This week, news of a scandal at Marvel Comics involving an Indonesian illustrator flooded the web, with nearly identical articles published by outlets ranging from the BBC to the AV Club. X-Men Gold illustrator Ardian Syaf was discovered to have included coded references to the Quran in the backgrounds of X-Men Gold #1, released on April 5, in order to comment on Indonesian politics.
Indonesian readers quickly discovered the allusions, and Facebook user Haykal Al-Qasimi sent a public letter to Marvel explaining the references and asking the company to address the controversy. When it was determined that the references were anti-Semitic and Syaf openly supported Muslim right wing political organizers in Indonesia, Marvel promptly fired him. Ultimately, the controversy proved to be less about the political messages Syaf included and more about the charged political context they were launched into and the globalized product that mainstream comics have become.
The references themselves are so subtle that editors and audiences in the US failed to notice them. For instance, in a scene where the X-Men are playing baseball (perhaps the most wholesome category of standby X-Men scenes), the character Colossus is wearing a T-shirt that reads “QS 5:51.” Later in the comic, Kitty Pryde partially obscures a street sign that says “Jewelry” (in the comics, Pryde is Jewish), while a nearby sign reads “212.”
QS 5:51 refers to Surah 5, verse 51, a controversial passage of the Quran that, like certain Bible passages such as Leviticus 18:22, has special weight in a contemporary political context. The passage is interpreted in some contemporary translations to mean: “Take not the Jews and the Christians as leaders/advisors.” The verse’s meaning is a particularly sensitive issue in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world.
In September of last year, the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (often called Ahok), said during his reelection campaign that his opponents were improperly using verse 51 of the Quran to claim that Muslims could not vote for him because he is a Christian. The comment provoked a tremendous public outcry, and on December 2, more than 200,000 Indonesian protesters called for Ahok to be tried for blasphemy under Indonesia’s laws against insulting religion. The widespread protests were seen not only as a criticism of Ahok, but as a sign of Islamist groups’ growing strength in the country. Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen described the protests as “a threat to the secular state here in the long run.” Syaf’s inclusion of the number 212 was a reference to the date of the mass protest, on the second day of December.
When the controversy came to light, Marvel immediately terminated Syaf’s contract. Syaf had been working as a freelance illustrator for Marvel and DC since 2009. After being fired, the artist posted on Facebook: “My career is over now.” He sought to downplay the significance of his easter eggs, writing that the numbers stood for justice and love. However, it quickly became apparent that Syaf is indeed an active supporter of hardline conservative Muslim groups in Indonesia when he posted a selfie of himself meeting with the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front. While claiming he was not an anti-Semite to Indonesian newspaper Jawa Pos, he nevertheless added: “Marvel is owned by Disney. When Jews are offended, there is no mercy.”
The story of Syaf’s inclusions didn’t erupt into controversy because fans were excited about the references to contemporary Indonesian politics, but rather because of the way it played into the contentious contemporary discourse on Islam. The headline-grabbing news of a foreign Muslim artist inserting anti-Semitic, anti-Christian political messages into X-Men comics resonates because certain elements in the current administration view contemporary politics as a clash of civilizations. The fact that the X-Men have a history of being used to comment (somewhat problematically) on diversity and oppression only increases the cultural reach of the story.
This is the second time in recent months that Marvel has been pitched into a controversy around issues of political correctness. Explaining an ongoing slump in sales, Marvel vice president David Gabriel made some clumsy statements about the weak showing being due to the company’s new roster of more diverse characters. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” the damning quote read. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”
The sentiment is, on the face of it, ridiculous, as Marvel’s diverse titles are among its bestselling comics — Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther was the top-selling comic of 2016. As Alex Abad-Santos explained, the context for Gabriel’s statement is the entirely backward system of comics distribution, whereby retailers order comics without seeing them and are unable to return them if they go unsold. This system privileges known commodities while sidelining emerging artists and untested content. Gabriel was echoing the voices of retailers and some communities of longtime fans who were less than enthusiastic about Marvel’s increased focus on non-traditional (read: not white male) characters.
Both recent scandals point to the emergence of Marvel as a global cultural juggernaut and the accompanying growing pains of its rise. Long gone is the era in the mid-1990s when a bubble in the comics market nearly bankrupt the company. While Marvel Comics still operates as a comic-selling business, its true value to the Walt Disney Company, which acquired it in 2009 for $4.24 billion, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a well-oiled machine that now produces three to four blockbusters per year. In its more Machiavellian moments, the company makes clear that it sees the comics more as content incubators for movies and video games than valuable products. This was the case when the company canceled the Fantastic Four series, in part because it does not own the rights to those movies.
Superhero comics are now global products in both their production and consumption. Marvel draws on an international pool of artists, and in that sense, the scandal around Syaf’s messages echoes the “iPhone Girl” scandal surrounding a Chinese Foxconn worker who took selfies with an iPhone that was later sold in the US. Like Apple products, mainstream comics are less and less associated with the individual artists and writers who work on them (can you imagine the designers of an Apple computer stamping their signatures into the inside of the case?) and more with the corporate branding and franchise-extension directed by the companies that own them.
After all the chatter around Syaf’s drawings has died down, one of the few lasting effects of the controversy will most likely be that it will be harder for Muslim artists and writers to work for conflict-averse cultural behemoths like Marvel. As G. Willow Wilson, the creator of Marvel’s popular Muslim character Kamala Khan, writes: “Ardian Syaf can keep his garbage philosophy. He has committed career suicide; he will rapidly become irrelevant. But his nonsense will continue to affect the scant handful of Muslims who have managed to carve out careers in comics.”