Naif Al-Mutawa is the Kuwaiti creator of ‘The 99’ comics, television shows and movie. ‘The 99’ superheroes and their stories are inspired by Islam (but are not Islamic) and incorporate mythology from the Arab region. Here, the entrepreneur – who used to work as a clinical psychologist – tells us why exporting talent from the region is important, why Batman is his favourite superhero and why making friends with President Obama was a blessing and a curse.
DFI: Who’s your favourite superhero?
Al-Mutawa: Batman. He was born into a wealthy circumstance but he had to do good with that. He couldn’t just depend on it. There are a lot of lessons there for Gulf citizens – you can quote me on that one!
DFI: When and where did ‘The 99’ idea come from?
Al-Mutawa: Early June 2003, in a London cab. I was going on the annual pilgrimage every Kuwaiti makes from Edgeware Road to Harrods. The idea came to me. I was having a conversation with my sister and I ran with it. I wrote the first few storylines and the backstory.
(Later) I had meetings with…a bunch of pivotal people from Marvel and DC Comics. Neal Adams, who was working on Batman in the seventies, explained the relationship between religion and comics – which I wasn’t really aware of. He said ‘You know what Shazam means?’…It’s an acronym for six Greek Gods (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury).’ I thought: ‘What if I apply this kind of thinking to my own religion, and create my own universe?’
DFI: How much does mythology from the Middle East feature in ‘The 99’?
Al-Mutawa: Quite a bit. It’s mythology in the sense that I’ve gone back to the Qur’an and pulled out some archetypes.
Abu Righal, or father of Righal, was the person who led Abraha's army during the year of the elephant, the year the Prophet Mohammed was born. In accordance with the Qur’an, God stopped Abraha’s army by sending birds that had stones that pelted the elephants of Abraha’s army and stopped them dead in their tracks. So in ‘The 99’ who’s the bad guy?
It’s Rughal. Who stops him in ‘The 99’? They’re not birds; they’re superheroes and some of them can fly. What do they use? Noor stones. It’s kind of like a second layer on the mythology on the region. ‘The 99’ are based on the 99 attributes of Allah in the Qur’an, so that’s another thing that I use. Also you’ll see throughout the storyline newer myths. One my mentors…Fadi Ghandour, the founder of Aramex. The Jordanian member of ‘The 99’ is Baeth the Sender and his power is he can send anything anywhere. I wanted to get the attention of Qatar Foundation (QF). I made the Qatari member Aleem the All Knowing, because knowledge is the centre-point of what QF is all about. It’s a new layer of mythology.
DFI: Has anyone banned ‘The 99’?
Al-Mutawa: It isn’t banned anywhere, but in the US bigots scared the broadcaster from broadcasting. Even though the US was the first market we sold the TV series to over two years ago, they still haven’t aired it…(There were fears) that advertisers would pull money from the show.
DFI: Was getting a shout-out from President Obama the ultimate moment for you and the series?
Al-Mutawa: It was an amazing thing; I wouldn’t trade that for any moment in my life. But (after) the Obama shout-out was when the right wing in America came after us saying: ‘Obama’s Muslim and this proves it! He’s trying to brainwash your kids with sharia superheroes! Anybody watching the show will become radicalised! We cannot allow those Muslims to brainwash our children like the Mexicans did with Dora the Explorer!’…There’s that wacky constituency with every society – it’s not endemic to America. I don’t take it personally – but it has affected us.
DFI: If comic book artists here want their work turned into a series, what should they do?
Al-Mutawa: Pray! It’s a tough business because 80 percent of your revenue will come from the English-speaking world… There’s a market for global things that are based on our region…To do it just for the region? It’s a tough business, it really is.
DFI: You were a doctor and your parents once advised you to keep writing as a hobby. What advice do you have for others who want to break out and do something less traditional?
Al-Mutawa: We’re in a part of the world that you shouldn’t be asking for permission. You can ask for forgiveness, but don’t ask for permission. People will tell you 100 reasons why it won’t work.
DFI: What are your future plans for ‘The 99’?
Al-Mutawa: We’re in the middle of production for Season Two. We’ve (signed a license with) a bank in Kuwait that’s launching a ‘The 99’ account. ‘The 99’ theme park in Kuwait opened four years ago – we’re looking to expand that.
DFI: Did you hear about the Marvel theme park planned for Dubai?
Al-Mutawa: I heard. My dream for us is instead of importing culture, we start to export it.