Special AK: AK Comics and Heroes of the Middle East

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Until recently, the world's major comic book publishers have been concentrated in North America, Europe, and Japan. Though each of these hubs had developed their own aesthetic and heroes, by necessity the stories featured predominantly characters from their own region (Americans, Europeans, and Japanese) told from the cultural perspective of the writers and artists involved. While American and European comics are translated into an array of languages, and Japanese and Korean comics are all the rage overseas, there is still a large segment of the world that has, for whatever reasons, not embraced the comic book form to tell its own stories. Now though, AK Comics is pressing to add another voice to the forum: the creative vision of the Middle East.

Published in Egypt, the AK Comics line of titles (Aya, Jalila, Rakan, and Zein) are now in their seventh issues on their home turf, even as each debuts its first issue this month in the United States. For its efforts at providing peace-loving heroes and role models for the Middle Eastern readers, AK Comics has received worldwide media attention, including articles in the New York Times, BBC, and other major outlets. The social importance of these books is clear. But how do the comics measure up?

I recently received sample copies of AK's initial offerings, and flipping through them was an interesting experience. As a reviewer, my first instinct was to look on the books with a critical eye, evaluating the quality and picking apart those aspects I did not like. I believe this is important: if these comics are good, there is potential for a larger audience and outreach; if they're not, the line may fail to appeal to even its core readership. Of course, as a raving political activist, I also felt that these comics must be taken in a larger cultural context. When reading the following short synopses and reviews, however, please keep in mind my perspective: I'm an American, WASP, who, while fairly well-informed and of more than average intelligence, could not hope to fully grasp the history and intricate social relations of Southwest Asia and North Africa.

Story: Dr. Ayman Kandeel
Dialogue: Todd Vicino
Art: Allan Goldman

Aya is the Batman of the AK Universe, a super-smart heroine without superpowers protecting the streets of the Alexia. When Aya busts up what she believes is a drug deal, she unwittingly frees an ages-old monster. The ancient pharaoh now stalks the city, searching for his lost queen, and murdering those women who don't measure up. Aya digs in to fight the creature, but what she doesn't know might kill her.

Story: Dr. Ayman Kandeel
Dialogue: Sara Kareem
Artist: Allan Goldman

As protector of the City of All Faiths, Jalila fights against the sinister terrorist organization Axes. But when she fails to prevent a horrific attack on the WorldPride celebration, Jalila redoubles her efforts, taking the fight to the enemy. Her brother's deadly secret, though, could jeopardize the entire mission, and peace in the region.

Story: Dr. Ayman Kandeel
Dialogue: Todd Vicino
Artist: Raphael Albuquergue

Raised by a sabertooth tiger after his village was ransacked by Mongols, Rakan honed his savage instincts, struggling to survive. When he meets the wandering swordsman Hakim at a desert oasis, Rakan learns the value of human contact... just before it is taken from him.

Writer: Todd Vicino
Artist: Raphael Albuquerque

A mysterious swarm of scarabs has begun attacking residents of Tunir Village, and the science hero Zein discovers the horrifying secret behind the beetles' unnatural behavior... a secret tied to his own ancient origins.

All of these comics take place after an event called the "55 Years War," which succeeded in bringing peace to the Middle East. As such, the heroes are freed to focus on supervillains rather than being mired in real-world politics and conflict. This is both the AK line's greatest strength and its weakness. Lacking details to distinguish the environments of Egypt and Algeria from Metropolis and Gotham, the heroes and their adventures come off as near clones of their American counterparts. On some levels, this can be seen to speak to universal human nature, and at any rate will appeal to readers who are more likely to identify with a character named Rainia Mokhtar than Diana Prince. However, even in a post-"55 Year War" world, a fresh perspective would be preferable to mere cosmetic overhaul.

On a story level, the first comics out of the Middle East are largely what American comics were at their inception: these are aimed at kids, pure and simple. The stories are straightforward, with flashy action, and there are a few games and puzzles in the back. As such, the adventures are pretty good. We've got a monster mash, an evil organization, an animal-man, and a technological genius fighting crime. The comics are a little bloodier than what might be found in "Marvel Ages" or "Johnny DC" books, but looking back on the early adventures of Batman and Superman, not all was sugar-coated roses there, either.

Of the current titles, Rakan and Aya are the strongest offerings. Aya, as a character, is full of potential, as brainy women are always a good read. Rakan's intrigue comes not from his feral upbringing, but rather from the struggles he enters on account of his ties to Hakim. All around though, it is to be hoped that the origin stories will be further explored on-panel, fleshing out the text introductions inside the front cover.

The art across the titles, by Raphael Albuquerque and Allan Goldman, adheres to clearly defined house style reminiscent of the old Malibu/Ultraverse line of comics. It's bold and colorful, quite well suited to the high-action stories AK favors.

Proven time and again, nothing happens in a vacuum. Quick on the heels of AK Comics' North American debut, Kuwait-based Teshkeel Comics will soon premiere its own super-team, The 99, based on Islamic concepts and published in English and Arabic. As the variety of titles from Middle Eastern creators and publishers expands, so too will the variety of styles and tones expressed in those comics. This is the true value of AK Comics and other early pioneers like Teshkeel, introducing the need and desire for these type of characters and exploring the myriad storytelling styles available in the comic book medium.

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