When Paul Levitz developed a friendship with columnist Naif Al-Mutawa, little did he know it would lead to a crossover event that even the U.S. president would help promote.
JLA/The 99, a six-issue monthly story from DC Comics beginning in October, unites the teenage heroes from The 99 from Teshkeel Comics with the Justice League of America from DC. Featuring art by Tom Derenick and covers by Felipe Massafera, the story will be written by Fabian Nicieza and Stuart Moore, who also write The 99 comic book series.
"I think the combination of seasoned veterans of the Justice League meeting young, idealistic heroes [of The 99] works very well, while the awareness of varied cultures that The 99 understand might not be on the radar of some of the more 'Americanized' JLA members," Nicieza explained of the crossover. "So, without being didactic, each side has something they can learn from the other."
That "learning" is exactly what Al-Mutawa was hoping to achieve when he created The 99 seven years ago. As Newsarama detailed in Part 1 of our series on The 99, the superhero team was developed by Al-Mutawa to challenge the negative perception of Islam among Muslims. Although the superheroes don't actually practice any religion within the pages of The 99 comic, they are based on Islamic archetypes and represent the Muslim culture in a positive way.
"Naif's basic goal was to provide children all over the world with inspiring role models," Moore said.
When the Justice League crossover with The 99 was publicly hailed this year by President Barack Obama, it was the culmination of years of work by Al-Mutawa to legitimize his comic. Since he first came up with the idea for The 99, he's been gathering advice and cooperation from a slew of comic book professionals, from Neal Adams to Paul Levitz to Tom DeFalco to Nicieza and Moore.
"My good friend and former Marvel co-worker, Sven Larsen, had just started working for Teshkeel and he recommended that Naif meet with me to help him refine and better define the 99 universe," said Nicieza, who wrote The 99 comic when it first launched. "Naif had been talking about the 99 and several other projects with lots of former Marvel guys."
"I think I was approached by Marie Javins, the editor, whom I've known since her time at Marvel," said Moore, who recently took over writing The 99. "I was immediately attracted to the basic idea: a multicultural group of teenagers, each member from a different country, who learn to work together despite their differences to make the world a better place."These comic book professionals helped mold The 99 into a working comic, and the resulting attention it's received is pretty impressive. Not only is the comic the top-selling title in the Muslim world, but it already has a theme park in Kuwait and will soon have an animated series.
But it was a friendship with former DC Publisher Levitz that led to the JLA crossover event. "I have a pretty strong relationship with Paul Levitz," Al-Mutawa explained. "Paul's been following my writing for awhile. We have lunches and dinners.
"Then, when President Obama was going to be speaking from a Muslim country last February, nobody was sure where," Al-Mutawa said. "But I immediately went to Paul and I said, 'Listen, you know, Marvel pulled this kind of cheap shot when he became president and put Spider-Man on the cover with him. But DC Comics has an opportunity to fulfill President Obama's vision."
Two weeks after Obama spoke in Cairo last year, DC Comics announced the crossover. By April 2010, Obama had basically said thanks.
"When DC Comics does this crossover with the Justice League of America and The 99," Al-Mutawa said, "it basically takes President Obama's vision in the real world and implements it in the metaphorical world — in the fictional world."
Now Nicieza and Moore get the task of how these two teams will work together, and but they said it's not just a case of East meeting West, but also old meeting new.
"The 99 are teenagers, and most of them are fairly new at the superhero game; but they have a firm philosophy and they're very good at what they do," Moore added.
Putting those teens up against the more established heroes of the JLA has provided a lot of fun moments in the comic, Moore said.
"We're having a lot of fun with odd combinations," he said, "like the friendship between Wonder Woman and Samda the Invulnerable, a cute little eight-year-old girl with an impenetrable force field."
As Newsarama detailed in Part 2 of our series on The 99, the superheroes get their powers from the Noor Stones, which carry the power of knowledge from an ancient library of wisdom. The 99 powers are based upon the 99 attributes of Allah from the Koran.
Of course, only about 30 of the superheroes have been introduced so far. But a brand new member of The 99 will get a debut within the JLA/The 99 comic.
"There are new members joining constantly," Moore explained. "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."When The 99 meet the Justice League, the book opens with a meeting between Superman and Dr. Ramzi, the adult mentor of The 99.
"That lays out the philosophies and worldviews of both groups," Moore explained. "Those ideals are then challenged, heavily, by an attack from an outside force."
The JLA villain who attacks is allied with The 99's archenemy, Rughal. And he begins his plan by inciting violence all around the world, turning neighbor against neighbor, country against country."This situation goes straight to the heart of The 99's mission of universal peace and brotherhood," Moore said. "As the story goes on, the two teams have to meet their enemies on several different fronts, all over the world."
"It's a fun situation because good guys and bad guys across the world are being mind-controlled and there's almost a, dare I say it, "George Perezian" scope to everything going on. There, now George is officially an adjective," Nicieza laughed.
Things get really scary when one of the superheroes who in mind-controlled is Superman, meaning the 99 and the Justice League have to really work together to control the threat.
While the story is technically a crossover between two different publishing companies, Nicieza and Moore are approaching the story as if they both live in the same universe.
"This is taking place on 'Earth Intercompany Crossover,'" Nicieza said with a laugh. "On that Earth, characters from different companies can exist on the same Earth without needing to worry about contrived inter-dimensional mass transit.
"Seriously, the 99 universe is not well-grounded in the kind of conceits that the DCU takes for granted, so rather than try fitting round pegs into square holes, Stuart Moore and I just decided it made more sense to have them all on the same Earth," he said. "Is it in continuity? Beats me. Wonder Woman has her new costume. Barry Allen is Flash. Ray Palmer is Atom, so it seems like its taking place in 'real-time' DCU to me."
"This is one of those crossovers that just assumes the two groups operate in the same universe, but have never stumbled across each other before," Moore said. "It's almost in continuity, for both teams, but not quite."
But one thing both creators were sure about was that JLA/The 99 is aimed toward readers of all ages, no matter what their culture.
"Stuart and I wanted to tell a big, bold traditional DC-style team up," Nicieza said. "Large teams are split into smaller groups, each having something important to do which is all in service to a much larger puzzle that needs to be solved. It's a big worldwide problem that the teams are facing, so while the Justice League jumps in taking control of every situation, The 99 have to work in little ways to both help the civilians who need assistance, and also help find more non-violent methods of solving the problem."
"It's big and fun and splashy and all-ages friendly," Moore added.
"Sorry, no torn limbs, nobody gets shoved in a refrigerator and no zombies walk the Earth," Nicieza said. "Just what an old boss of mine used to call, 'Hoo-Hah Action' and there ain't nothin' wrong with having a little fun!"
Check back next week on Newsarama when we talk to the up-and-coming cover artist for JLA/The 99, Felipe Massafera.