Most of America hasn't heard of them, but in some parts of the world the heroes of "The 99" are just as popular as groups like the X-Men or the Justice League. American comics fans will get a chance to meet these international superstars as Kuwaiti publisher Teshkeel Comics releases this week the first issue of the U.S. version of "The 99." CBR News spoke with co-writer Fabian Nicieza about the series.
It was an old friend of Nicieza's who introduced him to Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, the creator of "The 99" and his co-writer on the U.S. version of the series. "My good friend and publisher extraordinaire, Sven Larsen, had just started working for Teshkeel and thought I'd be a good fit for helping Naif finalize his on-going development of 'The 99,'" Fabian Nicieza told CBR News "I met with Naif and was very impressed by not only his basic working concepts for 'The 99,' but more importantly, his passion for the project and his underlying reasons for wanting to produce superhero comics for a new audience."
Because he also serves as CEO of Teshkeel, Dr. Al-Mutawa is a very busy man but still manages to be an active participant in the creation of each issue of "The 99." "A lot of it depends on what part of the world Naif happens to be in at any given point and how much time he has on his schedule," Nicieza said. "He is involved in every single aspect of the story, from initial synopsis to preliminary script to final script, sometimes really involved in the nuts and bolts, dotting i's and crossing t's, and other times they are broader, philosophical editorial notes. There is not a single panel of a single page of a single issue that he hasn't been involved with, and none of that is meant to come across as a negative. He is very conscious of having hired creative and editorial people who have a lot of experience producing comics, so he always relies on our judgment, but this is his baby, so he wants to make sure we're feeding it and burping it properly."
Dr. Al-Mutawa's central idea for "The 99" revolves around the 99 Noor Stones. "The Noor Stones are fictional, quasi-mystical artifacts that have absorbed the sum knowledge of human civilization prior to the real-history fall of Baghdad during the siege by Hulagu Kahn," Nicieza explained. "Naif found a great way to meld history with fiction and create a plausible demarcation point during which the history of our 'universe' can be traced.
"Each gem bestows a specific, positive attribute to its wielder; strength, speed, ability to wield light, teleport, etc. The 99 members, though individually powered, really work at their best when they combine their individual attributes to create wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. Working together to accomplish your goals is a very important theme to the series."
The story of the Noor Stones begins centuries ago but issue #1 of "The 99" unfolds in the present day. "The history-spanning issue in the U.S. is 'The 99: Origins', a free preview that we gave away over the summer," Nicieza stated. "The U.S. edition of '99' #1 is 'Welcome to America' which completely occurs in today's era."
Readers who may have missed "The 99: Origins" special can pick up issue #1 without being lost. Dr. Al-Mutawa and Nicieza work hard to make sure each issue of "The 99" is easily accessible and appeals to the tastes of a wide variety of comic fans. "I think every issue has been very new-reader friendly and most have been 'done in one' issues with running subplots, you know, the good 'old fashioned' way of doing comics.
"Because we are reaching out to such a new audience in our international marketplaces, we have made a very conscious effort to try and produce an 'all ages' book in the traditional sense of the word, rather than how it's perceived now. 'All ages' meant anyone from 8 to 80 could read the book, like most every single comic I grew up reading. Now, people in our marketplace think it automatically means 'kiddie comic.' I defy you to read the first few issues of 'The 99' and say it's a 'kid' comic or an 'adult comic.' We've tried very hard to have things in it that works on many different levels."
The title, "The 99," refers both to the Noor stones and their individual members but readers shouldn't expect to meet every hero of "The 99" in the first issue. "Maybe if George Perez wants to do a big poster we can see all 99 characters, otherwise we'll be doling them out through the course of a very natural story development," Nicieza remarked. "I believe by the end of the first year we have about 12 characters, though not all of them are actually members of the 99. Not everyone who is offered to join the group does.
"Also, besides the comics themselves, I've worked on about nine 'chapter serials' which have appeared as newspaper supplements in the Middle East, so some characters have been introduced there as well. Forgive me it's hard to keep track of what's been published where and when, much less how that will be presented to North American audiences!
"I do know that our initial character core introduced through the first six issues consists of Jabbar, Noora, Darr, Mumita and Jami. They are a mix of genders and ages as well as nationalities. I think audiences who are 'expecting' this to be a 'Middle Eastern' comic or an 'American' comic will be surprised -- pleasantly I hope - when their expectations are confounded by the fact that it is simply a comic about young people trying to do the right thing with their special gifts Jabbar is super-strong, Noora controls light images and can see the 'light' - or lack thereof -- in the human soul, Darr inflicts pain-inducing waves of energy, Mumita is a relentless fighter and Jami controls mechanical equipment."
The aliases adopted by the various members of The 99 are associated with their abilities. "They are all Arabic names which connote the aspects of their attribute," Nicieza said. "Darr means 'to afflict,' so he is Darr the Afflicter, Noor means light, so she becomes Noora the Light. I have to be honest; I get the basic name and concepts from Teshkeel's people, then I chew it over, nod my head in understanding, smile because I think they have all worked real nicely so far, and then go turn them into fleshed out characters."
"The 99" is a series with many characters but its central protagonist is Dr. Ramzi Razem, who serves as sort of a leader and mentor to the wielders of the Noor Stones. "Ramzi is a psychiatrist whose passion to help make a better world led him to working with victims of torture, then realizing he needed to find ways to mend the fences between cultures in order to prevent the very creation of those victims he had been helping," Nicieza said. "He created his own foundation and worked through the United Nations to create relief efforts and social-works programs all over the world."
Dr. Ramzi is the man who sets out to gather the individual Noor Stone wielders and unite them as a group. "Each character honestly brings their own baggage to the table. Each of them has very different backgrounds, life experiences and reasons for accepting Ramzi's
Offer," Nicieza said. "Some are complicated by the presence of their families; others need to find a way to convince their families to allow them to go, etc. The group is feeling each other out slowly, and every new member brings a different dynamic into the mix. Some characters are a little edgier and not equipped with much in the way of social graces; others are the glue that holds them all together. I have worked very hard to not work so hard on pigeon-holing them. We've allowed the character dynamic to develop as the characters themselves developed. When first planning things out, I wouldn't have expected Noora to take on a leadership role, but she very naturally does as time goes on because of the logic of how her character developed, etc. It's been a very fun, refreshing and open way of allowing the characters to dictate terms for their own development as much as having them imposed by my keyboard."
"The 99" are a very unique superhero team and every comic fan knows the best heroes are defined by their adversaries. "The main antagonist is named Rughal. He has a long history with the stones and firmly believes that he should be guiding the fate of any who wield one," Nicieza explained. "He thinks he deserves the power of the stones for himself, because he is the only living being who has ever truly experienced the sum total of what the stones are capable of --all that power at his fingertips -- and then it slid from his grasp. He is not a spouting spewing supervillain, but rather a very smart, very wronged man who fights fervently for what he believes in. He has a group of super-powered mercenaries who work for him, each gifted with Noor Stone based powers that have been scientifically derived from fragments and shards of stones Rughal had found over the last 100 years. Oh, did I mention he is over 500 years old?"
The opening arc of "The 99" introduces readers to the initial core cast of the series and their various status quos. "The first few issues are about power and responsibility, about recruiting people from different backgrounds and expecting them to begin working together," Nicieza stated. "They don't actively go out to act like a superhero team in the least; it's more about trying to cope with the changes in their bodies, the circumstances which brought them to Ramzi, etc. Each individual issue focuses on a new character until we have a working group. Meanwhile, there are nasty corporate forces that are becoming more and more curious about the existence of the 99 and are pushing, poking and prodding a bit to see if they really do exist and, if so, what they're made of. 'The 99' #4 is when the team faces off with Red Shroud and Blackwolf.ï¿½ Will the team find a way out when kidnapped? Will Raqib the Watcherï¿½ find New Blood in #5? And in #6, the new team and the old team fight together against the twisted genius of Rughal's Pathologist."
The fights and various exploits that the protagonists of "The 99" find themselves embroiled in will take them to locales as diverse as they are. "The main headquarters for the 99 is in Paris, but their adventures are truly international in scope," Nicieza remarked. "In the first year's worth of issues, we go to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, U.A.E., United States, Hungary, Canada, Philippines, India, Jakarta... sheesh... I should have brought my passport. This is not a region or country-specific book; it really is about empowering people from all over the world to think a bit more about what makes us similar and how we can work together rather than how our differences can drive us apart."
In tone, "The 99" is just as varied as its cast of characters and its settings. "The tone is drama, comedy, adventure and lesson-learning in the course of stories that present our characters with personal and moral conflicts," Nicieza said.
Bringing to life all the action, drama, comedy, and personal/moral conflicts of "The 99" is Nicieza's artistic collaborator John McCrea. "John is real fun and always surprising. He creates a real sense of kinetic motion to his panels and his pages," Nicieza said. "He can draw light or 'cartoony' stuff in one panel and shift gears to dark and scary in the next. I think his style has gone a long way towards helping to define a very distinctive look for the series and the universe as a whole."
With a huge cast of characters, global settings, and an epic, sweeping scope at their disposal, Nicieza and Dr. Al-Mutawa are in no danger of running out of interesting ideas to explore in "The 99." "The only inevitable end would be utter and total peace on Earth and good will between all who reside on the planet," Nicieza stated. "Sounds nice, but I'm too cynical to expect that anytime soon, which means we'll have plenty of characters and story material for a long time to come."
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