If  you somehow missed the Ardian Syaf controversy over the weekend…well, lucky you, But here’s a rundown of what happened.

• First the background: Ardian Syaf is a comics artist from Indonesia, whose worked on many titles for DC and Marvel since getting his start in US comics in 2008 on The Dresden Files for Dynamite. Up until now his comics career was pretty unremarkable, although he was generally praised for his work.

• Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world by population, and the largest Muslim majority country on earth with  87% of its population of the Muslim faith.

§ Depending on who you ask, Indonesia has usually been seen as a peaceful country. However, religious sectarian has been on the rise among a small but vocal minority. A few years ago the region known as Jakarta elected a Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, who is also ethnically Chinese. A misstated comment on the Quran (based on inaccurate video subtitles some say) led to a huge outcry and Ahok being tried for blasphemy. A small but radical group of hard line Islamists have been protesting against Ahok, using the specific verse of the Qu-ran that, according to some translation, bans non-Muslims from holding office.


• Okay here is where the comic book comes in! In the background and clothing of X-men Gold #1, Syaf, the artist, drew many references that were dog whistles to the radical anti Ahok movement. These include the numbers 212, 51, and QS 5:51. Although the actual art looked innocuous these were coded referenes to things that radicals were well aware of.

212 refers to a march against Ahok organized by radicals (which apparently Syaf took part in) and QS 5:51 refers to the verse of the Qu’ran (see below from G. Willow Wilson for more on that.) The images in X-Men Gold were pretty blatant, including a panel where Kitty Pryde, who is Jewish, was posed in front of a jewelry store.


(Image taken from FB)

• Since Marvel editors (and the vast majority of Americans) are not aware of these issues in Indonesia, it was left to the people’s editors of FB and Reddit to notice them and warn Marvel against them starting on Friday. And here’s where things blew up. Several of the original FB posting had to be taken down as the users were swarmed by radicals.  Here’s one that’s still up. And the Indonesian Reddit where some of the story came from.

• On his FB page, Syaf continued to be unrepentant, making various excuses for the work and remaining anti-Ahok, as seen in these screen caps from Imgur and chronicled in this Reddit post.

View post on

• As controversy grew, Marvel moved to make a statement, promising that Syaf would be disciplined.

“The mentioned artwork in X-Men Gold #1 was inserted without knowledge behind its reported meanings. These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation. This artwork will be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and disciplinary action is being taken.”

•  Syaf’s FB page was briefly removed by Facebook but is now blocked to non-friends. 

G. Willow Wilson, who now has to explain everything to us, has a post on tumblr examining the origins of the controversial verse of the Qu’ran that seem to have kicked things off. As with many religious texts written in older versions of languages, the devil is in the translation.

Awliya’ in this context means something very specific, and among Arabic speakers, that meaning has changed very little over the last 1400 years. A wali is a legal counselor or sometimes a legal guardian. Some examples: an unmarried girl must appoint a wali to act on her behalf during a marriage negotiation, according to Islamic law. Your lawyer is your wali in court. The executor of a will is the wali of the deceased. A parent is the wali of a child until that child reaches the age of majority. You get the gist.

The Indonesian interpretation, in this case, is less bullshitty than the English translation pushed primarily by certain extremist Sunni factions (cough the Saudis cough cough) which has also been making the rounds in comics media today: friend. A wali is not a friend. A wali is nothing even related to friendship. The literal translation of friend is siddiq; you could also use sahib (companion). Wali doesn’t even come from the same root as either of these words. The Quran never suggests you can’t be friends with non-Muslims. Which makes sense, because, you know, the Prophet had non-Muslim friends. 

• And now the fallout. Syaf has drawn issue #2 of X-Men Gold, although one can imagine it’s being scrutinized at the printers as we speak. Although he hasn’t yet been officially fired from the book, its hard to see how he will work in US comics again.  And other Indonesian comics creators are unimpressed with Syaf’s political statement.

• Religious comics scholars A. David Lewis, Michael Pregill, and Hussein Rashid have written a piece examining the controversy here, with a view to the bigger picture, including Marvel’s recent bad PR from seeming anti-diversity statements.

Yet the appeal of the X-Men has never been in their diversity, but in their pluralism. The team does not simply include characters who represent a variety of types; rather, from the time of the publication of the very first X-Men comic in 1963, the book has explicitly addressed the question of how people can learn to live with difference. Sometimes that is easy, while at other times it is hard. What makes it necessary is the belief in a common good. If that ethic of pluralism was shared by the entire creative team, then no artist would have let their personal, exclusionary politics intrude into and interfere with the Marvel narrative of inclusion.

Just as disappointing as Syaf’s unauthorized use of X-Men as a platform for his political and religious views is the stereotyped image of Muslims and the Qurʾān this controversy may encourage. The politicized interpretation of Q 5:51 as opposed to diversity and pluralism – indeed, even commanding believers to oppose these principles – is simply not the only possible reading of this verse. It is not even a contextually accurate reading.

Indeed, I’m seeing this story begin to show up in radical rightist websites here in the us (as the G•mergate/Breitbert crew picked up on the Marvel/diversity story from last week) and in the end, more hatred and intolerance will come out of this.

• One final note on the larger Indonesian comics industry – the comics heritage of the various island countries of the Pacific isn’t too well known here in the US. Malaysian cartoonist Sonny Liew covered Singepore in his masterful The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. and the Singapore Comic Con has been going for a while.  Superstar Malay cartoonist Lat has also been published here in the US. The rich tradition of Filipino comics have been covered widely.  Off the top of my head I can’t think of any non Marvel/DC Indonesian cartoonists known here in the US (I’m sure I will imediately and forcefully be corrected on this in the comments). But as usual, there is a native comics industry,  that’s on the rise, often with religious themes.


The comics community has in general reacted with dismay over the entire incident.




  1. I’m Muslim. I’ve talked to Muslims all over the world and there is a current of anger and self-righteousness among some of them. If you hire people to draw your comics based only on price and don’t look at their work with a nuanced eye, this will happen. I’m not saying the work of every Muslim from every Muslim country should be scrutinized, but you also can’t publish stuff willy nilly. Like, how did no one ask about the giant 212 or the QS 551 on Colossus’s shirt? That was pretty blatant. You can’t just blindly publish art from countries with different world views and not ask questions.

    I like Willow a lot, but she’s kinda head in the sand about this stuff. She believes most Muslims are reasonable people. I believe most are too concerned with being as pious as possible and way too insular, so they have no idea what the real world is like.

  2. I just wanted to add I respect Willow tremendously and she has a lot of good things to say about this.

  3. ” Like, how did no one ask about the giant 212 or the QS 551 on Colossus’s shirt? That was pretty blatant. You can’t just blindly publish art from countries with different world views and not ask questions.”

    Chris – With respect, They (Marvel) have, They can, and they will.

    Tony DeZuniga, Alex Nino, Alfredo Alcala, Ernie Chan, Nestor Redondo, Adrian Gonzales, Fred Carillo, Steve Gan, Romeo Tanghal – all filipino comic artists. All widely published by the big 2 with American careers starting in the 70s and continuing, for some, into the 2000s. And published without similar controversy.

    Although, if anyone is familiar with Alex Nino, HOW could you even tell WHAT’S going on in psychedelic pencils! :-)

    A better question might be – how does Marvel adequately train every editor and assistant editor so they are sufficiently aware of cultural trends among ALL the countries with which they solicit creators? Is that a reasonable expectation?

    If not, then some countries may see an unwelcome door as the big publishers focus on solicited talent from countries they know better.

  4. Dlotempio,

    They need to do a better job of vetting their artwork if they’re going to continue outsourcing it to foreign countries. If they don’t want to vet the work, they shouldn’t hire people located in other countries.

    This seems like an entirely self-inflicted gunshot wound during a week where Marvel is shooting themselves in the foot a lot.

  5. I think the problem here is the lack of knowledge of other cultures. I seriously don’t know how any Marvel editor could have been aware of these dog whistles unless they spend all their time watching the BBC. I think dinging Marvel on this is way off base.

  6. If you see something weird you google it. Amazing how if you google “212 Indonesia” or “QS 551 Indonesia” you get lots of information that might lead a person to ask questions about what they might mean and why there are appearing on art pages. Perhaps marvel editors need some sort of basic training in how to access the internet and how to do very quick research with google.

  7. Latest response from Syaf:
    Hello, Worlds…

    My career is over now.
    It’s the consequence what I did, and I take it.
    Please no more mockery, debat, no more hate. I hope all in peace.

    In this last chance, I want to tell you the true meaning of the numbers, 212 and QS 5:51.

    It is number of JUSTICE. It is number of LOVE. My love to Holy Qur’an…my love to the last prophet, the Messenger…my love to ALLAH, The One God.

    My apologize for all the noise. Good bye, May God bless you all. I love all of you.

    -Ardian Syaf-

  8. I’m from down that end of the world and the internals of Indonesia still feel a world away, but one thing seems to be getting missed a lot – this is as much, if not more, about politics than it is about religion.
    The govoner is close to the President, who is perceived to be in a weakened state in terms of outside and within his own party (seen by many as a puppet for previous leader), so attacks on the govoner also function as attacks on the president.

    Chris Hero is in the money as usual – how did that text on Colossus’ shirt not get noticed by editor or assistant editor? Rest of it probably would have gone under radar if not for that.

    Dft- Steady on mate, are you aware that was fifty years ago, and happened during the time Indonesia was lead by virtual dictators? Usually might have been an odd choice of words, but look at recent history and it’s a different story. Last decade or two relatively peaceful – certainly if compared to say USA.

  9. There’s a long tradition of artists inserting innocuous references and inside jokes in background art–stuff like favorite bands, lines from movies, or messages to their girlfriends. I’m not aware of other cases where this content has been so incendiary. Clearly that will change now in work-for-hire comics. On balance, I think this will be a sad change that will further lessen the individuality of artists’ work.

    To an American readership, a 3-digit number is probably most likely to be read as a telephone area code. Many Americans use these digits to represent their local community. As it happens, 212 is an area code in Manhattan, which is entirely appropriate for background graffiti in an X-men comic.

    I’ll admit the QS 5:51 is both particular and odd enough that it probably ought to have been checked, and I’m sure some Marvel editors are now kicking themselves that they didn’t. But again, it’s also the sort of thing that could be easily mentally justified as a reference to some real or imaginary band or club. I don’t think any of this represents gross incompetence on the part of Marvel editorial.

  10. That apologetic whitewash of what the Quran says in 5: 51 is such a lie. It is part of what Islam teaches Muslims to do, that is to lie in any way which will benefit and promote Islam. It is called taqiyya and that is just what this is.(there are many online versions of the Quran which are authorized in English, so just look them up and read the verse for yourself.)

    That verse specifically says not to take Christians and Jews as friends, and there are many verses in the Quran that preach hatred against all non-muslims and even killing them. Not to mention the debasing of women, the sexual abuse of children, the killing of rape victims, those who leave Islam or criticize it, and gay people. To pretend this is not taught in Islam is a lie or is from somebody who is very naive and has never studied Islam.

    I have the Quran, Hadith, Sira, and also studied it’s scholars. Islam is the most hateful, violent & intolerant of all religions and is the most hateful ideology on Earth today, I am convinced. It was invented by a psychopathic mass-murderer, pedophile, rapist of captive women who owned and sold women as sex slaves, who married and had sex with a 6 year old child, had people tortured and murdered who criticized him, robbed passing caravans and took people hostages for enslavement or ransom and so much more. And all of this is proudly told in Islamic scripture and writings. It is not something just made up by so-called right-wing sites. That is a blatant lie. There is no rational way anyone can defend what this man was or what he taught.

    Much of the Quran was lost in the fighting for power after Muhammad died. The Quran is not written in chronological order. Surahs/chapters 5 & 9 are the last two written, and the later verses cancel, or abrogate, any earlier verse that may say something nicer or different. So any early verses in the Quran, when Mohammad was preaching in Mecca and having no success before he became a warlord and started forcing people to convert, all of those nicer services are wiped out by the later ones.

    Surah 9:5, called the verse of the sword, is one of the ugliest of all of the some 113 verses of hate against non-muslims. And that verse is the one that tells Muslims to “kill non-believers wherever you find them”. This is what drives all of this Islamic hate, violence and terrorism around the world.

    Islam’s prophet Muhammed said “I have been made victorious by terror”.(Bukhari 4:52:220) And that has been true for 1400 years and is still true today.

  11. PS: and it is another lie that Indonesia is so tolerant and moderate. There have been more than 600 Christian churches destroyed or closed and uncountable Buddhist temples closed or destroyed in the last couple of years alone. That is not a tolerant place.

  12. “there are many verses in the Quran that preach hatred against all non-muslims and even killing them. Not to mention the debasing of women, the sexual abuse of children, the killing of rape victims, those who leave Islam or criticize it, and gay people”

    And yet people say it’s totally different to the Christian bible!

  13. Amusingly, there are hadiths forbidding artists from drawing humans, and many Muslims think it’s a one way ticket to hell to artistically depict people or animals at all. So this joker’s kind of like those Christians who get Bible verses tattooed on themselves (when the Bible forbids tattoos!). Ahh, religion. You have to laugh at it or it’ll make you cry.

  14. Thank you, Joe. It shouldn’t be too much to ask an editor to do their job. They could have nipped all of this in the bud if they were better stewards of their own product.

  15. Other Chris – Priest has written on his website about having to be vigilant about removing in jokes and signatures from comic pages back when he was a Marvel editor.
    Some may see it as jokes, he reckons anything that isn’t telling the story shouldn’t be there and asked artists not to waste his time by making him have to look for Doctor Who in the background etc.

  16. n my day, a black guy replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man, a black woman replaced a white man as leader of the X-Men, a right wing conservative replaced Steve Rogers and Captain America and Alpha Flight had a hero who was obviously homosexual to anyone who know what that word meant.

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