Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary.
Since the 1940s, American comic book creators working in the superhero genre have demonstrated a fascination with an ambiguous and amorphous East, including the Arab majority nations of the Middle East and North Africa. While that early fascination resulted in a number of superheroes whose power sets and personas were derived (however loosely) from Egyptian mythology, it did not produce Arab superheroes. Instead, Golden Age characters like Hawkman, Doctor Fate, and Ibis the Invincible were ancient Egyptians, wielders of ancient Egyptian (magical) artifacts, or both. Over eighty years, the origins of Hawkman have alternated between ancient Egypt and the planet of Thanagar, but the character has never been made Arab American. After 9/11, the Egyptian American Danny Khalifa inherited the Ibistick and became Ibis the Invincible. After the Arab Spring protests began in late 2010/early 2011 (beginning in Egypt on January 25th, 2011), the Egyptian Khalid Ben-Hassin and the Egyptian American Khalid Nassour were made to wear Helmets of Fate, the former outside of DC Comics’s primary continuity and the latter within it. The origin stories of Egyptian American legacy heroes, Khalifa and Nassour are examples of repatriation: in them, fictional Egyptian artifacts from the Golden Age are given to newly created Modern and Blue Age Arab American characters.
Repatriation may also be understood as a combination of Egyptianization and Americanization. In Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture, Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas use the term Egyptianization to refer to the application of pharaonic imagery to supplementary material in comics that were translated into Arabic in the 1970s (10). I use Egyptianization to refer to the application of the pharaonic aesthetic to American superheroes in the 20th and 21st centuries. I use Americanization to refer to the ways in which the American superhero aesthetic has been applied to Arab characters after 9/11 and the Arab Spring. I argue that repatriation alienates and assimilates the Egyptian American superheroes it affects. It alienates them by conflating ancient Egyptians and modern Arabs, both in the use of the pharaonic aesthetic in the artwork of their comics and in making these characters descendants of ancient Egyptian royalty, and it assimilates them by making them into comic book superheroes.
In 2007, Daniel “Danny” Kasim Khalifa was introduced in the event one-shot The Helmet of Fate: Ibis the Invincible #1. Set sometime after 9/11, the comic opens on Khalifa being assaulted by white teenagers. One of them says, “We ought to send all you camel-jockeys back to Iraq to get blown up.” Captions clarify that Khalifa is not from Iraq, but his parents are from Egypt, where his paternal family belonged to “an old, noble line.” In having the Khalifas be descended from royalty, the comic combines ancient and Arab Egyptian identities into one identity that is distant in space and time. After the bullies leave, Khalifa is magically summoned to an Egyptian temple, in which he finds the first Ibis the Invincible, Prince Amentep. Rather than bequeath the Ibistick to an Arab Egyptian, Amentep gives it and his blessing to Khalifa, an Arab American, and tells him to find Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic, writing, and judgment of the dead. Thoth inscribes Khalifa’s name as the new master of the Ibistick, allowing Khalifa to transform into Ibis the Invincible, a superhero whose blue and gold costume is, if not period accurate, then at least evocative of ancient Egyptian clothing. Khalifa is both Arab and American, simultaneously alienated and assimilated.
In 2015, Khalid Nassour was introduced in Doctor Fate (2015-2016). Set sometime after the Arab Spring, the comic opens on the Egyptian American Nassour preparing to begin medical school in the midst of catastrophic flooding caused by Anubis, the god of death and the afterlife. Nassour’s mother is an American citizen, but his father is an immigrant from Egypt. Nassour is identified throughout the series as being, through his father, “the blood of the pharaohs.” Again, ancient and Arab Egyptian identities are conflated. Taking refuge from the ongoing storm in the Brooklyn Museum, Nassour is in the Egyptian exhibit when a statue of Bastet, the goddess of protection and cats, presents him with the Helmet of Fate, a magical Egyptian artifact possessed by Nabu, a priest of Thoth. In order to become Fate in Doctor Fate, Nassour must not only put on the helmet but privilege his Egyptian ethnic identity over his American national identity. These identities, as represented in his costume, are discrete: the gold Helmet of Fate and an amulet appear over a blue hoodie and jeans. Later, in Justice League Dark (2018-), when Nassour voluntarily dons the Helmet of Fate, his costume better blends his ethnic and national identities: combining an ancient Egyptian aesthetic with modern American streetwear. Nassour is alienated, then assimilated, and these versions of him, the products of different creative teams at different times, coexist.
For most of the more than eighty years during which superhero comics have been made, Arabs have been depicted as villains if they have been depicted at all. That changed in the last twenty years, once after 9/11 and again after the Arab Spring. The repatriation of the Ibistick and the Helmet of Fate to Egyptian Americans Danny Khalifa and Khalid Nassour both alienates and assimilates those characters. As legacy heroes Ibis the Invincible and Doctor Fate, these Arab American superheroes are Egyptianized and Americanized. They are made foreign and familiar as they fight for Thoth, justice, and the American way.
Douglas, Allen and Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture. Indiana University Press, 1994.
Levitz, Paul, writer, Sonny Liew, artist, and Lee Loughridge, colorist. Doctor Fate (2015-2016) Vol. 1: The Blood Price. DC Comics, 2016.
Tynion IV, James, writer, Alvaro Martínez Bueno and Raul Fernandez, artists. Justice League Dark (2018-) Vol. 3: The Witching War. DC Comics, 2020.
Williams, Tad, writer, and Phil Winslade, artist. The Helmet of Fate: Ibis the Invincible #1. DC Comics, 2007.
Adrienne Resha is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies program at the College of William & Mary. She is the author of “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” Assistant Editor of Comics Academe at the Eisner Award winning WWAC, and President of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Comics Studies Society. She can be found online at adrienneresha.com or on Twitter @AdrienneResha.
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