Comics, community and The 99
One of the things I mentioned in a previous column is how frustrating it is to many readers that reviewers have so many negative things to say about comics and so few positive ones — one of the reasons being, of course, that it’s simply easier (and, for many, more fun) to slag on someone else’s hard work than to praise it, to pick at the missteps rather than examining the story as a whole. I still suspect this ties in with why so relatively few reviewers discuss the art in a comic book; as they’re writers, it’s easier to concentrate on just the writing, which one can then proceed to negatively nitpick to one’s own standard of personal amusement, rather than learning about how to talk about the main thing that separates comics from prose work, from movies, from just about any other form of entertainment. But I digress.
I’ve had the first four issues of a comic book series in front of me for months, wanting to talk about them. This was before the series even debuted in the US, and now the first two issues have already appeared in stores. And with one thing and another in my crazy life, I haven’t had the time nor the wherewithall to actually sit down and review anything. And it’s become, as these things do, rather an albatross ’round my neck that I haven’t gotten to it. After all, a wonderfully talented, amazing woman who happens to edit the books sent them to me in good faith that I’d get to reviewing them sooner or later. And after all, wasn’t I the one who did over four years’ worth of weekly reviews on Usenet, covering at least a dozen comics during some of those weeks? What, besides life’s vicissitudes, was preventing me from sitting down and doing this review?
Sooner or later we all have to face our own procrastinating natures. For me, the approach of the year’s close and the feeling of community that means so much to me in this industry prompted me to finally get down to it. After three introductory paragraphs, naturally. Has the time finally come for me to say a few words about The 99 from Teshkeel Comics? Well, yes and no. I’m not going to do a structured, formal review per se, but discuss the series more in terms of its inspiration and ideas.
I will say, though, that the first thing that struck me when reading the first four oversized issues sent to me — issues distributed throughout the Arab world from Algeria to the UAE — was that I felt I was missing part of the story, as though I arrived in media res. This is always a warning sign for me, as I believe any issue marked #1 should contain the start of a story, not the middle. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t follow it — writer/creator Naif al-Mutawa and co-writer Fabian Nicieza (a veteran comics scribe and editor who’s an old hand at this sort of thing) make the issues accessible and user-friendly, and John McCrea’s and James Hodgkins’ art is easy on the eyes, expressive and dynamic, and reflects the intent of al-Mutawa & co. to diversify their characters — but, you know, when it says #1, it should be #1.
Turns out for the "real" #1 you need to get a book called The 99: Origins, and that’s fine too because it’s available from Teshkeel’s website as a free (PDF) download. I’m still glad I have a hard copy, though. The pages have a scent to them that reminds me of something I can’t put my hand on, something soothing from childhood reading days. Don’t know if it’s the ink or the paper, I don’t get that scent from the oversized Arab-distributed issues nor the American release of issue #1 (more about which anon), and yeah, I know I’m sounding weird, but dang!, that Origins issue just plain smells inviting!
And it really does set up everything you need to know plot-wise. First off you gotcher magical imbued stones, including the story of how they received their power, which I loved. I’m always a sucker for tales that have to do with knowledge literally becoming power, and I think that’s handled well here. I took a bit more issue with the plotting of how the stones themselves fared throughout the years until their diaspora — seems to me logically that, if your secret society is hoarding a powerful commodity, the last thing you’re going to do with it is put it on display as part of a building’s architecture that’s sure to draw trouble — but it’s still fairly well told, and brings us to the present day pretty handily, as well as introducing both the first stone-wielder and the character who will become our heroes’ protagonist.
The oversized issues (now up to #7, so I need to catch up on a few!) pick up exactly where Origins leaves off, but the US #1 seems to pick up the story sometime after oversized #3, as it shows the core team in place that the Professor X-like (and thinly-disguised al-Mutawa avatar) Dr. Ramzi Razem has assembled to go search for other wielders and create his multi-culti crew. Al-Mutawa and Nicieza catch the reader up to speed with with a pages 4-5 infodump recap that reads somewhat awkwardly, and makes me wonder why they didn’t start from the same point as the oversized comics. Sadly, the only answer I can muster is that the action in this issue takes place in the US, and al-Mutawa reasoned that was the best way to appeal to American readers.
But to me, the best thing about The 99 is that they’re not US-based. They’re not even Western in nature. They may have many of the same trappings as the X-books, but they’re primarily Middle Eastern in membership, concept and origin. And I consider this a breath of fresh air for those of us who’ve read countless stories where the protagonists are mainly white and Americentric. The mysteries of the great civilizations of the past, and the tantalizing legends and legacy they’ve left behind, makes a great starting point for some terrific adventure tales. But when the explorers discovering and reigniting those legends are always your Harrison Fords and your Brandon Frasers and your Noah Wylies (omigod you have got to catch those Librarian TV movies on a Sunday afternoon couch-fest, they have some of the best, most giggly, plothole-ridden bad-movie stuff I’ve seen this side of a Brian Henson film). Okay, and very occasionally your Angelina Jolies.
Just once, I kept sighing to myself, I want to see the Local Sidekick Who Saves the Hero’s Life be the hero instead. Heck, I want to see a Mysterious African Treasure plotline featuring someone who actually lives in the area where the treasure supposedly lies, and not in some Hollywood idea of an African dwelling either, but in an actual non-Westernized city or suburb with universities and wifi and everything. I know they exist, there are tons of African blogs out there! And think about it, wouldn’t it make more sense for the people living around a legend to have more knowledge of and vested interest in it than some white Western adventurer with a map? The copout these adventure movies always use goes something like "the native peoples are either superstitious or so reverential of this treasure’s power and the demons that protect it that they know to leave well enough alone," but that means they never get to star in their own adventure stories either. And that doesn’t seem fair.
The powered stone-wielders in The 99 are starring in their own adventure, one directed by a non-Westerner to boot. And Dr. Ramzi ‘s vision for the future is every bit as compelling as Professor Xavier’s — possibly more so, because it includes the entire world, not just a part of it. Most heartening is how many competent and committed female characters are included (and how sensibly McCrea and Hodgkins dress them; sometimes respecting other cultures’ views on "overexposure" has its benefits for feminist readers tired of objectification). Having Dr. Ramzi ‘s potential group of 99 be discovered in various places all around the world (and enlisting Westerners with solid comics bonafides to help produce his work) isn’t just good business sense for al-Mutawa, it’s the first step toward the idea of a global community.
And to paraphrase the above dialogue, a global community, whether of comics creators and fans or or just plain citizens, is the first step towards "building a better us." To that end, The 99: Origins is highly recommended, with extra bonus points for intent, and if you like it why not pick up an issue or two of the ongoing for just a couple bucks via the website? After all, if the internet isn’t a prime example of what can be done with a global community, I don’t know what is.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and is about to celebrate her personal half-century mark, hoping the next 50 years on this Earth will be more peaceful than the last 50.