"The 99" Comic Books- A World Class Brand
Syed Ali Mujtaba
What is common between Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men? Well they all are comic books with Judeo-Christian archetypes that shape the minds of the younger generation the world over.
However, since these characters do not sync with the culture of the children brought up in different traditions they can’t be superheroes to all.
In order to fill this void, a Kuwait based entrepreneur, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa has created a superhero comic series that incorporates an Islamic identity to the world of comic books.
A Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, 37 year old Al- Mutawa, aims to provide positive and inspirational images to Muslim children drawing inspiration from Islamic history, culture and traditions. It is with this intention in 2003; he started the Teshkeel Media Group (www.teshkeel.com) whose growing success has already secured it two rounds of funding totaling $25 million.
Teshkeel’s core focus is to cultivate themes intrinsic to Islamic culture and deliver a unique, values based, multi media experience to children in the 9 to 12 age group with a global appeal. At the end its business goal is not selling comic books but, just as Marvel Comics (owners of major global superhero brands), to build Intellectual Property/ brands on a global scale and enable lucrative licensable business propositions.
Already, Teshkeel comic book sales are second only to Superman and Spiderman in the Arab world (which by the way are also distributed in the MENA region by Teshkeel), they are expanding to South and South East Asia, they have licensed merchandise being produced in France, are planning an animation series, and a whole theme park around its characters.
An Idea is born…
Al-Mutawa’s interest in creating children's literature began when he created a series of children's books that won him an UNESCO award. While practicing Clinical Psychology, the passion of writing for children always stayed with him and he knew the potential for marketing such concepts in his region which has the fifth largest children's population in the world.
Talking to Dinar Standard Al-Mutawa said that after a hectic few years practicing clinical psychology he needed a break from it and decided to pursue an MBA, however he wasn’t sure of his subsequent plans.
“That was the summer of 2003. I was in a cab with my mom and my sister. My sister basically turned to me and said: 'Naif- promise me you will go back to writing after school.'”
“This is where I was kind of fate struck and said to her, if it is for me to go back now, it has to be a concept that has the potential of Pokemon - otherwise it doesn't make sense, having a Doctorate and three Masters Degrees.”
“So in my mind I was thinking what reaction people would have against Pokemon...my next thought was my God what has happened to Muslims, what happened to the tolerance of the libraries of Baghdad and the libraries of Alexandria…then I thought of Allah and how disappointed he must be…my next thought was Allah has 99 attributes, and ironically this brought me back full circle to the concept of Pokeman and by the end of the cab ride I had the beginnings of the idea ” Al-Mutawa said.
That’s how the concept of “the 99” was born - creating a superhero adventure series--blending fiction with historical events in Islamic history and universal applicable Muslim values.
He adds; “the first round of financing was done in 7 months time and almost $ 8 million was raised from 54 investors from 8 countries. That’s why I say I have investors in the US, Mexico, China, Lebanon, Poland, Egypt. Around a million and quarter came from my business school classmates at Columbia University and the rest came from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, including four financial institutions, the leading retailers of the region,” Al-Mutawa said.
Teshkeel CEO Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa at the launch of the first Bahasa Indonesian versions of "The 99" by local publishing house, the Femina Group.
The launch coincided with release of "Fatah The Opener," a superhero of Indonesian origin. Toro Ridwan, a Jakarta teen discovers a mysterious stone that gives him the power to open and close instant gateways to any location.
“The 99” Adventure Series
Modeled on the 99 attributes of Allah, the 99 concept is based on the sagas of the battle of good versus evil. The narrative begins in the backdrop of 99 gems scattered throughout the world, each embodying one of the 99 characteristics of Allah. The setting is the thirteenth century sacking of Baghdad and the Spanish crusades and the action revolves around 99 individuals living in 99 different countries who become superheroes upon possessing one of these gems.
These characters are not all Arabs, but Muslims from all over the world. Jabbar, the enforcer, is a hulking figure from Saudi Arabia with the power to grow immense at a sneer. Noora, the Light is from the United Arab Emirates who can read the truth and help people to see it in themselves. Darr is the afflicter from the United States. Of the 99 super heroes, almost half of them are female and 31 of them wear hijab. However, none have the feminine characteristics. Batina, derived from the word meaning hidden, is superwoman. Mumita who hails from Portugal has unparalleled agility.
The 99 gems scattered around the world are a metaphor for the spread of Islam that takes on as many faces as the places it’s rooted in. The comic goes on to personify the modern Islamic Diaspora. Multicultural backgrounds are found in several characters. One such character is from Sudan but grew up in France.
Commenting on creating heroes, Al – Mutawa says, “One thing that kept popping into my mind was the lack of real, proper modern day role models and heroes in our part of the world. Historical figures as role models have issues; it depends on what side you belong to. You know the whole George Washington conundrum...to Americans he's a political hero, to the British he's a political terrorist. So that’s the problem with historical figures in Islamic society as well. Except with the prophet Mohammad (pbuh), there are few people on whom everyone would agree as their hero.”
However, the concept of “the 99” doesn’t directly incorporate Islam, says Al- Mutawa adding, "it’s only about its positive values. When you read the comic, there's no mention of Allah or the Prophet (pbuh). Nobody is praying, nobody's is reading the Quran. There's no religion in the book. It’s based on the basic human values that we all share, the real virtues of Islam, the attributes of Allah…generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight and mercy. This is the essence of the 99,” he said.
Building a world-class brand with world-class talent
Al- Mutawa has assembled top tier talent for this job. “The writing is done by one of the writers of Xmen, the penciling and inking is done by the same people who work on Batman. Then I hired two of the managers that took Marvel publications through the 1990s. I have the former marketing head of Marvel working as my chief operating officer, and the former publisher of Marvel working as a consultant. Their expertise has made the 99, a top class product,” Al- Mutawa said.
The 99 comics have struck a universal chord and Al- Mutawa is a happy man. “Alhamdulillah we have licenses from two publishers...one in Malaysia,a publisher in India- Chandamama is doing all of South Asia except Pakistan. We signed with a French based publisher in Morocco that caters to North Africa. We sold a merchandising license to a Spanish company for back to school products. Pencils and bookcases, which are licensed, are coming to the market this August to December” Al-Mutawa said.
Talking about its circulation, estimated at over 20,000 copies per issue, Al-Mutawa says, “the 99 comics are always either the middle or the top of our sales compared to the Spiderman, Batman and others that we sell. Sometimes its number two or three in the market, but it’s always more than Archies, more than Hulk...always more than X men.”
“Also, we have licenses for novelties in Archies comics and cartoon network for the region. We just basically translate and put out their stuff. This is basically the Trojan horse technique, where every copy of all these other comics has ads for the 99 in them. Sometimes, free giveaways in those comics. We are seeing steady growth in terms of circulation,” Al- Mutawa said.
Teshkeel recently announced partnership with United Entertainment & Tourism Company (UETC) of Kuwait to develop the region's first superhero theme park featuring THE 99 characters.
Licensing “The 99”
He laments that there is a relatively small market size for comics, but acknowledges the fact that the opportunities on its intellectual property aspect are tremendous. “We never expected to make money publishing comics, this is more of a way to develop the IP” Al- Mutawa said and adds it’s panning out well. “Newspapers are paying us money to publish the 99. In Kuwait a newspaper is publishing the 99 story every Friday. So does a paper in Saudi and in Abu Dhabi as well,” he said.
"The 99" Village
Cashing in on the intellectual property Teshkeel Media has recently partnered with United Entertainment & Tourism Company (UETC) of Kuwait to develop the region's first superhero theme park featuring THE 99 characters. THE 99 VILLAGE will be created on the site of UETC's existing amusement park in Jahra, Kuwait. It is expected that THE 99 Village theme parks will soon follow throughout the GCC.
"This is incredible if you think of the history of theme parks in the past hundred years or so, only a handful of concepts have got the license.” he said.
Moving further on IP, Al-Mutawa says he is working on the idea to develop “the 99 animated television series. “Inshallah by the middle of next summer we will be announcing a major animation partner. Right now negotiations are on with a few, all of whom are top tiered international players. We are also negotiating a direct DVD dealership with somebody in Hollywood,” he said.
Al-Mutawa has received a second batch of financing of $18 million from an Islamic investment bank. The bank has a Shari'ah board and has approved the activities as ‘Islamic.’ Al-Mutawa says, “I don’t want to get into the controversy of halal or haram, because I am convinced that only this type of activity would take Islam in the media out of the gutter.”
A trailblazer in Muslim Life style products, Al-Mutawa’s vision is to see “the 99” become the first and foremost series in the world. “My dream is to make “the 99” a global IP asset, an effective global brand. Right now it’s just a seedling that needs the right nursing” he concludes.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The copy right of this article is with Dinar Standered.