Move over, Superman, the Arab superheroes are here

I’ll make you swallow your teeth, killer!” she threatens her foe, muscles rippling under her skin-tight garb, as she lands a hard right to the chops.

Tough as she is, Jalila, the creation of 36-year-old Egyptian Ayman Kandeel, is not left on her own to fight the forces of evil.

There are also Aya, the Princess of Darkness; Zein, the Last Pharaoh; and Rakan, the Lone Warrior.
Each month, an entire issue is dedicated to just one of the four.

Kandeel founded AK Comics in Cairo in 2003 to create a comic to compete with Superman, Batman and other Western superheroes, in hopes of dominating the local market.

“AK Comics characters are to represent a role model for Arab youth and to promote, advocate and endorse a positive as well as civilized image of Arabs in the West,” according to the company’s mission statement.

Zein, Aya and Jalila live in an imaginary era, sometime after a 55-year-war that ended with a peace in the Middle East that is maintained by the United Arab Forces.

Rakan, on the other hand, lives in the past, in a time when his parents perished in the Mongol invasion.

Of the four, who all have a profound distaste for violence, only Rakan kills his enemies, and then with the greatest reluctance.

“This sad display of man’s evil nature makes me sick,” Rakan muses, as he surveys a battlefield littered with the arrow-pierced corpses of soldiers.

Following on from that first hint of morality-tale-wrapped-in-entertainment is another key element of Kandeel’s philosophy. Religion is a taboo subject, and no minaret or church tower will be seen.

“These characters are meant to be a role model for children,” says AK Comics director Marwan al-Nashar. “To spell out their faith would be the same as saying that one religion is better than another.”

Though the guidelines stipulate that “there are no direct references to political disputes”, politics is heavily suggested in some stories.

For example, Jalila lost her parents in the explosion of the Dimondona nuclear reactor, whose name is remarkably like that of Israel’s Dimona reactor.

She is also the Saviour of the City of All Faiths, an implicit but transparent reference to Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

And Aya’s arch-foe is the chief of the underworld gang, Jose Darian, a name reminiscent of that of the late Israeli general Moshe Dayan.

The comic first appeared in Egypt in February last year, with only 400 copies printed. A year later, the figure was up to 6 000, and by July it had reached 11 000.

AK Comics say 54% of the readers of the magazine, published in both Arabic and English, are between the ages of seven and 14.

In a country where the average monthly wage is just under $100 and an imported comic book can cost about $3, AK Comics has come out with a black-and-white version that sells for only 15 cents.

Earlier this summer, the comic appeared for the first time at bookstores in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. It should hit the shelves in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan next summer.

But while the comic will be selling in the Gulf, the highly conservative cultures in Saudi Arabia and in other countries there have necessitated cutting the dynamic quartet to ... well, just two.

Jalila and Aya’s buxom bosoms, silky tresses and made-up faces would not set well with censors.

Back home, meanwhile, the comic has become popular enough that a very Western-style spin-off has appeared, with one company in Egypt producing chewing gum with the wrappers bearing pictures of the superheroes.

An animated cartoon is just about to come out as well.—AFP

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