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Wonder Woman -- a Mideast version -- finds her niche

Superheroes cast a positive image

CAIRO -- Jalila finally tracked down the terrorists who stole plutonium from the nuclear power plant where she worked. They had set up a camp right outside her native City of All Faiths and were clearly up to no good.

The next thing Jalila knew, she was surrounded by dozens of menacing, gun-toting thugs who had somehow detected her stealthy approach. They picked the wrong woman to mess with: Bolts of radiation leapt from her hands and melted their weapons, and she was upon them in a whirlwind of devastating kicks and punches.

Jalila, who resembles Wonder Woman, is part of a new pantheon of Middle Eastern superheroes created by Cairo-based AK Comics and sold in Egypt and the United States. The comic books are published in Arabic and English, and according to their creator, represent the first superheroes of their kind from the Middle East.

Ayman Kandeel, who came up with the ideas for the comics, said he sees superheroes as role models for people in the Middle East, presenting the West with a more positive image of the region.

''It's actually a dream I've had since childhood," said Kandeel, a 38-year-old economics professor at Cairo University who started the company in 2003. ''I grew up with DC Comics," referring to the publisher of such cultural icons as Superman and Batman.

Kandeel said that growing up, many of his idols were comic-book heroes and he felt that the Middle East also needed these kinds of positive role models in these tense times.

The four characters created by Kandeel were described in the initial editions as the first Arab superheroes, but he says he since modified the concept.

''They are not meant to be Arab per se; they are supposed to be Middle Eastern -- it's a little bit of a sensitive issue," Kandeel said, hinting that he didn't want to get into a conversation about political turmoil in the region.

Turmoil in the Middle East is a thing of the past in a future inhabited by the superheroes. It is a region at relative peace, though still threatened by terrorists and other forces of extremism.

''The whole concept goes back to the issue of a large, peaceful Middle East. That's a vision I've had all my life, and I think it's possible," said Kandeel, adding that he kept the religious and ethnic background of the characters in the books vague.

But in some cases, the symbols are obvious, such as the Jerusalem-like City of All Faiths defended by Jalila in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews live in harmony. It is menaced by the terrorist United Liberation Front and the Army of Zios.

The introduction to Jalila's story describes these two evil forces as ''still clinging to their extreme views, both wanting to solely control the City of All Faiths."

Kandeel concedes that Zios could be seen as a shortened form of Zionist. ''It was not meant to be anything so obvious or so crystal, but maybe that's what they had in mind," he said, adding that the identities of the adversaries were not his idea.

Although no major marketing or advertising has been done, the comic books have been selling well in Egypt.

''People come asking for them, which is always an indication," said Hind Wassef, a manager at Diwan bookstore, in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek. She said sales have increased steadily, and many are buying multiple copies.

By August, AK Comics was selling 35 percent of its 8,000 print run -- solid figures by Cairo standards -- and that was before students returned from summer holidays, the company said.

EgyptAir has also commissioned 10,000 copies monthly for distribution on its flights.

While young males are expected to be the comics' main audience, some girls appear to find them appealing. ''Jalila is someone who does serious things and defends her country," said 9-year-old Alaa Mohammed after reading the comic. She said it was much more serious than Mickey Mouse, which currently rules the Cairo comics scene.

Alaa was also taken by the Arabic names of the heroes, such as Aya, a mysterious female crime fighter, especially since it is Alaa's sister's name. The other two characters are Rakan, the lone warrior; and Zein, the last pharaoh. Both are men.

Marwan Al Nashar, managing director of AK Comics, said that part of the company's original concept was to have strong female characters. ''We are stressing gender equality," he said. ''both the women are successful -- one is a scientist, one is lawyer."

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