DC Comics introduces its first Arab-American superhero — and his first test is grappling with a federal agent who thinks he's a terrorist...
The comic-book world has taken bold steps this year to diversify its landscape, with Marvel introducing a new half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man and DC Comics revealing that Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, is gay. And now, DC has revealed yet another milestone: The Arab-American character Simon Baz is the new Green Lantern.
What makes Simon Baz special?
A lot. Unlike the rest of DC Comics' major superheroes, Baz has "not been around since the '40s, '50s, or '60s," says Brian Truitt at USA Today. Creator Geoff Johns only recently "worked on the script with the Arab American National Museum" in Dearborn, Mich. In his debut issue, Baz, who is Lebanese, is depicted "watching the events of 9/11 unfold on his TV as a 10-year-old, and dealing with the aftermath that Muslims faced in America." And his first major obstacle isn't a conventional super-villain, but "a federal agent who deems him a terrorist."
Is Baz really the first Muslim superhero?
That's debatable. He's certainly not "the first Arab or Muslim" introduced into the comic-book world, says Jeff Karoub of the Associated Press. DC Comics has Nightrunner, a "Muslim hero of Algerian decent" who has teamed up with Batman. And Marvel has Dust, "a young Afghan woman" who appears in the popular X-Men series. But Baz is the first Muslim character to become a big-name superhero.
Is the comic any good?
The first issue is somewhat middling, though the series "has potential," says Dan Seitz at Uproxx. The introduction of Baz is "spare and effective," but the issue takes a turn for the worse when it tackles Baz's issues as an Arab-American Muslim. That storyline is handled "in a thudding, obvious way." There's nothing wrong with political overtones in Green Lantern, but it needs to be sharper than "an episode of 24 that ends with a Green Lantern ring instead of a Jack Bauer torture scene."
Baz's story begins in a standalone "zero issue" available Wednesday that's part of a companywide effort to fill in the gaps or tell the origins of a character or team. Johns has no plans for Baz to fade into the background – the character in February is bound for the Justice League of America, one of DC's premier super team books, to fight alongside Green Arrow, Catwoman and Hawkman.
Johns said he took economic as well as ethnic cues for the character from his native Detroit area, with Baz resorting to stealing cars after being laid off from his automotive engineering job. He steals the wrong car, which inadvertently steers him into a terrorism probe and, eventually, an unexpected call to join the universe's galactic police force.
The olive-skinned, burly Baz hails from Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford and the capital of Arab America. His story begins at 10 years old, when he and the rest of his Muslim family watch their television in horror as airplanes fly into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Events unfold from there as US Arabs and Muslims find themselves falling under intense suspicion and ostracism in the days, months and years following the attacks.
"Obviously, it's affecting everybody," said Johns, who grew up in nearby suburbs in a Lebanese Christian household and got into comics when he discovered his uncle's old collection in his Arab grandmother's attic. "One of the things I really wanted to show was its effect on Simon and his family in a very negative way."
Baz is not the first Arab or Muslim character to grace – or menace, as has historically been the case – the comic world. Marvel Comics has Dust, a young Afghan woman whose mutant ability to manipulate sand and dust has been part of the popular X-Men books. DC Comics in late 2010 introduced Nightrunner, a young Muslim hero of Algerian descent reared in Paris. He is part of the global network of crime fighters set up by Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne.
Frank Miller, whose dark and moody take on Batman in "The Dark Knight Returns" in 1986 energized the character, took a different tack in his recent book, "Holy Terror," which tells the story of The Fixer and his efforts to stamp out Islamic terrorists. The graphic novel initially took root as a look at Batman's efforts to fight terrorism, which grew out of Miller's experiences of being in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
A broader mission to bring Islamic heroes and principles to the comic world comes from Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of "The 99." The US-educated psychologist from Kuwait has been gaining followers across the globe since the 2006 debut of the comic book that spawned a TV series. "The 99" is named after the number of qualities the Quran attributes to God: strength, courage, wisdom and mercy among them.
The series gained a wide audience in 2010, when it worked with DC on a six-issue crossover that teamed the "The 99" with The Justice League of America.
Johns, who also has written stories starring Superman, The Flash and Teen Titans, said going diverse only works if there's a good story, and he believes he found that with Baz. But don't mistake him for a hero in the beginning: Baz disappoints both devout Muslims – his forearm tattoo that reads "courage" in Arabic is considered "haram," or religiously forbidden – and broader society by turning to a life of crime.
"He's not a perfect character. He's obviously made some mistakes in his life, but that makes him more compelling and relatable," he said. "Hopefully (it's) a compelling character regardless of culture or ethnic background. ... But I think it's great to have an Arab-American superhero. This was opportunity and a chance to really go for it."
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