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Cool Thesis of the Week: Melissa Aslo Islam in a Superhero Comic

Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all.

Melissa Aslo

Melissa Aslo '12 will write a thesis that combines her two loves.

Many thesising seniors come by their thesis topic by combining their academic pursuits with another interest. This usually requires that the two have significant overlap. For Religion major Melissa Aslo of Columbia Missouri, this strategy yielded exactly one topic on which to write.

“My thesis was born out of my interest in comics and my interest in Islam,” says Melissa, who describes herself as a “huge comics geek.” There were few points of interaction between the religion and superhero tales, but Melissa “just decided to Google it.” This led her to the comic book “The 99,” by Dr. Naif al-Mutawa, a popular superhero comic that prominently features Islamic values. Melissa’s thesis, which she is writing with Professor Kambiz Ghanea Bassiri, will focus on this comic as a piece of religious literature.

“The 99” isn’t the first superhero comic that incorporates religious values. In fact, says Melissa, it takes its cue from a long line of American comics that include religious allegories. This includes, she says, the origin story of Superman, whose tale of being jettisoned from his dying planet to save a race mirrors the story of Moses being sent down the Nile in a basket. Melissa also points out X-Men, a central theme of which is marginalized personal identities, and which has included two Muslim heroes. However, she notes, American comics are rarely explicitly religious; they merely make a tradition of incorporating Judeo-Christian values.

“The 99” follows this pattern and applies it to Islamic values. “I wouldn’t describe it as an Islamic comic book,” says Melissa, “but it is inspired by Islam.” The comic takes its name from Islam’s 99 attributes of God, a set of characteristics that describe Allah. God is “merciful,” “loving,” and “all-knowing,” to name a few. In “The 99,” each of a cohort of heroes possesses one of these attributes as their superpower. These powers come from stones from The House of Wisdom, an actual historical library in Baghdad that housed the knowledge of the Islamic world until it was destroyed by the Mongols in the year 1258. In “The 99,” the House’s librarians stored the knowledge of the library’s books in the stones to preserve them from destruction. This historical connection, says Melissa, reflects a point of Islamic theology, that, as she puts it, “knowledge is power.” She adds that this theological idea “has been a source of debate in early Islam and in the modernist period.”

The comic also reflects characteristics of the Islamic belief system in other parts of its narrative. Each issue, Melissa says, the heroes have a new evil plot to foil, and they must decide which three of them are best equipped to deal with the problem. This mirrors another point of Islamic belief: Allah’s 99 attributes, Melissa explains, “have to be in constant harmony with each other.” Melissa says this focus on “teamwork” constitutes a difference with American comics, which celebrate the “triumph of the individual.”

Melissa is careful to note that “The 99” is “never explicitly religious.” In fact, she continues, al-Mutawa, the author, has said that “he will think that the comic book is successful if Jewish kids read it and think the characters are Jewish, and if Christian kids read it and think the characters are Christian.” However, Melissa says, this can make studying the comic all the more interesting, opening up questions of how religious ideas are incorporated into the secular, and how religion is “operationalized” into everyday life. Aside from this, Melissa concludes, she is happy to have the opportunity to write a thesis on superheroes. “I’m pretty excited,” she says. “Being able to study comics for the whole year is pretty exciting.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email ablum@reed.edu with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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