Monday, March 14, 2005

Arab superheroes are here! 

Meet the homegrown Middle Eastern answer to Superman:

"The flagship superhero is Zein, dubbed 'The Last Pharaoh,' one of the immortal sons of the final rulers of ancient Egypt before that civilization disappeared. Zein spends his time fighting evildoers, including his own brother Ho-Ra who wants to use the family's Pharaonic mega-powers to enslave mankind.

"A university professor by day, Zein dons a black jumpsuit adorned with a golden scarab to fight the good fight. The other three characters are Jalila, 'Defender of the City of All Faiths,' a buxom nuclear scientist gifted with radioactive powers living in the not-too-distant future; Aya, 'The Princess of Darkness,' a mysterious, angst-ridden crimefighter; and Rakan, 'The Lone Warrior,' who drifts through medieval Arab cities - a sort of Conan the Barbarian figure fighting Persians, Mongols and anyone else who gets in his way.

"All the protagonists are the brainchild of Ayman Kandeel, an Egyptian economics professor at Cairo University and the founder of AK Comics. Kandeel grew up devouring imported comic books from the United States and elsewhere, but often found there was little he could relate to as an Arab. In 2002 while living in the United States he launched his own series of comics, starting with Zein.

"Although he managed to get a small following among aficionados, Kandeel could only occupy a tiny niche in the massive comic book market that already existed. In the long run, it made sense to sell in their natural market: the Middle East. Although various forms of cartoons and graphic novels exist in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, it is the first time that American-model Arab superhero characters have been introduced here."
Female superheroes still have big breasts but they are more modestly clad than their American counterparts (see the pic above), there is no talk about religion (says Marwan al-Neshar, AK Comics' general manager: "You never know the religion of characters." Which is a good thing: is Batman an Episcopalian? Or a Catholic? Or an atheists? Does it really matter? And who cares?), and politics - so all-pervasive in reality - is oblique and very much in the background.

As Kandeel says, his characters are not "Arab superheroes" - "they are Middle Eastern heroes, period... We didn't want to start identifying them with one culture - I think that's one of the problems in this region, it's a symptom of the social decay that has set in." He also comments about religion, or lack thereof in his comics: "The whole point is that people's religious beliefs are between themselves and God and that people need to stop focusing so much on these labels."

I say, more kids in the Mid East focus on Rakan as a role model ("[he] was paralyzed as a child, [but] manages to overcome his disability and develop super-human strength through persistence and training.") and less on Osama bin Laden, the better future for them - and for us.

(hat tip for the story: Sophie Masson)


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