Monday, August 23, 2010

Superman, Batman, and... Mumita! - Islam Conqures Comic Book Genre

A quick post: I've been noticing interesting mixtures of religion and popculture lately, mostly because I think people are wrong to believe that the appeal of popular culture exists only among certain brands of Christian Protestantism seen to be crassly consumerist and dumbed-down accomodationist. But the effort to remain lively and relevant are found among all religious orientations.

Enter the 99!

Created by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, the 99 is a comic book series in the style of Justice League or X-Men that unites a band of superpowered youth to bring peace into society under the leadership of the brilliant Dr. Ramzi.

The backstory returns to the Middle East, the attempt to preserve a library of knowledge being destroyed by war, and a mystical-chemical process of inscribing knowledge into 99 gemstones. Fast-forward to our modern day, and our heroes discover their powers and their brilliant mentor form a team to save the world.

The "origins issue" can be downloaded online.

The writers freely draw on allusions of other successful comic book series. After all, they want to be successful and believe they can learn from the models of the greatest characters created in the past century.

But perhaps the most interesting is the upfront attempt to introduce comic book heroes that reflect the virtues of Islam and are consistent with beliefs of Muslims worldwide. This makes the development of this graphic art series ripe for sociological study: how do the comic book creators fashion an Islamic-friendly graphic that can appeal to the various, globally-diffused orientations within Islam?

I've not read much of the series, so I have yet to see blatant reference to prayers or readings from sacred texts. At most, someone online has already joked about Wonder Woman being "fully clothed" in an forthcoming six-issue team-up with DC comics JLA in October. Besides this, it is hard to tell just how "religious" this series will be.

But I do know this: What is special about the number 99? Why are there 99 gemstones and 99 heroes? Because the characters are intended to display the 99 attributes of Allah.

Just like the Hollywood Christians I write about in my book Hollywood Faith, the series is intended to support and accentuate religious values. Yet it is intended to do so in a way that is unobtrusive to telling a good story. When you read the last page of the "origins issue," the creator is clear that the comic is intended for a Muslim audience, fashioned in what he calls an "East-Meets-West" fashion that combines the fierce independence of heroes of the West (Superman, Batman, Spiderman) and the team-work comeraderie of the East (a la Pokeman).

More on the use of popculture in the Arab world is found in a talk given by Shereen El Feki.

Overall, the intent is to correct the view of Islam as an intolerant religion through a humble framework, accessible to children. There is even a 99 theme park in Kuwait prominently displaying the heroes as awe inspiring icons. According to this news story, this is the Middle East's first theme park.

And while success is hard to measure, the comic is already translated in various languages, is conveniently available online for digital download, has already been put into a computer animated format, is teaming with other important comic book publishers, receiving good media attention, and the creator is committed to making this bold venture a striking presence on the global stage.

Watch a TED talk from the creator and more on the comic book series.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back from Atlanta: More Books and Better Relationships

Just returned from the annual meetings of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, a "two-fer" that gives the meetings a turbocharged schedule.
Midtown Atlanta, Peachtree Street.Ray Devlin via Flickr
This year's meetings were once again full of wonderful experiences including sessions on theory, race, and ethnography, and plenty of interaction on a range of issues in religion both domestic and international. An author-meets-critics session with Christian Smith over his new book Souls in Transition was a wonderful highlight, as well as a nice exchange between emerging church leaders Doug Pagitt, Tim Hartman, and Troy Bronsink, along with anthropologist James Bielo who is currently writing a book on the emerging church to be published with New York University Press.

I was part of several other sessions including an "Engaged Scholars" panel that included Margarita Mooney (UNC Chapel Hill), Kathleen Jenkins (William and Mary), and Sascha Goluboff (Washington and Lee) talking about aspects of opportunity and challenge for faculty working among religious communities as well as a fascinating session that combined reflections on citizenship, place, bodies, and religious identity with Lynn Davidman, Nurit Stadler, and Kevin McElmurry with Mary Jo Neitz offering brief commentary.

Besides sessions, the book exhibit was rich for me. William Roy's new book Reds, Whites, and Blues provides an important reflection on music and race that will be required reading in the coming weeks for the book I'm writing. Add The Entrepreneurial Group, also from Princeton University Press, which fits into new research I'm preparing with the oh-so-smart Kevin Dougherty at Baylor that emphasizes that entrepreneurs are not lone actors accomplishing brilliant strategic vision but rather are immersed in social relationships that allow their entrepreneurialism to flourish. (No inclusion of religion there -- Stay tuned as our project focused on innovation and entreprenuership among church leaders develops).

books in a stack (a stack of books)austinevan via FlickrAdd to that a stack of wonderful new books including several I recommend to you: Jesus, Jobs, and Justice; The History of White People; When a Heart Turns Rock Solid; The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.; a new set of lectures on Social Theory by Hans Joas; and Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond. Those are some that I took home, but more are coming in the mail including Max Weber in America; Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School; and a rich little book by Martha Nussbaum titled, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (the actual book info here). Yep - the annual book haul was awesome this year!

Finally, great chance to meet up with friends, charming and bright to a person. And I appreciate several new friends I met along the way. The next big meeting is the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion being held in Baltimore this year. I'm already looking forward to it.