The year was 1258. Mongol leader Hulegu Khan had invaded Baghdad – a city that was then a pinnacle of civilization and learning. Legend has it that the attackers set their sights on Baghdad's crown jewel, the Dar al-Hikma library, tossing thousands of manuscripts to a watery doom in the Tigris River.
Fortunately, cunning librarians spirited to safety the precious Noor Stones: 99 gems containing the library's ancient wisdom. The stones remained hidden in the Muslim kingdom of Granada until 1492, when King Ferdinand's Spanish army destroyed the mosque housing the gems. The Noor Stones were scattered around the globe, lost for centuries.
Sound melodramatic? Kind of like the plot of a comic book? It is.
Since October, youngsters throughout the Middle East have been discovering the legend of the Noor Stones in a new monthly comic book called "The 99." The series is inspired by Islamic culture and history – the title refers to the 99 names and traits attributed to God in the Koran – and aims to spread a universal message of teamwork along with plenty of action, adventure, and "kapow!"
The idea was Naif al-Mutawa's, a Kuwaiti psychologist who saw a need for culturally relevant heroes while treating torture survivors from Arab countries, including Iraq, from 1998-2001.
"I felt that we just didn't have heroes in this part of the world," says Mr. al-Mutawa, referring to the Middle East. "And I really wanted to create them."
What started as a cliché "sketch on the back of a napkin" soon evolved into meetings with former executives of Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Rolling Stone magazine. By the summer of 2004, the project was backed with $6.8 million from 54 investors in eight countries.
Al-Mutawa sought characters that would resonate with both cultures he grew up with: Western and Middle Eastern. The result? Muslim superheroes hailing from every pocket of the earth who – in their quest to recover the lost wisdom of the Noor Stones – also manage to clobber stereotypes.
Among the 99 heroes is Noora, a spoiled Emirati college student who finds a Noor Stone while escaping ransom seekers, triggering in her an uncanny ability to see the truth in others. There's Jabbar, a teen from Saudi Arabia, who grows to Hulk-like size and strength after a Noor Stone is accidentally lodged in his body during an explosion. And Hidayeh, a Pakistani-British girl with a brain like a GPS device, who can map and find anything instantly. Bari is a 15-year-old South African boy who finds a stone while digging and suddenly commands superhuman healing powers.
In light of international uproar in 2005 over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, a comic book about Muslim superheroes is sensitive terrain. The 99 is currently banned in Saudi Arabia, for example, because religious censors allege it attempts to give a face to God – something Islam absolutely prohibits.
But al-Mutawa doesn't see The 99 as a comic about Islam so much as a culturally relevant way to inspire youth in a part of the world that doesn't get much positive press.
"I'm not a man of religion, I'm a man of culture," says al-Mutawa, himself a Muslim who lives in Kuwait with his wife and sons and travels abroad frequently on business. "God's main attributes – generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy – what culture in the world doesn't see those as positive?" he asks.
Clerics from Kuwait to Malaysia have given The 99 their blessing. A significant chunk of financing – $18 million – will come from an Islamic investment bank in Bahrain whose sharia board recently gave The 99 thumbs up for complying with the tenets of Islam. The investment is more than what most new comic book companies garner.
The 99 comics are glossy and full of splash – just what you'd expect from artists and writers who cut their teeth creating classics like Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men. Character designer Dan Panosian sees The 99 as a way to cultivate cross-cultural understanding that flows both ways. "Comic books reach young people, and young people are going to shape our tomorrow," says Mr. Panosian, whose drawing credits include Spider-Man, Hulk, and Captain America. "If they can develop an affection toward characters representing different cultures, they might be less apt to promote hate throughout the world."
Co-writer Fabian Nicieza brought 20 years of experience working on titles like X-Men and X-Force to The 99. "The ingredients are all the same but the dish we're making is a little bit different," says Mr. Nicieza. "I can't copy what Superman has done for 60 years and apply it to Jabbar because Clark Kent grew up in Kansas and Jabbar didn't."
Yet, while the characters' cultures are reflected in their personalities and actions, there's still plenty of commonality. "There's a universality to young people, the decisions they make, the things they want out of life," says Nicieza. "When they get together, a lot of those cultural barriers start to fall down, no matter how they were raised."
About 10,000 Arabic language copies are distributed monthly to newsstands, supermarkets, arcades, and hotels in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. A copy sells for about $1.50. Limited quantities, including English versions, can also be found in Cyprus, Mauritius, and Taiwan. To date, Egypt is The 99's largest market, where about 40 percent of their print run is sold.
In the fall, an English version of The 99 is slated to be available in the United States in print and online. Price: $2.99 for an issue.
Teshkeel Media Group, the company al-Mutawa created to distribute The 99 as well as Marvel and DC Comics in the Middle East, has gotten inquiries from companies from Spain to Indonesia about marketing spin-off products for European and Asian markets.
"When you do something based on Islamic culture, that's global," says al-Mutawa.