Wayl, a rage-driven vigilante, strikes with lightning bolts bursting out of his hands. Shamal, an amalgam of sand, bone and rotten flesh, wields metal against his foes. The Angel of Aleppo, a hooded being armed with a pair of blood-soaked scimitars, dispatches adversaries in a wordless death dance.
These crusty, hard-bitten comic book protagonists are as much villain as hero. Their messy, violent adventures evoke the zeitgeist of an Arab world in which a flurry of cultural activity captures and is affected by the region’s deeply painful political impasse.
Five years of tremendous upheaval have left the Arab world with very few real-life heroes. Instead, it pushed the artists who created these characters, whose work was featured earlier this year at the Middle East Film & Comic Con in Dubai, to fashion a crop of antiheroes who embody the ambivalent legacy of the Arab Spring.
Take Zaid Adham and Yasser Alireza, the writing/artistic force behind “Wayl” (pronounced “Whale”).
The idea for the comic book came when Adham, who had recently returned to the Arab world after living in Canada, said he realized “the amount of amoral people you run into in the Middle East is huge.”
It spurred him to create a character “beyond the stereotypical depiction of the region, from the scimitar-bearing Arab on a horse to the genie in a bottle,” but also one that would face “the flawed community” in Arab cities.
The result was Wayl, a character obsessed with the corruption and apathy he sees around him, and who believes that “when avarice is everything, even the most reluctant must act.”
The plot kicks off as businessman Sufyan El-Taher leaves Toronto for the Jordanian capital Amman to reluctantly take the reins of the family company after his father’s death.
He finds a city far different from the one in which he lived as a child, where the erupting tensions in the region and the disastrous result of revolutions in Syria and Iraq have cowed residents into accepting crime, especially corruption, “as a societal norm.”
There are also those in the family firm who would rather see Sufyan out of the way.
Indeed, they murder him during a company retreat in secluded area of the ancient city of Petra. But a few fortuitous lightning bolts later, he finds himself reincarnated as Wayl, a Batman-esque figure who decides to become Amman’s “destiny, its misery,” and fulfill the promise of his name, which means “Woe unto the wicked.”
Wayl serves as a contrast to the hero of A.L Thackray’s comic book, “The Chronicles of Shamal,” about a marauder who in ancient times was buried alive by his brother as punishment.
Fortunately for Shamal, his grave lies under Bahrain’s famous “Tree of Life,” a real-life 400-year old tree that grows in the middle of the tiny oil kingdom’s desert and which somehow keeps him alive.
He is awakened in modern times and (along with his two familiars, a horse and a falcon) goes to battle other supernatural creatures intent on causing mischief in modern-day Bahrain.
Although Thackray is South African, her story is steeped in the culture of her adopted country: The name of the eponymous character comes from a sweeping northwesterly wind that spurs sandstorms; the book uses English, Hindi and Arabic, languages used by the residents and expatriates in the country.
What Thackray does not include in her depiction of Bahrain is that the country has been rocked by protests since 2011 and now maintains an appearance of outward calm.
But much like most of the Gulf’s residents, Shamal gives politics a wide berth. Instead, his enemies are those who would disturb the tranquility of this “Land of the Two Seas.” (The meaning of the word Bahrain in Arabic)
Shamal protects that segment of Bahraini society that is wary of the instability and chaos engulfing other areas of the region.
But what of those places where the legacy of the 2011 revolts has been a complete breakdown of society?
That is where the nihilistic offering from Saudi Arabian publisher Khayal Comics steps in.
Here, the wilted, almost pulverized remains of war-ravaged Aleppo are the stage as the “Angel of Aleppo” wordlessly kills the debut issue’s enemies, the Syrian government soldiers and the Iranian overseers that are hunting him (although they describe him as a “demon”).
You don’t have to have a political affiliation to create a monster.
— Abdul Karim Ali, co-creator of "Angel of Aleppo"
A collaboration between Abdul Karim Ali, a Palestinian residing in Saudi Arabia, and Romanian artist Michael Schneider, “Angel of Aleppo” began two years ago when Abdul Karim “was enraged by the destruction of Aleppo, a city that existed since the beginning of civilization.”
Although Abdul Karim himself sides with the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he insists his character has no political affiliation.
“Anyone can be like this. Anyone can become this creature in times like this,” explains Abdul Karim. “You don’t have to have a political affiliation to create a monster.”
That monstrous nature is the common thread running through this trio of antiheroes, the embodiment of the winter of discontent that came after the Arab Spring.
And so: Gone is Superman. In his stead, though, we may have gotten something better (to borrow from another superhero movie): the hero the Arab world deserves, as well as the one it needs right now.