To create 'THE 99', I had to face down the Middle East's ideological battlegrounds

Writing a globally successful character universe meant I had to choose between protecting my family and my ideas

'THE 99' comic book franchise has followers such as this young Indonesian boy. AFP
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I will never forget my last week at Tufts University, in 1994. I felt like a king on the cusp of abdicating his throne. I had made a name for myself as a writer at the university’s daily newspaper, which may not seem like much now but back then it was everything. I wanted people to read what I had to say. No. I needed them to. If they were lost in my ideas then maybe I wouldn’t be alone.

After returning to Kuwait, where I feverishly wrote in the local daily newspapers as I had done at school, I finally got a breakthrough that put me on the literary map: the creation of my first character universe, which received an award from Unesco and subsequently led to a three-book deal. The first two did well. But the third got banned, and I quit writing at age 27. I had, in the aftermath, perfected being an angry young man. My stubbornness led to being at loggerheads with the Ministry of Information of a country in the region, and I wouldn’t step down. I again found myself wondering if I would ever write again. If I would ever be read again. Rather than negotiating, and editing my work, I broke my pen in protest.

But as any writer can tell you, you don’t choose words, words choose you. And they decide when to come and when to go and your role is to be awake and aware long enough to chase them and entice them between your pages. Five years after breaking my pen, I was inspired to create a second character universe, THE 99.

I spent 10 years taking THE 99 from an idea in the back of a London cab to a comic book series, and eventually a global television series and a crossover with the Justice League of America. Then followed a theme park, numerous international awards and accolades and thousands of articles speaking to what I had created. I was being read again, including by many thousands of children all over the world.

That euphoric period was not to last. When, in 2011, much of the Arab world was rocked by a series of uprisings my writing went from being celebrated to being attacked. To quote a character from the Justice League canon: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I began receiving death threats, was subjected to police questioning and ultimately went on trial for blasphemy, a lawsuit that I eventually beat.

February 21, 2011, Abu Dhabi, UAE:

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa  is a Kuwaiti clinical psychologist and creator of THE 99, a comic book based on 99 Islamic characters. His comics are the first of their kind and he hopes they can help educate people around the world about Islam.

He is seen here at NYU, with models of the comics haning on the walls. He will be giving a lecture about his work later tonight at NYU Abu Dhabi's lecture hall, located inside of the Mubadala building.

Lee Hoagland/ The National

The irony is that my work was being celebrated in thousands of articles globally for showing the positive values of Islam and yet at home I was accused of insulting the religion. The contradiction led me to receiving the Islamic Economy Award for Media in the UAE while on trial for insulting Islam in Kuwait.

Then came the day when I sat down to write what I decided at the time would be my last work. This was on the cusp of two glaringly contradictory lists that I found myself on, which seemed to summarise my existence. The first was written for Forbes China by John Maeda, the former head of the Rhode Island School of Design, in which he names the seven most influential designers in the world. Steve Jobs was number one. I was number six. Then there was an article published with the list of the seven Arab intellectuals wanted dead by extremists. I was number three.

The widespread misperceptions meant I had to choose between protecting my family and my ideas. The situation was unfair but my choice was clear. I chose my family over my craft. I was almost certain that from that day onwards I would never write again. I would be an example of someone who was made an example of for challenging the status quo. I fell on my pen.

But the words never stopped. They couldn’t. The ink kept flowing but it flowed inwards not out. My literary exile was lonely, often intolerable. Once in a while I would craft a sarcastic and cryptic message on social media hoping it would resonate with the likeminded and fly over the heads of the intended. It was the only substitute to losing my mind. It was an ink-letting of sorts, a dialysis of words.

Now that the geopolitical landscape has changed, I decided to slowly remove the pen I fell on out of my heart and the ink from my wound slowly trickled down onto this page. I was recently in France to announce the launch of the second series of THE 99, the production of the third series and THE 99 video game. Today I can rest better knowing that I am heard. That I am read. There is no reason to retreat anymore.

Published: October 21, 2022, 9:00 AM