who wore them were dooooomed). Wow, the ’80s were weird.

I think that particular form of lunacy has mostly faded away by now. I think ya gotta credit the “Satanic Panic” of the late 1980s for that. That was when fears about hidden Satanists really hit peak levels — people got arrested on incredibly vague rumors that they were devil worshipers sacrificing hundreds, even thousands of people in bizarre rituals that somehow escaped anyone’s notice. People who expressed public doubts about all this were accused of being Satanic conspiritors. People were even convicted and put in prison, despite the complete lack of evidence, of bodies, of motives, of anything.

Eventually, attorneys started winning appeals based on the bizarre testimony at trials, on the clearly unfair prosecutions, on the fact that there was no physical or circumstantial evidence of any mass murders or sexual assaults. The people who still insisted that a global Satanic conspiracy was sacrificing people were revealed as delusional. Sanity returned, for the most part.

Of course, there’s still a tendency on some folks’ part to accuse anything popular of being EEEEVIL. I remember a few years ago when a bunch of local Lubbock churches bought a full-page ad in the Avalanche-Journal to accuse the Harry Potter books of turning young readers into Satanists capable of performing real magic. You don’t hear much of that anymore, partly because most people are now familiar with the story and know that it’s an innocent fantasy, partly because Harry Potter kept getting more and more popular and yet there wasn’t an accompanying rise in Satanic toddlers paralyzing people with magic wands…

…and partly because, honestly, most of those howling church groups didn’t really believe that Harry Potter — or for that matter, D&D, rock and roll, or goth fashion — were actually evil.

Most evil in the world can be narrowed down to greedy people, violent people, bigotry, liars. It’s hard to oppose evil like that. It could cause greedy bankers to stop donating to your church, it could cause bigots to claim that you’re too soft on those kinds of people, and not even the best sermon in the world can stop some violent drunk from venting his frustrations on his wife and kids. As important as it is to help people through the rough spots in life, to teach them how to make good moral and ethical decisions, to provide a supportive and enriching community for others, there are people who get frustrated that it’s so hard to do anything about the root causes of evil.

But if only Capital-E Evil, Old Scratch himself, the damned demons of Dis, if only Satan could be tied directly to something small, weak, and easy to target and smash, wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t indulging that fantasy make you feel like you were striking a meaningful blow against God’s greatest enemy, like you really knew how to make things go your way, like you were as powerful as you always wished you could be as a kid?

I guess everyone needs a little roleplaying, escapism, and fantasy in their lives sometimes.

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Please be warned: Crazy people who really need to get a proper hobby have decreed that the Black Canary version of Barbie is “filth.”

“Barbie has always been on the tarty side and this is taking it too far,” the Christian Voice is quoted as saying by the tabloid The Sun. “A children’s doll in sexually suggestive clothing is irresponsible — it’s filth.”

In true tabloid fashion, The Sun’s headline reads, “S&M Barbie is lashed by the public.”

I think the following points should be noted:

1. Black Canary actually wears more clothing than Wonder Woman, which I guess means these people think Wondy is a filthy tramp.

2. Black Canary has worn the same general costume as the doll wears since her first appearance in the comics back in 1947.

3. Black Canary actually wears more clothing than the original Barbie back in 1959, which I guess means these people think the original Barbie was also a filthy tramp.

4. Depressingly, these people probably really do think Wonder Woman and Barbie are filthy tramps.

Heck, these are folks who think arctic-weight winter parkas are insufficiently modest, and who will say so, repeatedly and loudly, every time someone points a TV camera at them…

The “Christian Voice” should spend more time working to feed the hungry, nurture the sick, and comfort the afflicted, and a heck of a lot less time moralizing pointlessly about superhero costumes.

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The 99

The 99

I actually received these comics in the mail last week from Naif Al-Mutawa, who is the creator of “The 99,” one of its writers, and the guy in charge of Teshkeel Media Group, after blogging about this new series earlier this month.

The series is written by al-Mutawa and Fabian Nicieza, with pencils by John McCrea and inks by James Hodgkins and Sean Parsons. If you’ve read comics for a while, you should at least recognize Nicieza and McCrea, who’ve been working in comics at both Marvel and DC for ages. Two of the three issues I got were free introductory comics, designed to get new readers on board with the characters and the concept.

“The 99” is the first effort at creating a truly multicultural comic since Milestone Media’s comics back in the mid-1990s. Teshkeel has previously published some Marvel Comics titles in Arabic, and has entered agreements with DC Comics and Archie Comics to publish Arabic-language comics throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Mutawa came up with the idea of creating an Islamic-themed comics series while trying to think of a way to help Muslim kids bridge the gap between the East and the West, while giving Muslim children some more positive Muslim role models than they usually see in Western media. And yeah, I think part of the goal of the comics is certainly outreach and education to Western comics readers. The basic concept: a team of international superheroes who take their names and their powers from the 99 names of Allah.

There’s really a lot of backstory to deal with here. The story starts clear back in the 13th century, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, killed most of its inhabitants and destroyed most of the city. In the comic’s timeline, the city’s librarians alchemically infused 99 gemstones with the accumulated knowledge of the Muslim world’s scholars. The Noor Stones were scattered throughout the world, waiting for the right people to find them and unlock their potential.

From there, we jump to the modern world, where we follow Dr. Ramzi, philanthropist and head of the 99 Steps Foundation, who has spent his life searching for the Noor Stones. He believes that the gems can empower certain people and help him ensure his own goals of world peace. Soon, he meets up with a Saudi teenager whose contact with a Noor Stone has caused him to manifest colossal superstrength — he becomes known as Jabbar, the Powerful.

Later, he makes contact with a girl from the United Arab Emirates who can control light and is able to see everything from the combinations of locks to the nature of human souls — she gets designated Noora, the Light — and a paraplegic American who is able to bring both suffering and healing with a touch — he is called Daar, the Afflicter. There are tons more on the way, of course — Ramzi and the rest of his team have another 96 Noor Stones to find.

I gotta say, I’m enjoying what I’m seeing so far. As I’ve said before, I get tired of reading comics where all the characters are white Americans, and I love the idea of getting a glimpse into Islam and the Muslim world that isn’t filtered through the stereotypes and misinformation pushed at us on the news channels. And I love the way they’re setting up a global team of heroes that actually includes characters from many different nations and cultures.

Though the series is inspired by Islamic concepts, it isn’t really an all-Muslim comic — in fact, at this point, we don’t know what religion, if any, that the characters subscribe to. Sure, Jabbar, Noora, and Dr. Ramzi come from traditionally Muslim countries, but Daar, the American, is a blond-haired Caucasian. I’m sure religion will eventually move to the forefront of at least some of the stories, but at this point, this is a series that’s being driven by plotlines and characterizations, not by any hardline ideologies.

And because I haven’t mentioned them yet, the plots and characterizations are all rock-solid. Dialogue is good — granted, it doesn’t pop the way dialogue does by Brian Michael Bendis or Grant Morrison, but not everyone can be Bendis or Morrison. I can’t really say anything bad about the artwork — it’s not a style I’m really enthused about, but it’s clear, distinct, it gets the job done, and it’s not that much different than what you’d see in any mainstream superhero comic.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I’m hoping to get the folks at Star to put this on my pull list.

(By the way, I found some great resource pages for this, including this PBS interview with al-Mutawa and a collection of reviews, analysis, and commentary about the series.)

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Muslim Superheroes

In American comics, you might see a Muslim character once, maybe twice a year. They’ll usually be a villain, though one of the X-Men books has a main character who is Muslim. Heck, that’s better than you can say for the French. All they’ve got is Batroc the Leaper.

But that’s fixin’ to change, thanks to a company called Teshkeel Media, which is putting together a new series called “The 99,” in which all of the superheroes are named after the 99 names of Allah.

Although the book begins in 13th century Baghdad, its Kuwaiti-born creator Naif Mutawa says the comic is a metaphor for what is happening in the Islamic world.

The 99 features superheroes such as Jabbar ‘the powerful’ and Fatah ‘the opener’ who come to the rescue in modern disasters.

The comic is currently available in eight Middle Eastern countries, and will soon be launched in the United States and Malaysia.

Yudha Kartohadiprodjo from Femina Group, the Indonesian company publishing The 99, says every single hero in the book is named after one of Allah’s 99 monikers.

The superheroes come from 99 different countries with Muslim populations, with Fatah hailing from Indonesia.

“(Fatah’s) power is to be able to teleport himself from one dimension to another or from one place to another,” Mr Kartohadiprodjo said.

Honestly, I’m wildly in favor, and I wish more comics companies would follow Teshkeel’s lead. There’s nothing more terrifically dull than picking up your weekly stack of comics and realizing that they all star a bunch of generic white guys. Yawwwwn. Sure, some comics are improving their diversity — I think the current Justice League has the most black characters the series has ever had. But characters from Islamic cultures are still very, very scarce.

And don’t hand me any bullpucky about “We cain’t never have none o’ them Ay-rabs in our comics ’cause, uhh, 9-11! AMURRICAAAA!” No, I’m sorry, but that clanging sound you hear is me hitting you in the skull with this 1975 Cadillac Seville. I don’t subscribe to the “Insulting National Stereotype” theory of global relations, and you shouldn’t either.

Anyway, if I see a copy of “The 99” here in Lubbock one of these days, I’ll pick it up and give you a review.

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Religion in Comics


Religion is a weird thing in comics. In the DC Universe, the Spectre is literally the Wrath of God, the Greek gods live on Mt. Olympus, there are a bunch of people on other planets who call themselves the New Gods, and comic book writers have been shown to control the lives of superheroes. In the Marvel Universe, Mephisto rules Hell, Thor is the Norse god of thunder, and Iron Man still manages to be agnostic. Religions in comics are rarely depicted accurately or consistently.

That’s not to say that comic book superheroes can’t be religious. Or that comic book fans can’t be obsessive about what superheroes believe. Want proof? Click here for a list of a few hundred comic book characters and what religions they belong to.

For example: Superman is a Methodist, the Thing is Jewish, Nightcrawler is Catholic, Lex Luthor is a lapsed Episcopalian, Two-Face is a Taoist, Mr. Terrific is an atheist, and Mandrake the Magician is Buddhist. Even better: J. Jonah Jameson’s religion is listed as “hates Spider-Man.”

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