For comic book fans, it’s the irony to end all ironies: Superman, created by two Jewish artists and rife with Jewish themes and imagery, is hooking up with a band of Muslim superheroes to pursue truth, justice, and the Muslim way – which would presumably include putting an end to the existence of Israel, a basic religious tenet of jihadi Islam. But as a member of the Justice League of America and the property of DC Comics, Superman apparently has little say in the matter, and he, along with Batman, Aquaman, and other JLA members, will be featured in the adventures of a group called “The 99.” Already a popular print product in the Gulf states, “The 99″ is coming to the U.S., and has even been developed into a TV series for new U.S. kids’ cable network, The Hub.
“The 99″ is the brainchild of Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, founder and C.E.O. of Kuwait’s Teshkeel Media Group. “The 99” consists of 99 teenagers from around the world, each of whom bears an Arabic name from the Koran that reflects one of the 99 attributes of Allah, as recorded in the Koran. The comic itself first appeared in 2006 in Arabic, and an English language version was produced for the U.S. a year later (nearly 30 issues have been released in the U.S. already). A movie has been rumored, and last year a theme park – one of several planned – based on the The 99’s characters opened in Kuwait.
In a number of interviews, Al-Mutawa has said that in the group’s adventures, he tries to avoid religious content exclusive to Islam, and instead concentrates on universal virtues, such as the fight against evil, cooperation, and friendship, which he sees as Islamic values as well. Al-Mutawa recruited several veterans of the comics industry – longtime artists who worked for DC and Marvel Comics – to work with him on The 99. In a recent interview, he said that he had a hard time convincing some of the artists to work with him, given the attitude of many Americans to Islam in the wake of 9/11. “To assuage fears that this wasn’t an Islamist project, I bought the satire magazine ‘Cracked,’” among the most irreverent humor comics in North America, Al-Mutawa said in the interview. “This was able to convince a lot of people that my motives were not religious, and that I was seriously committed to the project.”
However, the matter is not that simple, says one experienced comic book connoisseur who spoke with Israel National News. Reviewing the first copy of The 99’s adventures, entitled “Origins,” Mark Ginsberg found it rife with Islamic religious imagery. “There are clear references to the Great Mosque in Mecca, Islamic symbols, and the birth of an Islamic savior who will redeem the lands Islam lost to the Christians in Europe, if not fight the final battle with evil.”
Most troubling for Superman, he says, are the scenes in the series that take place in Jeddah and Mecca. “With his Jewish roots, Superman wouldn’t even be allowed into those cities altogether, as Jews are banned from the holy cities of Islam,” Ginsberg said.
The question of Superman’s Jewish roots has been debated for decades – with many observers pointing to the facts and philosophy of the Superman story for proof. According to the story, Superman was saved from the dying world of Krypton when his parents bundled him up in a small craft and set him adrift – a clear reference, many observers say, to the story of Moses.
“It took place in (Krypton’s) 25th century,” comic book artist Alan Oirich writes – comparable to the Jewish year of 2448, the year Moses was sent down the Nile in the hope that he would be saved from the destruction he, as a Jewish male infant, would otherwise have faced at the hands of Pharaoh. “Like Moses’ mother Yocheved before him, Superman’s father, Jor-El, saved his baby son from doom by placing him in a small conveyance (a mini-spaceship) and sending him off to be adopted, to be raised with an assumed identity and become a hero known the world over,” Oirich writes, exploring other themes in the story showing that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – themselves the children of Jewish immigrants to a new world – had in mind a Jewish superhero.
“Superman is Kal-El, a member of the family that had been known on Krypton as “The House of El,” in Hebrew Beit El, which means ‘The House of G-d,’” Oirich writes. “The story has been told that 16-year-olds Siegel and Shuster didn’t work on their comic strip on Thursday nights. They had nothing to draw on. Mama Shuster needed her challah board.”
In the original episodes that appeared in the 1930s and 1940s, Oirich continues, Superman didn’t fly much; “his first encounters with criminals — and with Nazis — in the 30s and 40s had him behaving more like Samson than the Superman we know today. Mostly land bound, he lifted cars and tanks and shook out the bad guys. Bullets couldn’t hurt him, but exploding mortar shells could.” In fact, he adds, original drawings of Superman by Joe Shuster has Superman wearing not the red boots he is now associated with – but sandals laced up to his calf, Samson-style.
Now, however, Jewish Superman is set to undergo an identity change, or, at the very least, to become close friends with The 99. “It’s hard to see Superman, of all characters, being recruited to help Muslims,” says comic book fan Ginberg. “Whatever Superman’s views on Israel, he was an ardent enemy of the Nazis – unlike the Muslims, who still, today, keep Mein Kampf at the top of the bestseller list.”