Interview Words : Peter Moore | 07 February

How I help create international superheroes

Marie Javins talks about her role in creating an innovative comic strip that has taken the world by storm - and the places it has taken her

In all corners of the globe, children are tuning into comics about THE 99, a group of superheroes born of Middle East history and Islamic archetypes that possess values shared by the entire world. President Obama name-checked them at a recent Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, and Endemol have created an animated series featuring the characters.

Former Marvel Comics editor and Wanderlust's very own Wander Woman, Marie Javins, has been working on the project since its early days, and talks to Peter Moore about THE 99 and the places in the world they have taken her.

What is THE 99? And how did it come about?

THE 99 is a comic book and animated series about an international team of teenaged superheroes, one from each of 99 countries. Each hero derives his or her abilities from their unique gemstone, which got its power from the fall of the ancient library of Baghdad. The information in the ancient books was absorbed into the stones, but the stones were eventually lost. Now they are being found, one by one, by our young heroes.

The creator of THE 99 concept, a Kuwaiti psychologist named Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, developed THE 99 when he became interested in providing positive role models and heroes for his own children, who did not have much entertainment that was based in their own Kuwaiti culture. THE 99 are not Muslim superheroes (we don’t identify them as religious or not religious), but their origin and back-story is steeped in Middle Eastern lore and culture.

Where is THE 99 sold? Is it more popular in some countries than others?

We’ve sold the comic in the Middle East and North Africa, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and the USA, and in fact our animation producer first stumbled over one of our comics while on holiday in Egypt. Right now, we’re selling online from our own web store on the99.org. I don’t know where people who buy it mostly come from – possibly places where the animation is already showing. The animated series, by the UK’s Endemol, is showing in the Middle East and North Africa, Australia, Asia and Asia Pacific, South Africa, Ireland, and Mexico. In the US, THE 99 is available on Netflix.

How did you get involved?

In 2005, a friend of mine who I’d worked with at Marvel had ended up in Kuwait as COO for the Kuwaiti company that makes THE 99. He sent out an email with a change of address, saying “Hey, if anyone wants to come help, let me know!”

Normally, I live in New York, but at this point in my life, I’d just gone through a bad break-up with a German development worker while we’d been living together in a Ugandan national park. I was there writing Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, my Africa travel narrative about the Cape-to-Cairo section of my 2001 round-the-world journey. I had skulked off to lick my wounds in a rented apartment in Namibia, and when that email came in I had just used up the last of my funds after intermittently roaming the world for the last five years.

Kuwait suddenly sounded pretty good, so I offered to go over and show the team how to color and letter comic books. I had great plans for teaching them… but instead I ended up editing the comics. (I had been an editor and colorist at Marvel Comics for 13 years before leaving to travel.) The global experience helped too – I’ve been to a lot of places, usually on the bus or train. Our heroes do a lot of travelling, and their 99 origins mean my experience abroad is always coming in useful. Just this morning, the writer was working on a newspaper strip and wrote to me to ask for a desert area where THE 99 might go to try to grow plants for the local population (one of our heroes has an affinity with plants). I thought for a minute about places we’d already used, what countries already do things like this and don’t need THE 99, what countries had prominent political unrest to steer clear of, and came up with Mauritania, a friendly place I visited in March of 2011.

What’s your role?

I’m the editor of all THE 99 comic books, children’s books, and coloring books. I’d learned quite a bit about modern editorial and production methods at Marvel, so I can do everything from just my laptop and a wi-fi signal, so long as my freelancers are keeping up their end. So I can work from anywhere in the world, as long as I have internet and electricity. It’s really the perfect job for someone who can’t sit still for long, though I have to stay home through the school year as I teach comic book coloring to undergrads at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

Has the comic had the positive effect hoped for?

In some ways, yes. We’ve gotten a lot of media attention, and there have been days at work where I’m suddenly sitting in front of a camera for a news programme in Australia or a documentary for PBS or BBC. But what is impossible for me to know yet is if we’ve had what I call the Nichelle Nichols effect. There’s an anecdote that Whoopi Goldberg was inspired by seeing Nichelle Nichols play Uhura on the original Star Trek – a black woman on 1960s-era television in a prominent role, doing a professional job. So that’s my goal, to empower young people by showing them examples of heroes from different cultures, females as well as males. When a little girl from Dubai writes in to say that seeing our UAE female hero inspired her to aim high, then I’ll know we’ve had real success.

Who is your favourite character?

Let’s see... we have a boy tech-genius who is socially awkward, and he’s always doing something simultaneously brilliant and exasperating. We have a frustrated destroyer woman – her job is to destroy things, but she’s being taught to be a force for good, which gives her internal conflicts. We have Hadya, a Pakistani-British girl who loves maps – and I love maps too. One of our artists drew her cat into the comic book, and our team inadvertently brought home a baby stegosaurus during a time-travel story. I like both of those, as well as a villain named Sphinx. But I am probably closest personally to Buran, our unpowered executive who used to be an international development worker and now she’s an administrator for the team, working behind the scenes and getting things done quietly while the team’s mentor makes the speeches and finds the funding. So yeah, Buran is my favorite character, because she has my job.

Where has your involvement with THE 99 taken you?

After the three months I spent in the Kuwait office in 2006, I went back to New York and freelanced from my apartment until a New York office was started, right in time for me to then get moved to our Cairo office for seven months of 2007. I enjoyed Kuwait far more than I expected to, but I loved living in Cairo. Which was funny because I’d been through a few times before and actually dreaded going back. I just remembered the hassle of arguing with touts and being hassled by men who had some strange ideas about women. But living there was totally different than visiting, and once I learned a few words of Arabic and made a few friends, Cairo was a lot of fun.

What have been the challenges?

Our team is spectacular in that if my colleague or I ask them to do something that seems crazy, they respond with “Let’s figure out how to do that,” rather than, “Are you crazy?” That’s not how it always was, of course, and it has taken us time to learn to trust each other. Our biggest problem from the beginning lessens ever year, but it has always been communication.

Our staff is from all over the world – me, Hong Kong, Syria, Philippines, India, Egypt, Lebanon – and our common language is English, but we all have different varieties of English. Early on, we were publishing Marvel and DC comics in Arabic for the Gulf, and when the translation staff would get to a word they didn’t know, they’d look at me. For example: “Marie, what is adamantium?” I’d have to explain that it was a fictional rare metal that composed Wolverine’s skeleton.

And communicating with the printer was tough in other ways. They once called up for the size of the “swine.” Which I had a hard time answering, because I was laughing about the “spine.” And when we were licensed in India, the publisher wrote to me for the “flesh cut.” I sat stumped for a minute before realising he must be using Google Translate and needed the size of the bleed.

Our bigger challenge is the political situation in the world. A few years ago, our animated series was about to launch in the US when a right-wing tabloid columnist went after us. THE 99 are all about teamwork, peace, and international cooperation, but that didn’t stop this writer from imagining we were up to all kinds of nefarious activities.

There is already a theme park in Kuwait. Were you there for the opening?

The opening was about the most fun I’ve had in my professional life. Our actors didn’t show up due to some miscommunication – we had to hire the cleaners to dress in the superhero outfits. Our actor who was supposed to be our main speaker was unwilling to read what I’d written (“I can’t do it, too long, too hard,”) so our company creator was the emcee instead. The children in the audience went bananas and rushed the stage with excitement once we started them playing games. They were after free comics, free ride cards, and some of them wanted the microphone so they could sing the Kuwaiti national anthem on-stage. I grabbed the microphone and hid it, threw myself on the comics while one of our art team stood over me, and our assistant with the prize cards fled, a trail of children running behind him. And in the end, our art director and former marketing assistant played a song about THE 99 for the BBC.

What does the future hold for THE 99?

We're now on the air in more than 40 countries! We also have a great gaming website for kids that is going live in at few weeks at the99kids.com. We’ve been developing that in conjunction with Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) in Bristol, so I’ll be over in the UK at the beginning of March to talk about the next games that we’ll be adding. And THE 99 will be going with me somewhere this summer, since I can work from anywhere and have been thinking about getting away. I need to go somewhere inexpensive and also nice enough to have plenty of coffee shops with wi-fi for me to spend the day in while I work. Mexico? Bucharest? Buenos Aires? Any ideas?

The image illustrating this interview was especially commissioned for Wanderlust (art by Ron Wagner, colouring by Steve Buccellato). It  features Jabber, who is especially strong, Noora, who likes to illuminate the truth, and Hadya, a tracker and guide who can project maps. For more information about THE 99, visit the official website. You can view a free online issue here.


Marie JavinsMarie Javins is the editor of THE 99 and Wanderlust’s very own “Wander Woman.” She has also written five books including Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, an account of her adventures in Africa, and a 3-D round-the-world tour and children’s atlas.