The 99, a group of Islamic-inspired superheroes, has received the kind of positive international publicity that superheroes rarely get, particularly new ones.
Probably most high profile was U.S. President Barack Obama's public praise for Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, the creator of The 99 through his publishing company, Teshkeel Media Group. "His comic books have captured the imagination of so many young people," Obama said in a recent speech, "with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam."
The 99 has also been covered twice by the PBS investigative series Frontline, and Al-Mutawa recently gave a speech to the organization "TED" that was featured by CNN.
The 99 even have their own branded water through Nestlé, an animated series in the works, and "The 99 Village" amusement park in Kuwait — one of the first theme parks of its kind in the Arab world.
And in October, DC Comics will be publishing a crossover between The 99 and the heroes of the Justice League, as the two worlds come together to fight against an international evil.
It's all the result of the efforts of Al-Mutawa, a clinical psychologist and comic book fan, who wanted to create superheroes inspired by the positive messages of Islam that are universal among all people.
Yet no matter how endearing the motivation behind the superheroes, the characters have to live up to the hype. And Al-Mutawa has enlisted some pretty well known professionals from the comics’ world to help with his vision, including former Marvel editor Marie Javins, and writers Fabian Nicieza and Stuart Moore.
So Newsarama asked: Who are the superheroes that make up The 99?
As Newsarama's first discussion with Al-Mutawa detailed, the "99" in the comic's title is based upon the 99 attributes of Allah in the Koran, which include things like generosity, mercy, foresight, wisdom and strength. Each of the characters is linked to one of those 99 attributes, such as Jabbar the Powerful, Widad the Loving, and Noora the Light.
But the characters' official, in-story origin is not tied to any religion, instead making use of a mystical theme familiar to comic book fans.
The story begins in 1258 A.D., when Genghis Khan besieged the city of Baghdad, planning to destroy the knowledge gathered within the city's famed Library of Wisdom, Dar Al-Hikma.
To protect this powerful wisdom from Khan's forces, the librarians found a way to capture the spirit of knowledge contained within the books and instill it into 99 gemstones.
These 99 "Noor Stones" were later spread throughout the world by the guardians who protect them. And now they are choosing young, worthy wielders who must decide whether to use their powers for good or evil. So far, creators of The 99 have introduced about 30 people who wield the power of their 30 stones, although Dr. Ramzi Razem is always looking for more.
Dr. Ramzi Razem, founder of the charitable 99 Steps Foundation and Razem Institute, is searching for the 99 Noor Stones. He is a descendent of one of the guardians, and he's working to find and convince existing and potential gem-wielders that they can help change the course of human civilization.
What Ramzi doesn't realize is that his funding comes from a man named Rughal who doesn't have such philanthropic hopes for the gems.
Rughal was once among the guardians of the 99 stones but, while trying to harness their power, he glimpsed visions of the future and traveled through time. He now hopes to use his powers of manipulation and great wealth to posses the powers of the stones. He is recruiting gem-wielders to his side and, although Dr. Ramzi doesn't know it, Rughal has been secretly funding him for nearly a decade.
Other villains represent extreme views, but not any culture or religion. "The extremists are the bad guys," Al-Mutawa said. "It’s not about, you know, the extremists are Muslims or the extremists are Christian or Jewish. No, the extremists are the extremists."
The fact that there are 99 stones means new heroes can be introduced over time, although only 30 have been created so far. And among those, their powers have not been fully explored, so the teens are constantly finding more ways to use their abilities.
"More of the gems are being found all the time," said writer Stuart Moore, who has helped Fabian Nicieza guide The 99 over the years and is co-writing the JLA crossover. "So there are new members joining constantly. Some of them become part of the core team, others are just 'on call' when The 99 needs them. That keeps the stories fresh and lets us travel around the world as the group finds new members."
Among the superpowered characters are:
Jabbar the Powerful - Nawaf Al Bilali, a gawky teen from Saudi Arabia, was the first of The 99 to be discovered by Dr. Ramzi Razem. He gained his powers when he stepped onto a land mine that exploded and lodged shards of one of the Noor gems into his skin. Jabbar can increase his mass exponentially and has superhuman strength and invulnerability. But if he loses control, he can be a danger to himself and those around him.
Noora the Light - Dana Ibrahim is a spoiled, wealthy 18-year-old from the U.A.E. who was kidnapped and held for ransom. When she tried to tunnel her way out of the imprisonment, she discovered one of the buried Noor gemstones. She becomes Noora the Light, giving her the ability to see the light of truth and to overcome darkness. Noora is still developing her powers of light manipulation.
Jami the Assembler - Miklos Szekelyhidi from Hungary is a 13-year-old with a genius-level intellect. His parents gave him very little emotional support, but they did give him a family heirloom locket that held greater powers for the boy. Although he was raised within a research facility, with pet robotic gadgets as his closest friends, Dr. Ramzi uses his business contacts to reach out to the boy and make him part of The 99. Jami's powers allow him to produce armor and weapons that can attach to him instantly.
Mumita the Destroyer - "Not all the girls have powers that are kind and merciful," Al-Mutawa laughed, pointing out Catarina Barbossa, a runaway teen from Portugal who once pretended to be a boy in order to compete with her fighting skills. She met Dr. Ramzi Razem and became Mumita the Destroyer, with heightened speed, strength, agility, invulnerability and reflexes. She claims to be an orphan, but her mysterious past leaves much to be discovered.
The 99 fall into the age range of seven to 40 years old, because the stones prefer a youthful host, Al-Mutawa explained.
"The 40-year-old actually loses his power, the idea being that the younger you are, the more you’re able to kind of extract that power from the stone," Al-Mutawa said. "In The 99 series, the 40-year-old – the Canadian member of The 99 – holds onto the stone way too long. And in the end, the bad guys get him because that stone gets passed on to a 10-year-old."
Because the stones are spread all around the world, the people who wield the power of the stones are from 99 different countries. There's even a character named Darr the Afflicter who is paralyzed from the waist down.
Al-Mutawa said many of the characters are also bicultural. "For example, the character from Ghana grows up in Harlem. The character from Sudan grows up in France. The character from Pakistan grows up in the U.K. It provides the diversity," he said.
- Gender Equality:
Almost half the stones have users that are female, while the other half is male, giving the heroes a gender balance. "It's only 'almost' half because 99 is an odd number, but there will be either 49 or 50 who are female," Al-Mutawa said. "I'm not sure if we will have more boys than girls because we've only created the first 30 of them. But it will be almost even."
And one thing that is immediately apparent about The 99 is that the superpowered women dress more modestly than their Western superhero counterparts.
And although the comic is meant to reach even conservative corners of the Muslim world, not all of the female heroes wear head coverings. However, several do, and a character known as Batina the Hidden wears a full burqa, which ends up seeming appropriate for her powers. Al-Mutawa confirmed that five of the 50 female superheroes are planned to wear veils.
"For me, the modest dress was not a religious requirement at all. It's more cultural," Al-Mutawa said. "If I was going to do this based on religion, well, then whose religious interpretation would it be? Some people believe everybody should cover their hair. Some people believe everybody should cover their faces. I just, I believe everybody should just live their life the way they best can, you know?
"And that's why there's a diversity in the characters," he explained. "And yes, they are dressed modestly."
- Rule of Threes:
The heroes work in groups of three, because there are places where the comic is going to be marketed that would require that type of grouping.
"There are places that need the content to be a certain way, and those are the places we want to reach, you know? The deepest crevices of intolerance," Al-Mutawa said, explaining that there are parts of the world where a girl and a boy are required to have a third person along. "You have to remember that we want to be able to have this be a business, even in some of the hostile territories. Those are the areas that need positive content to kind of compete with the hate out there. But you can't get it in there unless you somehow play by the rules.
- Violence Avoidance:
With heroes that have oversized muscles and some struggling to control a raging strength, it's difficult to completely avoid violence among The 99 characters. But the characters don't always resort to a brawl to resolve conflicts.
"We try very very hard not to solve problems with violence," Moore said. "A few of the characters' powers are inherently violent: Mumita the Destroyer, for instance. But others, like Bari the Healer and Jami the Assembler, are basically peaceful. The trick is to combine their powers — generally in groups of three — and help them build something, not destroy it. It's a fun challenge."
Check back later this week when we talk to the creators behind the JLA/The 99 crossover. For a free download of The 99 Origin comic book, click here.