It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad few weeks for Marvel Comics. March sales figures have shown the company in a dangerous sales slump, losing out to eternal rival DC in terms of units sold and only coming out on top in terms of money earned, due to the fact that its comics are more expensive. There has also been growing anger online over the upcoming culmination of a story in which Captain America is depicted as the leader of a Nazi-affiliated group.
Matters got worse two weekends ago with a total PR disaster in which the publisher’s vice-president for sales and marketing, David Gabriel, told an interviewer at industry-analysis site ICv2 that he’d heard retailers saying the slump was due to recent attempts to make their characters more “diverse” — e.g., putting in more women and people of color. The comments were misleadingly interpreted in the geek press as meaning Marvel was giving up on such diversity initiatives, right when editor-in-chief Axel Alonso was touting those initiatives in a big Fortune profile. Gabriel clarified his statement, and it seemed the storm might have been passing.
Then came the Koran reference.
On Wednesday, the venerable company released one of its highest-profile comics in recent months, X-Men Gold No. 1. Gold is the flagship series in Marvel’s so-called ResurrXion project, which seeks to make the X-Men great again by thrusting them into the spotlight with new creative talent and a big marketing push. This first issue, written by Arrow co-creator and longtime comics scribe Marc Guggenheim, sees the titular team relocated to the heart of New York City and attempting to regain a luster of optimistic heroism in a dark and confusing world. Penciled by Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf, it was thrilling and cheery, filled with hope and excitement.
Trouble was, it also happened to be filled with coded messages commenting on a vicious political conflict in Indonesia. The most notable message appears on the chest of Russian X-Man Colossus — while playing a game of softball with his teammates, we see the characters “QS 5:51” emblazoned on his jersey. One can forgive editors Chris Robinson, Daniel Ketchum, and Mark Paniccia for assuming those were just random letters and numbers drawn by a man from a country where baseball uniforms aren’t widespread. But no, they stood for Qur’an Sura 5:51 — a verse from the Islamic holy book.
That verse is difficult to translate precisely into English, and there has been an array of attempts over the years, many of which you can read here. Generally, it says something along the lines of what the Hilali-Khan translation schema maps out as “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians as awliya (friends, protectors, helpers, etc.), they are but awliya to one another. And if any amongst you takes them as awliya, then surely he is one of them. Verily, Allah guides not those people who are the zalimoon (polytheists, wrongdoers, unjust).” Whatever your interpretation, it’s not very nice to Jews and Christians.
It also happens to be a rallying cry for a political movement in the Republic of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. The capital, Jakarta, is currently governed by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — better known as Ahok — an ethnically Chinese politician who has been in power since 2014. The salient fact here is that he’s the first Christian to govern Jakarta since 1965, and only the second in the office’s history. He just won a second term in office, but not without controversy. His religion and ethnicity have made him subject to suspicion and antagonism ever since his first run, and the aforementioned verse is often used as justification for why Muslims shouldn’t trust him, usually with a translation that interprets awliya as meaning “leaders.”
Last September, Ahok gave a speech in which he said people had been “deceived by the use of” that verse. Unfortunately for him, his statement was misinterpreted as meaning people were deceived by the verse itself — and, by extension, that the Koran is full of deception. Such an insult to Islam is illegal, and protests against Ahok erupted in November. A second round of protests were held on December 2. Indonesians put the day before the month in speech and writing, so the number 212 was often associated with these struggles against the governor. Thus, as of now, two of the primary rallying symbols for the religiously and racially charged outrage against Ahok are “212” and “QS 5:51.”
That’s where Syaf comes in. In addition to Colossus’s jersey, he also included the number 212 on some background graffiti (easily misinterpreted as just meaning the phone area code for much of New York City). More ominously, he drew a background storefront reading “Jewelry” right next to the head of Jewish X-Man Kitty Pryde, perhaps to emphasize the first three letters in that word. There was also a bit where a bystander wears a shirt reading “AL M,” perhaps a reference to Al-Maidah 51, another way to designate the controversial sura.
All of this only came to light over the weekend, when users on — where else? — Reddit pointed out what was going on. A Marvel fan who goes by Haykal Al-Qasimi posted a mildly viral Facebook message that acted as an open letter to the publisher, explaining the situation. Conservative Indonesian fans were overjoyed, as evidenced by this lengthy comments thread. As news trickled out into the comics ecosystem on Twitter, largely as a result of a detailed post on tabloid site Bleeding Cool, readers and creators gazed in confused awe at what had transpired. They were used to controversy at Marvel over diversity, but this was something wholly new. Some watchers of the situation were sympathetic to the company:
Others were mostly just furious with Syaf, especially Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson, who is a Muslim:
Wilson even went so far as to write a much-linked Tumblr post on Sunday, elucidating the sura and why the conservative Indonesian interpretation of it is so harmful. For his part, Syaf took to Facebook to openly declare that he intended to leave those hidden messages and that, though “a lot of good friends” are Jews and Christians, he was opposed to Ahok, who “did blasphemy to Our Holy Book.” He wrote that he “told all Marvel the truth meaning of the number” (not specifying if he meant 212 or 5:51) and that he would “see how Marvel will act.”
To Marvel’s credit, they acted well. The publisher leaped into action on Saturday, releasing a statement to ComicBook.com saying everyone else involved in the comic was wholly unaware of what was going on in those drawings, that Syaf — a freelancer — is being subjected to “disciplinary action,” that the symbols will be removed from future printings and digital editions, and that Syaf’s beliefs “are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation.”
The whole thing is already blowing over, and it’s a financial blow to Marvel, who will have to invest resources into getting new art, who have had to temporarily pull the digital edition from superstore comiXology.com, and who will possibly have to hire a new artist (and maybe even scrap his upcoming art) for this important title. But, in a way, it’s something of a win for them. Their swift and decisive stand against intolerance has garnered much-deserved praise, though it remains to be seen whether industry-watchers approve of whatever disciplinary action is actually undertaken. First-run printings of the comic are already demanding jacked-up prices on eBay and will definitely become a collector’s item, but the real boon here will probably be the slight turnaround in the public perception of the House of Ideas.
Update April 12: Marvel has fired Syaf. The publisher said the next two issues of X-Men Gold will run with the art he already drew, due to the fact that they had already been sent off for printing, but that the remainder of his contracted work on the series has been canceled. Syaf took to Facebook again to apologize and lament his situation. Whatever goodwill that might have earned him disappeared when he spoke to an Indonesian news outlet and said, according to a translation obtained by comics writer Ivan Brandon, “Marvel belongs to Disney, right? So the second I offended the Jews, of course there’s no leniency.” As Brandon put it on a Facebook post, “if anyone with a profile of any kind hires this dude in the next 5 years i’ll eat my hat.”