We were saddened to learn of the passing last month of scholar and popular culture critic Jack Shaheen. We found Shaheen's book Reel Bad Arabs to be immensely helpful as we studied representations of Arabs in post-911 American comic books.
Shaheen painstakingly documented how Arabs were portrayed in movies and television concluding that villainous stereotypes abound. Throughout his career, he advocated for a simple goal: that Arabs be portrayed as "ordinary people."
In particular, his analysis of comic books in the 1980s and 1990s in Reel Bad Arabs explained the historic portrayal of Arabs as limited to only terrorists, uber-wealthy oil shiekhs or bandits -- depictions that contribute to stereotypical attitudes. As he brought to light, comic book best-sellers in the superhero genre, such as Batman: A Death in the Family (1988), The Punisher: Nuclear Terrorists Over Times Square (1987) and Moon Knight: Fist of Konshu (1985), clearly fell into this trap. In fact, only Joe Sacco's Palestine (1996), a journalistic--style account of the occupation of Palestine, presented Arabs in a sympathetic and humanistic light.
Since his important critique of comic books, the landscape has become more diverse. Although stereotypical portrayals still occur, a counter-narrative is now also palpable. Increasingly, there are Arab creators and publishers working in the industry. Most notably Tashkeel Publications' The 99, the brainchild of Naif Al-Mutawa, depicts heroes based on the 99 names, or attributes, of Allah. Although the 99 names is a Muslim theological construct intersecting with a multitude of ethnic contexts, it depicts Arab characters, culture, and settings in more nuanced ways than most comics. It also represented the first notable publishing house of superhero comics coming out of the Arab world.
Arab in America (2008) is another important articulation confronting what Shaheen cared so passionately about. In this biographic graphic novel, Toufic El Rassi documents his own experience of discrimination and bullying based on the anti-Arab xenophobia in American society. He uses the medium skillfully to expose how these experience are traumatic and alienating, and provides insight into coping strategies and avenues that lead toward heeling. The work humanizes the Arab-American experience in a way few other comic books ever have.
We hope that scholars will carry on the Shaheen's vigilance in the face of damaging portrayals of Arabs in American comic books and other entertainment, while positively acknowledging depictions that present Arabs in their full humanity. With President Donald Trump's Muslim Ban and disparaging comments about ethnic minorities, the possibility for cultural backsliding is real.
-- Nickie & Staci