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.
• 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.
I like Ardian Syaf's work, but I think what he has done in the recent X-Men book is very disrespectful and unprofessional. ☹️
— Ario Anindito (@arioanin) April 8, 2017
• 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.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.