Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Middle East comic superheroes

Although I understand the logic behind this, I'm not sure how supportive I am - there are definitely some good parts of the story. However, one thing that really bothers me is that the picture of the woman on this BBC report is showing a lot of cleavage, which really does not represent many women in the Middle East!

A Princess of Darkness, a time-travelling pharaoh and an ancient Arabian swordsman are among the superheroes of a new comic book - the first to be designed specifically for the Middle East.

Aya, Zein, Jalila and Rakan are the heroes of Egypt-based AK Comics' Middle East Heroes.

The comic, published in both Arabic and English, sees them entrusted with keeping the region out of the hands of evil following 55 years of war between two unnamed superpowers.

"I believe that having superheroes, or superhuman beings, is an essential need - just like God," the AK Comics' managing editor Marwan Nashar told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"We need to believe in a higher being that will be there for help, and can affect change on his own. There is a global and human need for that."

'Succeed through hardships'

Middle East Heroes, in keeping with many popular Western comic books, has a message of tolerance.

"In essence it's all about good versus evil, and good eventually triumphs," Mr Nashar explained.

"They have their own ways and their own villains to encounter, and eventually succeed through hardships."

He added that his superheroes go through turmoil - and either overcome it and show their best characteristics, or fail and become villains.

We have the creativity, we have the background for the characters Marwan Nashar

Among them is Aya, whose father was murdered in front of her, and her mother blamed - effectively leaving her to grow up as an orphan. She is adopted by an underground fighting organisation that turns her into the Princess Of Darkness.

Another characters are Zein, known as The Last Pharaoh, who was transported from Ancient Egypt in a time capsule; Jalila, who developed superhuman powers after surviving a nuclear explosion; and Rakan, a warrior with a magic sword from ancient Arabia.

What is notable about Middle East Heroes is that the female models are at least as powerful as their male counterparts. Jalila is most powerful character in terms of abilities.

"We really wanted to assess gender equality by creating two male characters and two female characters - and making them equal," Mr Nashar said.

He added that this strategy had been well-received, especially amongst women, who read the comic books in disproportionately large numbers.

The books have also managed to remain relatively uncensored throughout the region - where the authorities tend to strictly control publication.

Mr Nashar said that there had been no problems at all in Egypt, while in some countries the only change has been to cover up Jalila's abdomen.

Real events

And he added that market research had so far indicated a positive reaction. "The phrase that was repeated the most was, 'it's about time'."

"Obviously there's been a need for it, and people have at one point in time thought about it - maybe if they've picked up a foreign comic book, or watched a big blockbuster movie, they've thought that we should have characters of our own.

"We have the creativity, we have the background for the characters," Mr Nashar said.

Middle East Heroes is not entirely a Middle East product, however.

Although published in Egypt, most of the art is done outside of the country - AK Comics has a studio in the US, and other work is done in Brazil.

Meanwhile many of the stories reflect events in the modern world in this key region. The heroes' enemies include the United Liberation Force and the Zios Army, who are "still clinging to their extreme views". Both enemies want complete control the City of All Faiths.

Mr Nashar said that this was "not deliberate - but it's hard not to be inspired by what is going on. It's part of our life - art from life, and life from art," he said.