Kuwaiti Entrepreneur Hopes to Create the Next Pokémon

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

A Kuwaiti entrepreneur hopes to create the next Pokémon — or Justice League:

Two years ago, Naif Al Mutawa started up his own comic-book series, spurred by the dearth of Arabic-language children’s books in the Middle East.

Now, the 37-year-old Kuwaiti entrepreneur and his small company, backed by Islamic-compliant private investors, are lining up deals that could help him build a children’s-entertainment powerhouse in the Arab world.
Ynon Kreiz, CEO of Endemol and the former head of Fox Kids Europe, who has ushered in hit franchises like Power Rangers, thinks that Mr. Mutawa has found the right formula to make it big globally. “The subject matter and angle here give us a chance to really stand out,” Mr. Kreiz says of “The 99.”

Teshkeel and Edemol plan to write and produce a season of 30-minute cartoons based on the comic books. Animation for the show is expected to be done at digital studios in India. Endemol, the producer of the original “Big Brother,” plans to market “The 99″ through its television distribution network, which covers Asia, Europe and North America, as well as the Middle East.

“The 99″ refers to the number of attributes the Quran says are possessed by Allah. The superhero protagonists of the action-packed series strive to bring the light of knowledge to a violent world. To depict their adventures, Mr. Mutawa works with illustrators tapped from DC Comics, a division of Time Warner Inc., and Marvel Characters, a division of Marvel Entertainment Inc.

The story line is based on an historical event: the sacking of 13th-century Baghdad and the burning of that Islamic empire’s library. At the time, it was the largest repository of knowledge in the world. In the comic books, Muslim teenagers from such diverse places such as Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hungary, work to bring wisdom and reason back to the world.

Jabbar, a Hulk-like figure from Saudi Arabia, has enormous strength, Noora, a young woman from the United Arab Emirates, has power over light. Darr, a blond American boy in a wheelchair, can relieve and inflict pain. Standing in their way is an evil multinational corporation and its leader, who wants to keep the world ignorant and violent.

“The 99″ accounts for a tiny portion of the global comics market. Teshkeel distributes one million copies a year, with just over half going to Asian markets and the rest to the Middle East. By contrast, Diamond Comics Distributors Inc., the main North American distributor, sold 67.9 million comic books in the first 10 months of 2008, according to industry tracker Comics Chronicles.

Licensing rights to the series has been sold for seven languages, including Hindi, Malaysian and French. But Mr. Mutawa says the real money in the comic books will come from marketing agreements, such as the Nestlé deal, and his budding theme-park operations.

Mr. Mutawa says his themes are about ethics, not religious dogma. No one in the comic books prays. There is no mention of scripture or the Prophet Mohammed. One heroine wears a burka, the head-to-toe covering worn by some Muslim women. Others wear sarongs, or ride skateboards. Comics are published in Arabic, English and Bahasa Indonesian.

A devout Muslim with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, Mr. Mutawa is versed in Islamic philosophy and American youth literature. He’s a big fan of “The Hardy Boys,” the children’s classic he discovered on his annual trips to summer camp in New Hampshire in the 1980s.

Censors in Saudi Arabia, the largest market in the Middle East, banned “The 99″ its first year off the presses for what they called “un-Islamic” content. Some Arabic-language newspapers have refused to run serialized versions of the books.

But Mr. Mutawa pressed on, tapping like-minded Muslims to finance the project. Partners from Bahrain-based Unicorn Investment Bank, an Islamic-compliant investor, put $15.9 million of their personal funds into Teshkeel last year. They took two of the company’s five board seats.

Because Unicorn’s own board of Shariah scholars, who rule on whether an investment complies with Islam, implicitly blessed the cartoon, the Saudi censorship board changed its view on the comic, according to Mr. Mutawa.

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