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Spiderman ? Who's that ? Zein the Last Pharoah is more like it !

AK Comics usher in the era of the homegrown Middle Eastern superhero

Batman ... the X-Men ... Spiderman ... Bah!! These American superheroes are old news.

Now is the new era of the homegrown Arab superhero, four of them in fact - and they look likely to give their made-in-America counterparts a run for their money.

That, at least, is the ambition of a young Egyptian company that is producing, for the first time, comic books whose main characters aren't denizens of New York or Gotham City but instead Cairo and other - sometimes imaginary - regional capitals like the "City of All Faiths."

AK Comics has produced and distributed four series of comic books, each with its own character, since spring of this year.

The flagship superhero is Zein, dubbed "The Last Pharaoh," one of the immortal sons of the final rulers of ancient Egypt before that civilization disappeared. Zein spends his time fighting evildoers, including his own brother Ho-Ra who wants to use the family's Pharaonic mega-powers to enslave mankind.

A university professor by day, Zein dons a black jumpsuit adorned with a golden scarab to fight the good fight. The other three characters are Jalila, "Defender of the City of All Faiths," a buxom nuclear scientist gifted with radioactive powers living in the not-too-distant future; Aya, "The Princess of Darkness," a mysterious, angst-ridden crimefighter; and Rakan, "The Lone Warrior," who drifts through medieval Arab cities - a sort of Conan the Barbarian figure fighting Persians, Mongols and anyone else who gets in his way.

All the protagonists are the brainchild of Ayman Kandeel, an Egyptian economics professor at Cairo University and the founder of AK Comics. Kandeel grew up devouring imported comic books from the United States and elsewhere, but often found there was little he could relate to as an Arab. In 2002 while living in the United States he launched his own series of comics, starting with Zein.

Although he managed to get a small following among aficionados, Kandeel could only occupy a tiny niche in the massive comic book market that already existed. In the long run, it made sense to sell in their natural market: the Middle East.

Although various forms of cartoons and graphic novels exist in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, it is the first time that American-model Arab superhero characters have been introduced here.

But Kandeel prefers to avoid the term "Arab superheroes" to describe his characters.

"They are Middle Eastern heroes, period," he says. "We didn't want to start identifying them with one culture - I think that's one of the problems in this region, it's a symptom of the social decay that has set in."

By creating these heroic cartoon figures, AK Comics hopes to present positive role models for Arab children. But it also faces different constraints publishing in the Arab world.

The company had to make some allowances for the cultural conservatism of the region when it reprinted the first few issues initially released in the U.S. For instance, whereas in the American version Jalila's body-molding outfit reveals her chiseled abs, in Egypt her midriff is covered. Certain sensitive topics, such as religion, are also avoided.

"We avoided completely talking about religion," says Marwan al-Neshar, AK Comics' general manager. "You never know the religion of characters."

This avoidance can seem a bit odd at times considering the omnipresence of religion - and external signs of religious belonging - in Egypt as well as the rest of the Arab world.

"The whole point is that people's religious beliefs are between themselves and God,' Kandeel argues, "and that people need to stop focusing so much on these labels."

As their main target is the 8-13-year-old market, sexuality also doesn't feature - even if AK Comics has borrowed the American conventionality of depicting its characters as brawny and shapely. The heroes do not even seem to have love interests. What they do have, though, are troubled families, with siblings drafted into fanatical movements or becoming addicted to drugs. Sometimes the character itself offers a moral lesson: Rakan, who was paralyzed as a child, manages to overcome his disability and develop super-human strength through persistence and training.

Perhaps most interesting is the political dimension of the comics. While there are definite references to political problems with grounding in the real world, such as terrorism and fanaticism, Israel and Palestine, these references generally remain vague.

In Jalila's world - based around her hometown, the "City of All Faiths," which is in reality based on Jerusalem - there is a running reference to a past catastrophe that occurred at the end of the "55-year war" with a nuclear blast at "Dimondona." The name is a thinly veiled reference to Israel's nuclear research facility in Dimona, which is believed to have been where the Jewish state's nuclear weapons were developed.

Moreover, two extremist groups constantly threaten the peace-loving citizens of the City of All Faiths: the "United Liberation Force" and the "Zios Army." While the former could be any revolutionary movement, the latter is clearly a reference to Zionism.

In the U.S. imprint of one issue, an Arab leader is depicted being briefed on a terrorist attack. But this presented a problem for the Egyptian version: the leader in question bears an uncanny resemblance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Thus, in the Egyptian version, the character's face has been given a thick white mane of hair and a mustache.

As AK Comics expands around the region - it has plans to begin selling the comics in the Gulf and in Lebanon - it will have to face different standards of censorship and sensitivity to various issues.

"We're trying to negotiate with the Saudis to see if censorship can be avoided," Neshar said. "Hopefully they are getting more liberal."

AK Comics is distributing its books in Egypt in both English - to reach the elite class that is most often educated in a foreign language - as well as Arabic, but also wanted to reach a larger segment of the population. To do so, it began to print a black-and-white version of the comic books on lower quality paper, which will be sold at one Egyptian pound per issue rather than the standard five. The company started by printing 5,000 full-color versions of each comic book, with an additional 3,000 copies in English and 10,000 in black and white. These print runs have increased as word has spread about the new comics and as demand has risen.

While Kandeel and other Egyptian writers develop most scenarios, for the moment Studio G, a Brazilian company that also does artwork for some major American comics, produces the graphic art.

"We wanted to have the look and feel of American comics, but with an Arab twist," Neshar says, adding that within three years he would like to move the entire production line to Egypt.

"We're trying to bring this know-how to Egypt."

The new Arab superheroes may provide an answer to what some Arab readers see as a recurrent bias in American comic books. Jack Shaheen, a professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University in the U.S. has written several books on how Arabs are portrayed in the American mass media. In an article entitled "The Comic Book Arab," Shaheen writes about a clear tendency to use stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists, bandits or religious fanatics: "Everywhere the Arab is the enemy: Arabs vs. Donald Duck, Batman, Sgt. Rock, Hawkman; Arabs vs. Americans, Israelis, Europeans; Arabs vs. common human decency.

"Nearly all these Arab villains fall into one of three categories: the repulsive terrorist, the sinister sheikh, or the rapacious bandit. And all of them, Arab men and Arab women, come with their own distorted sex roles."

Not only are American comics frequently depicting Arabs as villains, Shaheen adds, but they also confuse them with Iranians. In one issue of Batman, for instance, the Caped Crusader chases the Joker and his Arab henchmen through Beirut, speaking Farsi to the Arab locals. When the Joker flees to Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini appoints him as the Islamic Republic's ambassador to the United Nations, we are treated to the comic sight of the Joker addressing the UN General Assembly dressed as an Arab sheikh, complete with checkered red-and-white keffiyeh. After declaring that he is proud to speak on behalf of Iran - a country with whose leaders he has in common "insanity and a great love of fish" - the Joker rips off his costume and gasses the chamber.

While the new comics may have some way to go before reaching the sophistication of Spiderman or the Fantastic Four they may at least avoid some of the embarrassing stereotypes all too often found in publications dedicated to American audiences. They will also provide young Arab children with their own superheroes to look up to.

For more information see http://akcomics.com

Beirut,12 27 2004
Redaction
The Daily Star
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