The proprietor of my Local Comic Shop this week handed me, along with my usual stack of books, a free preview special of The 99 -- a comic whose team of superheroes are based in the Middle East. (Well, I say "team" but it's not yet a team in this preview issue...) I've heard/seen tidbits on this over the past year, but not enough to really entice me to look for or ask about it. But now, having read this origin special, I can tell you that I'll be adding this to my pull list.
The first thing I noticed about this book was the size. It seemed thicker than usual, and a later count verified that it weighs in with 48 pages instead of the typical (for the U.S.) 32. A quick flip through also didn't have me run across any advertisements -- and indeed the book's interior only has two pages that aren't devoted to the story: a pin-up page of one of the characters and a internal promo noting that the first issue will be out in October. So you get a 46-page story for free. The paper itself is pretty high-quality, even by today's comic book standards, so altogether this was clearly a great bargain before even getting to the story.
The next thing I noticed were the names. Fabian Nicieza co-wrote the thing. I don't know Naif Al-Mutawa's writing at all, but if Nicieza's helping out, it's going to at least be a decent story. I notice also John McCrea on pencilling duties -- he's not a particular favorite of mine, but I'm familiar enough with his work to know that he's got pretty solid story-telling abilities.
To the story itself. The first half of the book is some serious back-story, going back to 1258 AD. The city of Baghdad was going to be attacked and the Caliph, knowing he was seriously out-matched, wanted to at least save the knowledge and wisdom from their libraries. He had his librarians alchemically imbue a set of gemstones with as much as they could save from the libraries themselves. These Noor Stones eventually vanished and Dr. Ramzi Razem is, in 2007, looking for them in an effort to bring peace on earth.
The rest of the book follows the discovery of Nawaf Al-Bilali in Saudi Arabia, who was caught in a land mine explosion that embedded shards of one of the Noor Stones in his skin, giving him great physical power. Ramzi is able to help him gain control of this new power and begins to explain how he hopes to change the world.
The book started off, I felt, a bit slowly. Even with the attack on Baghdad right at the outset, it felt a bit weighted, like a history lesson devoid of any emotional relevance. It was written well enough, but the narrator seemed a bit too removed from the action for me to connect the events he was discussing. It wasn't until we got to see Ramzi doing the talking (he was, in fact, the narrator telling the tale to a group of potential investors) that I started to get into the book.
With Nicieza and McCrea on board, as I noted earlier, it came as no real surprise that I enjoyed the book overall. It's often difficult to tell who's done what with multiple writers on a book, especially when they're not all known quantities. It'd be easy for me to think, for example, that Nicieza worked more on the latter half where I was able to get more into the story but since I don't know Al-Mutawa, it could well have been his work on the book that was more enticing to me. In any event, the collaboration did seem to work overall, and it didn't feel like two writers with competing voices. They were in-sync at least enough that the story didn't feel disjointed.
I've actually been frustrated for years on how Americans view themselves. It's a very egotistical country, and collectively we don't really pay attention or give consideration to cultures other than our own. I was happy to see some of the books Virgin Comics was doing since they (some of them at least) were starting from an Indian/Pakistani perspective, but then somewhat disappointed in the final execution. But here, with The 99, we've got a decidedly Middle Eastern perspective with good execution. I'm looking forward to seeing more from this book to help counter my own America-centered bias.
Further, one of the reasons I'm blogging about this today is to help ensure that others get a chance to see this. I'm looking for comics that are new and different to me -- that's where the clever ideas and new perspectives come from. And, as much as I think there are a lot of great and creative people in the American comic book industry, they still have the same cultural background. By reading comics from Japan, Korea, France, India, Russia, or wherever, I can have an entirely different starting point with a new set of cultural backgrounds to consider. Wonderful stuff!
One last thing. The back cover of the book highlights that "the story continues" in an upcoming book called The 99: First Light to become available on August 22. The aforementioned interior ad notes the ongoing series will begin on October 17. However, I've seen notes on a number of different web sites that suggest -- or outright state -- that the comic has actually been in circulation since the the middle of 2006. What I have not yet found is whether or not those comics are exclusively ones printed in Teshkeel's home country of Kuwait; I can't find any indication of this issue NOT being the first one printed in the U.S. but in the global marketplace, it's difficult to tell. So to my American audience, it looks like you've got a little waiting to do until you can get your hands on the regular book, but folks in other countries might find that this story has been in publication for some time and you may have to search back issue bins to get it!