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Batman meets Arabian Nights

Cartoonist Ayman Kandeel hopes comic book readers will embrace the new Middle Eastern crime fighter.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2006 18:49 IST

By John Rogers

If Batman had a twin sister, her name most likely would be Aya, "princess of darkness."

Just like Batman's alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, Middle Eastern comic book superstar Aya launched her quest for vengeance against evil after witnessing her father's murder.

And while Batman stands vigil over Gotham City, Aya keeps watch over the City of All Faiths, which could easily pass for Jerusalem if it were ever overrun by cartoon villains.

Aya's creator, Ayman Kandeel, hopes such superhero similarities will resonate with Americans and that comic book readers will embrace the new Middle Eastern crime fighter and her fellow AK Comics super heroes- Lone Warrior Rakan, the Last Pharaoh Zein and Jalila, saviour of the City of All Faiths.

"I think our characters are global," says Kandeel, who launched AK Comics in his native Egypt four years ago and is now rolling out its stable of super heroes in the United States.

Already available online, AK Comics in English are due to hit American comic book stores this month, bringing American audiences their first look at the Middle Eastern super heroes. Along with daring and courageous action, the super characters bring some modern-day messages from the region, including that women, in a society that has often been closed to them, can be just as strong and heroic as their male counterparts.

 
The superhero Jalila developed super powers when she survived a terrorist group's nuclear attack

The women, however, still have to watch how they dress. Aya, for example, hadn't been fighting crime for very long when her "Dolly Parton complex" began to offend some Middle Eastern readers, says AK Comics editor Daerick Gross. Her bosom quickly became less pronounced, while Jalila (who had developed superpowers when she survived a terrorist group's nuclear attack) had to switch to a skintight superhero costume that didn't expose her once-bare midriff.

Still, both women continue to rival Wonder Woman and Mary Jane Watson (Spider-Man's long-time squeeze) for sexiness, while Lone Warrior Rakan is big and strong enough to pass for the Hulk (if the Hulk weren't green). The Last Pharaoh Zein might give the Terminator a run for his money.

Kandeel carried the characters around in his head for nearly 30 years before they were ever sketched out and given story lines. "I remember growing up as a kid, I first came across a Batman comic book and that was it- that was my beginning," the soft-spoken businessman recalls with a chuckle. "I've always wanted to be involved in the creation of comic book super heroes." An amateur artist as a child, Kandeel developed the original AK Comics story lines and still writes the occasional story but leaves the drawing to professional freelancers.

But before he could conquer the world of X-Men and Fantastic Four, he had a business empire to build, which in turn helped finance his fledgling comic book venture. The 37-year-old co-founded the Beverly Hills-based Pi Capital, which offers investment advice to international clients.

Once ensconced in the world of high finance, he got back to doing what he'd always wanted to do: Give the world a superhero who hailed from the land of The Arabian Nights. He had never understood, he says, why a culture so steeped in ancient legends such as Aladdin, Sindbad and Ali Baba could not create a superhero on the level of, well, Superman.

"It probably has something to do with the fact that the current Middle Eastern culture is a little bit closed, conservative, lacking in creativity, as opposed to ancient times," he says he finally concluded.

Kandeel was determined that his super heroes would confront that world head-on. So it is no accident that Jalila is hot, beautiful, not afraid to show it and the most powerful of all his super heroes- or that she saves the bacon of practically everyone she meets in an area of the world where many women are forced to stay out of public view.

"That's part of the message, that women will participate and become super heroes," Kandeel says.

Another message is learning to live together in a volatile world. For despite all their evil cunning, the villains always lose out to the likes of the Lone Warrior, who like the Lone Ranger shows up uninvited, resolves the dispute, then quietly leaves, accompanied not by his Indian friend, Tonto, but by a ferocious saber-tooth tiger who watches his back.

How all that will play in the United States remains to be seen. AK Comics, which claimed 20,000 sales a month in Egypt last year, recently expanded to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The comic books are doing well there, Kandeel says, but he acknowledges that he doesn't know what to expect from the U.S. market.

Gross, AK's editor, believes some story lines may be too foreign for some Western readers. But he's also betting that just as many will be intrigued by the exotic locales, and that in the end, true comic book aficionados won't care where the action takes place, just as long as there is plenty of "POW!" "SMASH!" and "KABOOM! to keep them entertained.

"A superhero fighting bad guys- that can be anywhere in the world," he says.

First Published: Jun 09, 2006 16:01 IST