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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past.
Just a few days ago, ABC news and Marvel released an online digital comic called “Madaya Mom”, which details the harrowing and inspiring experiences of a mother of five living in Madaya, a city in Syria one hour away from Damascus. The people there are trapped, under near constant bombardment by Syrian Government forces trying to dislodge the Anti-Assad rebels currently occupying the city. While aid struggles to get into the city, the people of Madaya are facing starvation, deprivation and terrifying abuse at the hands of the forces controlling the city.
“Madaya Mom” was created using over a year’s worth of communications between ABC and the Syrian mother, documenting her daily life and painting a harrowing and personal portrait of life in the besieged city. As a result, Marvel has informed the rest of the world about a real-life super-hero enduring and trying to keep her family safe in the Middle East.
But while Madaya Mom may be the most inspiring and heartfelt Middle Eastern hero to emerge in comics, she is not the first. Let’s take a look at just a few of the heroes of Middle Eastern decent that have popped up in super-hero comics over the decades.
Ibis the Invincible
Ibis first appeared in 1940’s Whiz Comics #2. Created by Bill Parker (co-creator of Captain Marvel) and Bob Kingett, Ibis was born Prince Amentep of Egypt’s 12th Dynasty. Ibis’ power derived from the “ibistick”, a magical object that gave him a variety of powers. Finding himself stuck in the 20th century alongside his Egyptian beloved Taia, the pair fought crime and occult threats throughout the Golden Age.
When the Golden Age ended in the early 1950s, Ibis disappeared along with most of the Golden Age Heroes. But once the Silver Age was in full swing, more and more classic characters began to return from oblivion. As a minor character, Ibis took longer than most to return, but once DC purchased the Fawcett Comics characters, of which Ibis was one, it wasn’t long before he made his return.
One of the hallmarks of the Silver and Bronze Age DC Comics were the annual Justice League/Justice Society team ups. 1976’s team up also starred the Fawcett characters. Ibis appeared as a member of Shazam’s Squadron of Justice., and that was his final appearance until after the “Crisis on Infinite Earth” event.
The elephant in the room when talking about Ibis of course, is that throughout his Golden, Silver and Bronze Age appearances, Ibis was depicted as decidedly white. In fact, while he is probably the most visible Golden Age Middle Eastern hero, Ibis is much less a true and authentic example of a particular culture, and more a reflection of the classic pulp heroes derived from the Egyptology craze that swept through the Western World in the early 20th Century.
In more contemporary times, Ibis has been retconned to have a more authentic Middle Eastern identity. And when the character was rebooted a little under a decade ago by creators Tad Williams and Phil Winslade, a young Egyptian-American named Danny Khalifa took over the role and possession of the Ibistick. This Ibis definitely was created to more accurately reflect Americans of Middle Eastern decent, however he hasn’t appeared in the post-Flashpoint DC Continuity.
Sabra and the Arabian Knight(s)
By the early 1980s, the West’s conception of the Middle East had evolved into the beginnings of the view it retains today. It was seen as a region of conflict and instability, and from that viewpoint sprang two new Marvel characters, Sabra and the Arabian Knight.
Sabra debuted in Incredible Hulk #250 in 1980 in a cameo role. Created by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema, Ruth Bat-Seraph was a mutant who became an Israeli Mossad agent. In her first full appearance in Incredible Hulk #256, the Hulk arrives in Tel Aviv and encounters Sabra but defeats her. Later, when an Arabic boy Banner has befriended is killed by terrorists, the Hulk and Sabra clash again, which ends when Sabra realizes that the Hulk’s rampage is spurred by the death of the boy. It’s a quaint story which is ruined somewhat by the fact that the Hulk somehow forces Sabra to confront the common humanity of Jew and Arab.
The following issue finds the Hulk in a Middle Eastern desert, where he encounters Abdul Qamar aka The Arabian Knight. Qamar gains his powers via a magical scimitar, belt and carpet once wielded by his ancestor, and teams up with the Hulk to battle demons Gog and Magog. To defeat the threat, the Knight is forced to set off an explosive that leaves him thinking he has buried the Hulk alive. The Hulk of course, survives and leaves to fight another day.
The interesting thing about these two issues is not so much their pretty simplistic view of the Middle East. A simplified look at the Middle East that doesn’t explode with nuance is frankly to be expected from Bronze Age Comics that were still pitched significantly to a younger audience. Both issues present simple morals and try to depict a common humanity. They do reek of a “why can’t we all just get along” vibe, but you have to admire Bill Mantlo for trying to give readers two issues of stories in the Middle East that focused on giving us heroes to feel positive about.
Sabra and the Arabian Knight would encounter each other during the “Contest of Champions “mini series, which saw them being forced to fight on the same side, despite their obvious ideological differences. Over the next years, both Sabra and the Arabian Knight would pop up in various stories and crossovers, The Arabian Knight was a secret operative of the Pantheon, which was a major component of the “Incredible Hulk” series in the 1990s until he was killed. Sabra, meanwhile, is often utilized by Marvel when they want to feature an international flavor to big stories. As a mutant and a secret agent, her versatility sees her pop up pretty regularly.
Though Abdul Qamar was killed, two further characters have taken up the mantle of the Arabian Knight, with appearances in Reginald Hudlin‘s “Black Panther” run and the “Union Jack” series of a few years ago. Sabra was most recently seen during the globe-hopping Spider-Man arc, “Ends of the Earth”. Without a doubt, both characters will be return in the future.
Both Sabra and the Arabian Knight’s adventures can be found in various collected editions.
Created in 2000 by writer Grant Morrison and artists Frank Quitely and Ethan Van Sciver, Dust is probably the first Middle Eastern and Muslim character published by the big two to feel authentic to that culture. Sooraya Qadir is a Muslim born in Afghanistan who manifests mutant abilities and is rescued from slave traders by the X-Men. She enrolled as a student at the Xavier Institute of Higher Learning, becoming a significant supporting character during Morrison’s critically acclaimed run, and like a lot of Morrison’s additions, sticking around afterwards to join several further X-Men squads.
Dust was remarkable for being a devout Sunni Muslim, which remains a rarity in mainstream super-hero comics, and for observing hijab by wearing a traditional abaya with a niqab veil. Her powers involved being able to transform herself into a sand-like particles and retain control over that form, which can manifest either as a form of her regular body or expand into a whirling cloud of particles akin to a sandstorm.
With her interesting power set and unique backstory, Dust remained a compelling addition to the X-Men mythos, which explains why she survived despite numerous subsequent events such as M-Day. And her faith and beliefs made her an interesting and fresh counter-point to the largely American points of view within the X-Men, allowing Morrison and subsequent writers to examine different kinds of stories from angles that we rarely see within super-hero comics. Dust would take part in several major X-Men stories over the next few years, facing off against Stryker and his racist Purifiers, fighting Sentinels, being instrumental in defeating Exodus and the Marauders, and even experiencing the X-Men rite of passage of dying and coming back to life.
Throughout it all, different creators have attempted to stay true to depicting Dust as a positive and authentic character. She’s had storylines revolve around her faith and her culture, but she’s also been treated as just another X-Man, and participated in stories as simply a hero in her own right, with her faith and background playing no role at all. Whereas Ibis the Invincible displayed no cultural attributes aside from a vague mysticism, and Sabra and the Arabian Knight were used mainly to examine issues related to their cultures, Dust was perhaps the first modern fully-realized character from the Middle East in mainstream comics. Her beliefs and background informed the character and made her unique, providing storytelling opportunities, but they aren’t the sole things that defined her as a character.
You can find Dust’s adventures collected in various trade paperbacks, but the best place to start is Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men.
Dust may not be a household name, but she did open the door for Muslim and Middle Eastern characters in comics appearing in more truthful and nuanced ways. DC’s latest iteration of Green Lantern, Simon Baz, is a Muslim of Middle-Eastern descent. And most notably there is Marvel’s Kamala Khan who has broken out as a fan favorite and onto the company’s A-list as Ms. Marvel. And one of the great successes in this area has been Teshkeel Comics’ “The 99”, a super-team composed of numerous Muslim and Middle Eastern characters.
If there’s anything that comics can benefit from, it’s multiple points of view. Different characters with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints provide more varied material upon which to build themes and conflicts. And it’s good to see comics on a timeline of heading towards greater complexity and inclusiveness in this regard. With characters such as The 99, Simon Baz, Kamala Khan and Madaya Mom taking centre stage from time to time, we are all exposed to new voices and both the industry and the readership will be the better for the diversity that brings.
That’s it for this week! Until next time, see you around the quarter bins!