Muslim Superheroes Arrives – In the Age of Trump
A. David Lewis
Over the last fifteen months, a half-dozen posts about various aspects of Muslim superheroes have appeared here on Mizan Pop. Topics ranging from cultural appropriation to antisemitism to grassroots protest were provided by a similarly wide span of authors: literary theorists, Islamicists, historians, and more. For these efforts alone, we’re indebted to Martin Lund, Aymon Kreil, Hussein Rashid, Frederick Stromberg, and our many colleagues who offered advice and aid. Moreover, these pieces are, in many cases, short versions of the chapters of the new book edited by Martin and myself, Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation.
Muslim Superheroes was officially published on Monday, July 10, 2017. So, what’s next?
That is not a wholly rhetorical question. Publication is an immense threshold to cross, no question, but, as the book’s editors, Martin and I were sincere when we wrote that Muslim Superheroes was “intended as a step forward, not as the final word.” Therefore, a review of what has brought us here seems in order before determining the path ahead.
We put out a public call for contributors in March of 2015. By the end of that April, we had, from all around the world, a number of chapter proposals, giving us the next month to make our decisions and find a reasonable book structure. By July, we had confirmed the chosen participants’ involvement and had a proposal to ILEX Foundation. Word came down in August that the proposal had been accepted, and a mid-2017 publication date was determined for Muslim Superheroes to appear as the first volume in the new Mizan Series published by the foundation and distributed by Harvard University Press. Delighted, we notified the contributors immediately and set a May 2016 date for their full chapters. The content trickled in from the start of 2016 right up until the deadline, revision requests were sent back to the authors along the way, and, soon after Election Day 2016, an initial proof of the full manuscript was compiled by ILEX.
That was hardly the end of it, however. In December of 2016 and January 2017, Martin and I worked with Series Editor Michael Pregill and ILEX Publications Production Manager Christopher Dadian in fashioning a style sheet, determining formatting policies, and massaging the content into its final form. The final proof of the manuscript was ready by March – nearly two years to the day since we first put out the call for papers – and one might think we breathed a sigh of relief.
Of course not. There was now indexing to do. There were events to plan. There was a cover layout to determine. And, all along, there were Mizan Pop posts to coordinate and both a Twitter account and Facebook page to feed. When Trump’s initial attempt at a Muslim Ban came out in late January, we each felt a responsibility to react, nearly at the same time as news of the Quebec City mosque shooting also dismayed us. The several attacks in Paris reopened many emotional wounds of the Charlie Hebdo killings from 2015. And, when Marvel Comics artist Ardian Syaf included anti-Jewish content in his art for X-Men Gold #1, we personally felt a need to respond and contextualize. This book did not come into the world in tranquil times.
Yet the book was completed. In fact, it was conceived, prepared, and readied in relatively short order, relative to the usual speed of scholarly publishing. Without sacrificing quality or academic rigor, our entire team of editors, contributors, and administrators had gone from recognizing a void to publishing a full and considered work to fill that gap in approximately twenty-seven months. If that sounds like bragging, it is not meant to be – but it is, to some degree, a point of pride, particularly as it occurred in a relatively hostile political and social era.
Upon its release, Amazon had Muslim Superheroes as its #1 New Release for “Religious Literature Criticism” – a niche, to be sure, but very much our niche. The American Academy of Religion has approved a panel to be held at its annual meeting in November 2017 to explore reactions to the book. Blurbs from Wajahat Ali, Todd Green, Susanne Olsson, Kristian Petersen, and Al Ewing have given us plentiful material for promotion and support, not to mention the exposure afforded us by the Mizan Series’ distribution through Harvard University Press. Boston’s NPR affiliate WBUR covered the book’s release, and my home institution, MCPHS University, approved the very first online “Muslim Superheroes” course in North America for its Summer 2017 offerings.
Planning out an online, undergraduate, full-credit, intensive five-week course on a topic that, for me personally, had been far longer than two years in the making has provided its own challenges. Of all the characters discussed in Muslim Superheroes, which ones did the students need to consider for primary sources? Partly, this was dictated by the availability of particular storylines: Simon Baz inheriting the Green Lantern mantle was neatly packaged in two trade paperback storyline collections, Green Lantern: The Rise of the Third Army and Green Lantern: The Wrath of the First Lantern. Likewise, given the popularity, availability, and coverage of the character, the course would have felt incomplete without the inclusion of Ms. Marvel via her titular series’ first volume, No Normal. With both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, the genre powerhouses, represented, I wanted to make the remainder of the accompanying reading capture a wider range of material beyond the American mainstream. The first two choices in this vein were easy: Deena Mohamed’s webcomic Qahera was what had drawn me to her art for what would become our cover in the first place, and Teshkeel Media’s The 99 loomed too large a presence to omit. In fact, before the coming of Ms. Marvel, The 99 had been the figurative face of Muslim superheroes in much of the American and international media. With little space left in the five-week schedule, I opted for two additional properties, namely SplitMoonArts’ rising hero Buraaq and another character with a much more complicated pedigree, Kismet, Man of Fate.
I have a vested interest in Kismet, Man of Fate: I write it. Or, more accurately, I write the character’s modern-day adventures. As detailed elsewhere, Kismet was created for Bomber Comics in 1944 (see the timeline of the appearance of Muslim characters in comics below), and, before the series was discontinued, he made his mark as the first full-fledged Muslim superhero. His having been forgotten and abandoned to the public domain for seventy years pained me; moreover, the character himself spoke to me. Kismet had been written with anachronistic nobility, straining against Arab and “Mohammadan” stereotypes of American comics’ Golden Age. Even as I continued my research on the subject, I found that I wanted to contribute creatively to the legacy of the first Muslim superhero. Initially, it was only a single story for a fledgling Kickstarter campaign, a capstone to Kismet’s wartime exploits. But soon, with the support of publisher A Wave Blue World, I saw a way to bring his adventures forward to the present. All this, ultimately, made it far wiser to proverbially put my cards on the table with the class and share my own Muslim superhero with them in the final week, instead of presenting a false front of total objectivity.
Along with all these readings, students were challenged to produce two projects for their grade. Modeled after the bus ad protests utilizing Ms. Marvel, the application assignment challenged students to locate a public, real-life cause for which a Muslim superhero could be usefully employed. The assignment prompt signaled to them, “You will be challenged not only to develop a novel use for a superheroic Muslim character but also to consider the most effective social venue and deployment plan.”
I admit that I was goading them, tantalizing them to find a way in which these characters connected with their own lives and passions. While some students focused on Islam-related matters like gender equality and hate crimes, others went to other causes like cancer screenings and drunk driving.
Next, the review assignment asked them what part of our media landscape needed to know more about Muslim superheroes. Where could they propose a thoughtful review of such properties? After identifying a review space – be it a newspaper, a YouTube channel, a PTA newsletter – they each crafted a “pitch,” with an ear for the particular audience. Finally, the review project asked them, “what do you think you could do next? Besides simply getting a grade, what might you want to do next?”
That’s the very question facing us now. When Martin and I began this endeavor, Donald Trump had not yet announced his candidacy for the presidency, and now, upon publication, we live in Trumpland. When we began, the Charlie Hebdo attacks had just occurred, and now the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments on a Muslim ban. Over this time, the Syrian crisis has worsened, and, in turn, prompted me to start a non-profit organization, the Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective (CYRIC).
With a team of artists, activists, and mental health experts, I am working to bring free comic books based on their native folklore to Syrian refugee children. Our first efforts have met with success, but CYRIC continues to need your tax-exempt support in order to further these goals.
That’s what I decided must come next, after this tenure with Muslim Superheroes. Perhaps readers will contribute to CYRIC, perhaps they will create the next wave of Muslim superheroes, or perhaps they will continue building on this swell of academic interest in Islam in American popular culture. I know what I’m doing next; how about you?
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 is the co-editor (with Martin Lund) of the new Mizan Series volume Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation.