A Brief History
A. David Lewis and Martin Lund
This post is the first in an ongoing series of features about Muslim superheroes we will be publishing here on Mizan Pop, discussing specific comic characters and series, Islamophobic superhero comics, the pedagogy of Muslim superheroes, and more. Here, we introduce the field in general terms, discussing the place of Muslim superheroes in the American cultural landscape and beyond.
A Primer on the Muslim Superhero
Historically, the category of “Muslim superheroes” has been a sparsely populated one. The superhero genre had its first big boom in the U.S., its so-called Golden Age, from roughly 1938 until 1954. In these years, almost every brand of hero or heroine was thrown against the wall to see what stuck, although a white, middle-class, male, and implicitly Christian norm was implicit, from which characters rarely diverged. Nonetheless, Muslim superheroes blipped briefly on the radar – the first among whom was the mysterious and, arguably, somewhat exotified 1944 character Kismet – and then vanished.1 Later, in the era of the OPEC embargo and the Iran hostage crisis, with Muslims increasingly being flatly conflated with Arabs and described as a threat to the USA, modest attempts were again made to bring Arab and Muslim protagonists to the comic book pages. DC Comics imported their Egyptian superheroine Isis from the Shazam television show into the world of print circa 1976, and Marvel had its own Middle Eastern character, the Arabian Knight, debut in the pages of Incredible Hulk #250 in 1980. Once again, these characters were soon scattered to the wind. As globalization loomed large and the Cold War ended, Arab and Muslim superheroes could once more be briefly spotted in panels. For example, between 1992 and 1994, Archie Comics included a Saudi bird-man named Al Falqa in a few issues of its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures set in the Middle East; DC introduced the Turkish muslima Janissary in 2000, though she has not graced a comics page since 2007. In 1995, Marvel produced the Syrian superhero Batal, introduced as accompanying a delegation to the United Nations, only to have his neck broken immediately after his debut.
Following the September 11th attacks, Islam came relentlessly into focus in the American popular consciousness and media, and the representation of Muslims kicked into overdrive. Although much commentary and representation zeroed in on terrorism, not all of the increased attention was negative. Comics culture sought out new heroes in the wake of 9/11 and found new narrative opportunities therein; the Muslim superhero has been an active point of portrayal, of protagonism, and of politics ever since.
The roster grows by the year. Marvel Comics introduced the Afghani mutant muslima Dust, clad in a robe-like abaya with a niqab face-veil, in 2002; the British Pakistani doctor and superheroine Faiza Hussain, later dubbed Excalibur, first appeared in 2008; and the character Monet St. Croix, a.k.a. simply “M,” who was first introduced in 1994, was retroactively made Muslim – in comics industry parlance, retconned – in a 2011 comic book.2 Similarly, in recent years DC has added several Muslim characters, including Bilal Asselah, or Nightrunner, a French Algerian Muslim who was introduced in 2011, and Simon Baz, a Lebanese American member of its intergalactic Green Lantern police force, who made his first appearance in 2012. It seems that the intention behind these characters has been to offer a corrective to negative Muslim representation, which has not always been successful. Moreover, many of these characters have followed the pattern that has plagued the Muslim superhero since the Golden Age: while undoubtedly introduced with more fanfare than earlier Muslim superheroes, most of them have similarly receded into the genre’s backwaters after a few appearances.
Outside of Marvel and DC – the so-called “Big Two” of American superhero publishing – independent publishers and imprints of varying sizes have also been active in these years. The independent studio WildStorm, for example, introduced the Palestinian Habib ben Hassan, inheritor of the role of “The Doctor” for their premiere superteam, the Authority, in 2005. In 2011, Liquid Comics and the Open Hands Initiative (an organization dedicated to public diplomatic efforts) published comics about the Silver Scorpion, a disabled Arab Muslim superhero meant to be “more than a superhero; it represents a new phase of US-Arab and Muslim public diplomacy efforts, and serves as a cross-cultural hero for the world that promotes tolerance, inclusion and equality.”3 Also in 2011, SplitMoonArts premiered Buraaq, a Muslim superhero whose creators wanted to “tell our side of the story. We wanted to have our own Superhero, a hero that shares common universal values of Islam; to standup [sic] for Truth, Justice and Freedom!”
Like many of the Muslim superheroes introduced by the Big Two, these characters have remained peripheral. The same cannot be said for the (until recently) most visible Muslim superheroes: The 99. Published from 2007 through 2013 by Dr. Naif al-Mutawa’s Kuwait-based Teshkeel Media, the series centers on an assembled group of teenaged superheroes who, after coming into contact with mystical stones, are imbued with powers that correspond to the ninety-nine attributes of God in Islamic tradition. Al-Mutawa’s enterprise has been the subject of much praise, including a 2010 “shout-out” from President Barack Obama, and much controversy, including multiple fatwas condemning the series as blasphemous. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, proclaimed, “The 99 is a work of the devil that should be condemned and forbidden in respect to Allah’s name and attributes,” though Al-Mutawa and the book’s supporters earnestly hold otherwise.4 In the wake of The 99, other superheroes have emerged out of Muslim-majority societies, such as the Pakistani Burka Avenger and the Egyptian webcomic Qahera.
Currently, no Muslim superhero is as visible as Ms. Marvel, the teenaged Pakistani-American Jersey girl whom Marvel debuted in 2013. Much has been written about her, and deservedly so: not only has her title been a surprise hit and the character become a multimedia darling — albeit one with numerous vocal detractors — but her image has been leveraged against real-world Islamophobia.
When Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative produced a series of anti-Muslim bus ads in San Francisco, persons unknown retaliated by drawing Ms. Marvel to obscure the content. Plastered on top of the ads, American superhero comics’ latest counter-culture icon could be seen “Calling all bigotry busters” and asking people to help “stamp out racism.”5 Whether or not Ms. Marvel’s prominence in the current comics-cultural moment — she is currently not only the protagonist of her own ongoing comic book series, but also one of the stars of Marvel’s flagship Avengers book – will prove a lasting one remains to be seen. Perhaps Muslim superheroes have finally arrived with Ms. Marvel; or perhaps she will prove to be another in a long line of false starts.
The Study of Muslim Superheroes
A pattern emerges in what we have sketched above. Muslim superheroes have emerged and disappeared over the better part of a century. This suggests that there is, and has long been, a perceived need for Muslim superheroes. Most likely, this vacillation ties into the ebb and flow of American popular consciousness of Islam and Muslims, but also represents an attempted working-through of their place in U.S. society. It is also clear that there is an uncertainty about what these characters are supposed to be and what role they should play in the ongoing and often heated conversation about the place of Islam and Muslims in American culture and society.
The sporadic rise and fall of Muslim superheroes, as well as their celebration and their discontents, remains poorly understood. Despite the recent boost in Muslim superheroes’ profile and popularity, their study has been slipshod. This may partly be attributed to what might be perceived as the slow rise of Comics Studies as a field, what International Journal of Comic Art founder John A. Lent calls its “delayed birth” and current “drive to maturity.”6 Scholars of many disparate disciplines have brought their attention to comics, then to comics and religion, then to the superhero genre and Islam, specifically, in a piecemeal fashion over the years.
The study of Muslim superheroes has only quite recently begun in earnest, with scholars like comics historian Fredrik Strömberg and French scholar Shirin Edwin publishing some of the first scholarly articles in this specific field in 2011.7 There has been a small but steady stream of work on the subject since. Regrettably, while some of this scholarship is of high quality, it has, to date, been scattered over multiple disciplines, and new work has only rarely been in dialogue with what has come before. By embodying different perspectives and employing different methodologies (such as feminist scholarship, philosophy, reception studies, and close readings), earlier scholarship suggests some fruitful avenues to pursue further. Foremost among them are the need for interdisciplinary bridges between Islamic Studies and Comics Studies; for a constructive dialogue between scholars and comparative perspectives that span different characters, publishers, and contexts; and for a broader range of materials to be examined than has been the case thus far.
A. DAVID LEWIS is a Faculty Associate at MCPHS University, specializing in the online instruction of world religions, popular culture and religion, and comic books and healthcare. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Boston University as well as an M.A. in English Literature from Georgetown University. His American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife (Palgrave, 2014) was a nominee for the 2015 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for “Best Scholarly/Academic Work,” and his Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels (co-edited with Christine Hoff Kraemer; Continuum, 2010) serves as a foundational text for Comics Studies involvement with Religious Studies. Currently, Lewis serves as an Editorial Board Member for The International Journal of Comic Art and an Executive Board Member for the Comics Studies Society (CSS). He is a founding member of Sacred and Sequential, an organization of international scholars interested in the intersection of religion and the comics medium.
MARTIN LUND is a Swedish Research Council International Postdoc at Linnaeus University, Växjö, and a Visiting Research Scholar at the Gotham Center for New York City History, CUNY Graduate Center, New York. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Lund University (no relation), as well as a Masters in Theology, History and Anthropology of Religion, also from Lund University. His current research focuses on representations of New York City in American comic books and graphic novels. Recent publications include “‘[A] Matter of SAVED or LOST’: Difference, Salvation, and Subjection in Chick Tracts,” in Rikke Platz Cortsen, Erin La Cour, and Anne Magnussen (eds.), Comics and Power: Representing and Questioning Culture, Subjects and Communities (Cambridge Scholars, 2015), 173-192; “The Mutant Problem: X-Men, Confirmation Bias, and the Methodology of Comics and Identity,” European Journal of American Studies 10 (2015); “‘X Marks the Spot’: Urban Dystopia, Slum Voyeurism and Failures of Identity in District X,” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 2 (2015); and “ ‘NY 101’: New York City According to Brian Wood,” International Journal of Comic Art 17 (2015): 1-33. Martin is also an editor of the recently restarted Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art.
Lewis and Lund are co-editors of the scholarly anthology Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation, to be published by ILEX Foundation in spring 2017.
 See A. David Lewis, “Kismet Seventy Years Later: Recognizing the First Genuine Muslim Superhero,” http://islamicommentary.org/2014/03/kismet-seventy-years-later-recognizing-the-first-genuine-muslim-superhero/.
 See the remarks about the retconning of M by blogger “Azra” at Muslimah Media Watch: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/2011/04/kicking-ass-and-taking-names-while-muslim/.
 See Reese Schonfeld, “ISIL vs. Naif Al-Mutawa and The 99”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/reese-schonfeld/isil-vs-naif-almutawa-and_b_5883926.html. Al-Mutawa’s own commentary on the controversy The 99 has generated, “Broken Legs, Death Threats and Fatwas: The Trials and Tribulations of The 99,” can be found at http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/broken-legs-death-threats-and-fatwas-the-trials-and-tribulations-of-the-99.
 See Molly Hannon, “Kamala Khan, Marvel Superhero, Fights Real-Life Racism”: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/15/kamala-khan-marvel-superhero-fights-real-life-racism.html.
 Fredrik Strömberg, “‘Yo, Rag-Head!’: Arab and Muslim Superheroes in American Comic Books after 9/11,” Amerikastudien/American Studies 56 (2011): 573-601; Shirin Edwin, “Islam’s Trojan Horse: Battling Perceptions of Muslim Women in The 99,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 3 (2012): 171-199.