Superheroes are a ubiquitous part of the global culture. Anywhere you go on this beautiful planet there is a pretty good chance you will spot a little kid with a Spider-Man backpack. No matter what language they're speaking or what race they are, they share the same myths of men and women in funny outfits selflessly saving the world. Egypt is no exception.
A group of Egyptian comic book nerds has begun building a comic universe of their own, representative of the experiences, challenges, and paradoxes that they and other Egyptians face.
Truth, Justice, and the Egyptian Way of Life
El3osba ("3" is the "Arabish" transliteration of the Arabic letter ayin, which sounds kind of like a glottal E sound; non-Arabic speakers will pronounce it El Osba) is a supergroup of diverse heroes created by Egyptians not only for Egyptians, but also those outside their homeland interested in getting to know more about the country through the internationally understood language of superheroes.
Written by John Maher and Maged Refaat with art by Ahmed Raafat, "The League" (or "Gang" as it translates) is the first step in an "unstoppable" and persistent comic book universe for characters who hail from Egypt and the Middle East.
Combating the ills plaguing Egypt as personified by their mysterious rogues' gallery of supervillains and their minions, El3osba also struggle against how ordinary Egyptians view them. While some see them as true heroes, there are others who question their motives and their place in this fictional, yet unexpectedly grounded, version of Egypt.
Each of the team's six members uniquely embodies a different aspect of modern Egyptian culture. They also tap into more fundamental archetypes that anyone in the world can identify with. In-universe, El3osba was brought together by an extra-dimensional being called Alpha who, having been inspired by the heroes' selfless determination to make the world a better place, abandons his "higher universe" to bring them all together.
"Things did not go so smooth in the beginning," Refaat says. "Each member has their own ideology and strategy when facing threats." Their differing morals and values often cause them to disagree, not unlike the constantly bickering superheroes we're already familiar with in Western movies and comics.
The creators use these differences to illustrate the diversity of Egypt while giving each of the characters unique personalities.
Like a Zordon or Nick Fury character, Alpha is an expert manipulator who knows just what buttons to push to get what he wants from the heroes. Since he's eternal, Alpha has control over time and reality itself. While technically the guy (or extra-dimensional godhead, as it were) that runs the show, he relies on another character to lead the team in the field, playing Cyclops to his Professor X.
A gifted man who grew up in an orphanage, Amin Mourad is a former elite soldier turned agricultural engineer who discovers he is literally Horus, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun and skies. While iconic and emblematic, Horus doesn't fit the same goody two-shoes mould as similar characters like Captain Insert Predominately White Country Here.
Like Frank Miller's Batman, Horus is totally OK using violence to impart lessons on Cairo's ne'er-do-wells. Using his tactical genius and high-tech gadgets, Horus battles the "cancer" of corruption that's slowly killing his great homeland with his own brand of righteous, zero-tolerance fierceness. In one example, after discovering a corrupt official who was extorting money from a sweet old lady trying to process some basic paperwork, Horus hangs the guy up from his feet in front of a courthouse after leaving notes with the cops and an envelope of cash with the old lady.
Effective, yes. Overkill, eh...
Once he goes public, Horus draws the ire of corrupt people in positions of power threatened by his actions. In issue three, Horus is caught by dirty cops and beaten before being rescued by the other members of El3osba. His treatment at the hands of dishonourable officials is not all fiction. Human rights abuses like disappearances, beatings, and torture are an all-too-real occurrence in Egypt's prisons and police stations.
As you can imagine, the image of the physical embodiment of Egypt's glorious historical legacy beaten by untouchable cops is a powerful one.
Next is Mostorod Al- Sayed, a poorly educated microbus driver who lives and works in one of Egypt's rural "Canal Slums." After his bus tumbles into an enchanted canal, he is cursed with shapeshifting abilities and control over fire and dust. Taking on the mantle of Microbusgy, he initially uses his powers to right the wrongs perpetrated by thugs in his bottom-of-the-rung socioeconomic community.
Eventually, he comes to see his powers as a gift instead of a curse and joins the team to bring hope to the downtrodden people of Egypt. Microbusgy is a kind soul who is fiercely loyal and not afraid to crack a low-brow joke to cut the tension.
In Egypt, most roads are named after famous historical figures and events. As the only thing Microbusgy knows, his shapeshifting powers are limited to heroes of Egypt's history. His creators say Microbusgy symbolises the glory and heroism of Egypt's past, and the modern common Egyptian's perseverance to do good even in the face of terrible odds.
Mariam is a brilliant young doctor who acts as the intellectual core of the team. She's dedicated her life to bringing quality, life-saving care to the most marginalised in Egyptian society, those who would never be able to afford it otherwise. Described by Refaat as "a true Egyptian alpha female," Mariam refuses to give in to deeply rooted patriarchal pressures to give up her career and her dreams for the sake of building a family, as if the two things are mutually exclusive.
According to Maher, the other team members "rely on her scientific and medical knowledge to help them navigate through the different cases and mysteries they encounter." In classic comic book style, after a freak accident, Mariam develops the powers to supernaturally heal injuries and diseases. Even within El3osba she faces discrimination in the beginning, as she is only offered a spot on the team in order to entice another hero to join.
A reformed terrorist whose only goal is to protect what he loves, Al-Walhan is what you get when you cross a badass Bedouin mercenary with a ninja. His name is a play on the Arabic word for the one who is infatuated, which makes sense as Al-Walhan becomes obsessed with Miram after he meets her for the first time. Expertly manipulated by Alpha, he reluctantly joins El3osba to protect his crush.
Mariam and Al-Walhan's relationship is one of the more interesting inter-team dynamics because following her token membership, Mariam earns the respect of the other members of the team with her healing powers and scientific knowledge. Al-Walhan, on the other hand, has difficulty integrating into a team dynamic and his past mistakes and laconic nature lead to conflict with the others.
After suffering some serious trauma on the job, an Egyptian secret intelligence officer named Kamal develops another personality to cope with the psychological toll. Known as Kaf — a letter in the Arabic alphabet — this persona is granted magical powers by a mysterious entity which allows him to cast powerful spells using the alphabet.
Given his time as a secret agent, Kaf is naturally suspicious and often butts heads with the other members of the team, especially Al-Walhan. Originally a villain in the first story arc, Kaf seems to be committed to being a good guy now, though his philosophy of ends justifying means fuels inter-supergroup conflict, and conflict in himself as well.
The first El3osba story arc focused on introducing the individual heroes and bringing them together while also hinting at the big bad behind the scenes. A comic universe with powerful and interesting heroes is only half of the equation and El3osba's no different, of course.
At the end of the first story arc, readers got their first good look at the characters that would be menacing El3osba in their future adventures. The villains of the El3osba universe are a diverse collection of antagonists who pose supernatural threats as well as perils more grounded in the reality of modern-day Egypt.
There's the Lex Luthor-esque El-Sayes, or "Non-Bloods," who manipulate Egypt's political elites, and Nosa El-Mahdy, who controls the media. In El3osba's first stories, our heroes take them out one by one, gradually discovering these foes are mere puppets whose strings are being pulled by the big bad of the series so far, Set — the mythical antithesis of Horus and ancient god of the desert, storms, and violence.
The stories' arcs of the upcoming "Season 2," as the creators call it, will see the heroes facing off against the false-hero El-Egl who corrupts the ordinary citizens of Egypt. This characters will include Deacon, a paranoid Coptic Egyptian; Ultra, a hardcore football geek; El-Hawy (The Magician), whose tough childhood on the streets led him to a life of villainy; and El-Kafer, whose motivations Maher describes as "getting people to stop believing. Not just in God, but in purpose and ideologies, so he can destroy them internally."
Details on these new villains are scant as the creators are still developing them, as well as being wary of handing out too many spoilers. But they did share more info about a vicious new female villain with an epic, topical, and tragic backstory. El-Nahada is based on the Egyptian version of the sirens from Greek mythology, who use their seductive voices and beauty to trap and murder men.
Inspired by the late Egyptian actress Hind Rostom (basically the Egyptian version of Marilyn Monroe), El-Nahada was formerly an Egyptian feminist named Salma Gamal El Sayad who was driven insane by the rampant sexual harassment and violence against women plaguing Egypt. According to Refaat, El-Nahada believes men are all rabid dogs that must be put down. (According to a UN report in 2013, a staggering 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women say they face some form of sexual violence.)
Tragic and certainly relatable, El-Nahada's story is a mythic example of the toxic behaviour that plagues so much of the entire world.
Since it debuted in 2012 as a series of short stories by John Maher on Facebook, the reaction to El3osba has been overwhelmingly positive at home and abroad. Maher says each character has their own fan base; Horus is beloved by the hardcore comic nerds, while Alpha gives the books that wider universe feel.
Women have related to Mariam for breaking barriers and defying the status quo in a conservative climate. The romantic types fall for El-Walhan's unrequited love. Kaf and his story of redemption hits readers right in the feels, as does Microbusgy's underdog vibe. In total, the creative team says they've sold about 3000 physical issues. According to Raafat, distribution is one of the team's greatest challenges since there are no dedicated comic book stores in Egypt.
"Our distribution is limited to franchise bookstores whose main focus is books [like] novels, and not comics," Raafat says. Bookstores often still lump comics with children's books.
The team has begun releasing issues online to reach a wider audience (including a translated first issue on Facebook for English speaking fans). Raafat, who now lives in the UK, says, "American comics are no stranger to Egyptian lore," citing characters like DC Comics' Hawkman and Marvel's Moon Knight who were directly inspired by Egyptian mythology.
While these characters are awesome, Raafat says, "they were never really representative of the culture they are derived from, and are more of a reflection of how the West sees Egypt." He says they are hoping to give readers around the world a look at characters and stories that are grounded in the real Egypt, both ancient and modern.
Currently, the creators are working on a series of character-specific single issues along with the next story arc. Raafat equates the main El3osba comics as their big Avengers-style team-up series, while the universe continues to develop and expand in standalones and spin-offs. Maher and Refaat agree but insist on using the Justice League as a comparison instead (DC vs. Marvel feuds are just as universal as superheroes in general).
Many of the new stories will continue to focus on real issues such as harassment and corruption while exploring the in-universe reaction to a team of Egyptian superheroes going public. "Some see them as heroes and allies, others see them as threats," Raafat says.
New stories will showcase what the team is up to when they are not facing any "major threats," while focusing on issues that Egyptians have to deal with on a daily basis — and showcasing the true heroism that ordinary, real Egyptians are capable of. The first three standalone stories will be published at the Cairo Comix Festival and collected into a single volume once they're all released.
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