DETROIT — When DC Comics decided to blow up its fabled universe and create a brave, diverse future, Geoff Johns drew from the past for a new character: his own background as an Arab-American.
The company’s chief creative officer and writer of the relaunched “Green Lantern” series dreamed up Simon Baz, DC’s most prominent Arab-American superhero and the first to wear a Green Lantern ring. The character and creator share Lebanese ancestry and hail from the Detroit area, which boasts one of the largest and oldest Arab communities in the United States.
“I thought a lot about it — I thought back to what was familiar to me,” Johns, 39, told The Associated Press recently. “This is such a personal story.”
The Green Lantern mantle in DC Comics is no stranger to diversity with its ranks made up of men, women, aliens — animal, vegetable and mineral — from across the universe. Earlier this year, an alternate-universe Green Lantern was reintroduced as openly gay.
Baz’s story begins in the recently released standalone “zero issue” that’s part of a companywide effort to fill in the gaps or tell the origins of a character or team. Johns said he took economic as well as ethnic cues for the character from his native Detroit area, with Baz resorting to stealing cars after being laid off from his automotive engineering job. He steals the wrong car, which inadvertently steers him into a terrorism probe and, eventually, an unexpected call to join the universe’s galactic police force.
Baz hails from Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford and the capital of Arab America. His story begins at 10 years old, when he and the rest of his Muslim family watch their television in horror as airplanes fly into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Events unfold from there as U.S. Arabs and Muslims find themselves falling under intense suspicion and ostracism in the days, months and years following the attacks.
Baz is not the first Arab or Muslim character to grace — or menace, as has historically been the case — the comic world. Marvel Comics has Dust, a young Afghan woman whose mutant ability to manipulate sand and dust has been part of the popular X-Men books. DC Comics in late 2010 introduced Nightrunner, a young Muslim hero of Algerian descent reared in Paris. He is part of the global network of crime fighters set up by Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne.
A broader mission to bring Islamic heroes and principles to the comic world comes from Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of “The 99.” The U.S. educated psychologist from Kuwait has been gaining followers across the globe since the 2006 debut of the comic book that spawned a TV series. “The 99” is named after the number of qualities the Quran attributes to God: strength, courage, wisdom and mercy among them.
The series gained a wide audience in 2010, when it worked with DC on a six-issue crossover that teamed the “The 99” with The Justice League of America.
Johns said going diverse only works if there’s a good story, and he believes he found that with Baz. But don’t mistake him for a hero in the beginning: Baz disappoints both devout Muslims — his forearm tattoo that reads “courage” in Arabic is considered “haram,” or religiously forbidden — and broader society by turning to a life of crime.
“He’s not a perfect character. He’s obviously made some mistakes in his life, but that makes him more compelling and relatable,” he said. “Hopefully (it’s) a compelling character regardless of culture or ethnic background. ... But I think it’s great to have an Arab-American superhero. This was opportunity and a chance to really go for it.”