Naif Al-Mutawa

Chairman/CEO, Teshkeel Media Group

This conversation is closed.

Can fictional superheroes provide positive role models in children’s lives?

Chances are that if you’re reading this page you are already motivated to help provide the ideas needed by your children to shape their own burgeoning personal philosophies and characters. But what about children who lack positive role models in their lives or, worse still, are betrayed by them? Do composite role models like THE 99, created with positive traits and characteristics that are universally valued and neutrally composed, provide even better role models than those randomly seen in their daily lives?

Closing Statement from Naif Al-Mutawa

Thank you all very much for contributing to this conversation. I have learned a lot from your comments and experiences. The whole is more than the sum of its parts and you have all given me parts today that I will be reflecting on what I learned in this TED conversation for a while. Please do watch my latest 6 minute TED talk on THE 99 and Islamophobia at TED on http://blog.ted.com/2011/09/07/ted-blog-exclusive-the-continuing-saga-of-the99-superheroes-inspired-by-islam/ and I look forward to continuin =g the conversation on twittter and/or facebook and hope to Inshallah see you at a TED event.

  • Sep 13 2011: Morals for us are embedded in words, either spoken or written. Animated heroes, when say or act on those written words show us as well as our children a right way to do things in our daily life. I think 99 will provide some positive learning to all of us (as in each of us there is a child hidden). I am grateful to my friend Naif, wish him and all his team all the best.
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    Sep 13 2011: As a 37 year old "rising PC generation" Gamer and father of a 11 year old "web media kid" I observe the impact of constructing our own superheroes out of the building blocks (character creation archetypes) that video games (especially online roleplaying games) have to offer. My son and I for example love to create our own heroes from the character class of "Healers" = mindful observation of our group members and their diverse "vital signs" + taking the right hero action to keep them healthy and alive in a fast paced action environment.

    How do you see the role model impact of (almost) self created super heroes that WE control as opposed to observing a constructed super hero by "others" in comics, movies, etc. ?

    Thanks for the great topic, Naif :)
    Andre, Germany
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      Sep 13 2011: Wow! Great question from someone who is probably better equipped to answer it, but here's my two cents! I think that if we all create our own, we're no better than the place we started. I think that there are large groups of kids who are being manipulated through manipulation of story lines from religious texts and I think the only way to save them and thereby save ourselves if to be proactive in shaping their future through the use of media, in this example, superheroes..
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        Sep 13 2011: Thanks for the two cents ;) See in video games we do not completely build our own super heroes. We can only build out of the building blocks that the game designers have to offer. If one has 40 options to choose and remix from, very interesting heroes can come out of that and we can identify. Also we can switch between different hero variations and try our self in different roles.

        So it would and could be a proposal to Game Designers: Create more "hero construction building blocks" for our kids, that enable positive, interactive role models > that inspire real life action to "save our real Game of Life" - ProActiVeon Heroes ;)
        (refering also to TED speaker Jane McGonigal)

        Do you think that "shaping their future" is more about shaping (media) environments in which our kids can come to their own experience and conclusion about positive impact or do we have to construct the models for them ?
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          Sep 13 2011: That all depends on how much involvement yo want in the shaping of your children. I for one am extremely vigilant because there are all kinds of pressures, religious, political, etc,.. from people who will shape mu kids if I am not vigilant in shaping them myself..
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        Sep 13 2011: Ok Naif - Let´s help our kids and our self than through shaping environments of reflection, sharing and mindful, vigilant exchange with our kids. Learners with Learners learning from Learners ;) If I shape models myself I can´t be sure how biased I am.

        Thanks for the discussion. Alle the best to you and your family. 60 seconds to go ;)
  • Sep 13 2011: I work for a social media based show on Al-Jazeera English called The Stream...where do you think comics like 99 are looking toward in getting into the social media market....are people moving away from paper versions of the comics...are there new avenues for accessing the comics?

    Also, which one is your favourite character from the 99?
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    Sep 13 2011: I think children naturally juxtapose the fictional world with their own. Superheroes, like THE 99, allow for children to hold up a mirror to their own community, motivating them to realize the 'super' in their natural world. Perhaps the very presence of THE 99 reminds them that we are the stuff of our world's stories. I think we would be belittling the understanding of the child to neglect to remember that children may also see the creator, the author of the superhero's narrative as being heroic.
  • Sep 13 2011: As a writer and an illustrator I believe characters require a certain amount of depth in order for them to be convincing as well as lovable and memorable. I really love your character and am very interested in what you believe are the most important aspects in the creation of a superhero? Is it the type of power they possess, their reason to fight...?
  • Sep 13 2011: Which were your favourite comic heros/cartoon characters when you were growing up?
  • Sep 13 2011: Thanks for the link Naif. Point taken re: values as opposed to belief system. I have sent a request to add you as friend on FB, look forward to catching you offline.
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    Sep 13 2011: Maybe, your fictional superheroes can help to teach perspectives and as Raghava KK said, when you teach perspectives you put the childrens in the shoes of someone who is different from them.
    That way you can convey the intended message of generosity, mercy, foresight and wisdom.
    In that spirit, I think that it contributes to provide a positive role model.
  • Sep 13 2011: ps. in my question to you when i refer to creative people I mean those that are directly in the same field as you. eg. comic artists, animators, etc.
  • Sep 13 2011: First and foremost I would like to say how ever so pleased I am to have come across your pioneering creative work over the past few years, in terms of it's impact on the Muslim youth worldwide. My question to you is: from the wealth of experience you must have gained from working on your own projects (and bringing them to a global audience), what do you think could be achieved in perhaps creating a collective initiative/platform for creative people belonging to the worldwide Muslim population in a) promoting a positive message in relation to the teachings of the belief system b) in counteracting the spread of Islamophbia? Is there such a collective need? Would you consider driving such a initiative? Finally, on a personal note - I really miss your city, Kuwait city. It's such a lovely place. Regards and best wishes for all your future plans.
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    Sep 13 2011: Dear Dr. Naif,
    Thank you for bringing up this very important topic.

    I have had a chance to meet a 5-year-old kid who spends several hours a day watching various cartoons for a few years now. Superheros he sees on TV are his role models, but what concerns me is the fact that in some cartoons there are so many violent scenes followed by special effects (which leave special impression on a kid) that even if there's a moral message he should learn from a cartoon, it usually stays unnoticed. Cartoons without violence and weapons cannot keep him focused.

    Yet, I fully support your work and hope it will get more attention in Europe.
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      Sep 13 2011: I agree Mrija. I think that violence should not be hidden from kids, but should not be the only way to solve a problem in media. We are very vigilant about that in THE 99.
  • Sep 13 2011: In my opinion, superheroes are especially attractive to young boys and give them a developmentally important source of empowerment. The superhero is all powerful and can defeat all of his enemies for the good of mankind. What better model for young men, particularly in this current state of the world? A real human role model would be best, but in the absence of that I would think the superhero would lend any kid of sense of power and possibility.
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      Sep 13 2011: INteresting point. OUr heroes, THE 99, have 99 boys and girls form 99 countries who work together to make the world a better place with powers like love, reasoning, knowledge, but also traditional superhero powers. BUt there is a constant struggle on which powers to use...
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    Sep 13 2011: I think that fictional superheroes can and do serve as positive role models for youngsters. One of the most critical aspects of that dynamic is the lack of feedback that kids receive from these models. Illustrating what the exceptional man or woman would do, it shows what we are capable of doing in the face of overwhelming odds or in cases where hopelessness and despair would normally be dominant. Unfortunately, these examples do not come with tuteledge and discussion through the idealized character. There is no "meeting of the minds." How this actually is translated into the young persons self perception is unknown to me. i have always found inspiration In the D.C. Character, The Batman. He had no super powers other than what he trained his mind to accomplsh. The mastery of ones fear being the most elped me in pronounced of those examples that character gave me, it truly has helped me in my life when faced with obstacles i feared i could not overcome.
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      Sep 13 2011: I am a big Batman fan myself but I also like the Marvel model of giving each hero insecurities and demons to battle which is the essence of being human.
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        Sep 13 2011: I agree, conflict is crucial in character devleopment. Nothing like fire to test your mettle.
  • Sep 13 2011: Hi Naif! I also strongly believe that positive role models such as superheroes has such a tremendous impact on a child's life. It really stays in our hearts. I have two questions.
    1. Now that our world is transitioning into technology, what's your view on the impact of violent videogame characters, slowly becoming influential role models to children?
    2. The portrayal of superheroes is slowly transcending to more violent and darker images. The Batman and Robin of 1966 taught kids about proper grammar, behavior and etiquette. However, the remakes of these superheroes center more on action and violence which emphasize exhilaration, and the "wow he's so cool!" over moral. Do you think it's possible to reverse this trend and re-evolve these characters to the friendly child hood, G rated superheroes of long ago or would that be too much of a climb?
    Thank you and I hope your encouraging and wonderful cause spreads!
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      Sep 13 2011: Hi KIm
      Here we go!
      (1) I am not a big fan of the violent video game. That being said, I also believe that it won't casue problems, it will just exaggerate problems that already exist.
      (2) There are different age groups devouring the same superheroes. For example, There is Spidey and Friends for my 2-5 year olds, there is Spectacular Spiderman for my 12 year old then there are the PG13 Spiderman movies for my 14 year old. So I think its not so much a function of the content producer, but the parent to not let their kids go see anything that has Spiderman...
      • Sep 13 2011: Thanks for the quick response!
        But to what extent do you believe these things can be avoided. Toys such as the Hulk Smashers for instance promote some degree of violence. Do you believe it's possible to create toys which also promote good moral?
  • Sep 13 2011: I'd love to know more about the process of choosing the particular characters and storylines used in the 99. Why did you choose those characters to embody those traits? How did the stories, places, villains come about? How do you distribute the comics and to whom (and where)? I love these comics and just want to know more about the process of creating them!
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    Sep 13 2011: What is the benefit of exposing values and morals to children in the form of superheroes and supervillains as opposed to real life heros and real life criminals. Does one impact more than the other?
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      Sep 13 2011: It depends. Think about the role of Africa Americans in the US pre Sesame Street and the Cosby show. In 1970, when an African American Couple was introduced into Sesame Street, the show was banned in Mississippi. There had been positive African american in the US for centuries, but it took the media and fiction to shine the way forward for people to put aside their prejudices and learn new ones through a neutral medium.
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    Sep 13 2011: Well depends on what is "positive role model" of course. But generally I say yes. In my experience, kids can create very tight attachment to fictional super-hero rather than real person (in matter of seeing it as model for some extraordinary traits like superb generosity etc, not in emotional way). On the other hand, they can refuse apparently artificial super hero and they recognize it with little or no effort. By "artificial" I mean obviously too good, with no "dark side". When constantly presented with these "too good" heroes, they can build disgust against usual traits these characters posses (which are usually positive). So yes, I think fictional superheroes can provide positive role-models, but we must not try to somehow filter these characters to "ultimate good guys". Children must be aware that sometimes, people do bad things or hard decisions with no "good-guy" options, even superheroes.
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      Sep 13 2011: I couldn't agree more. That's why all member of THE 99 have faults as individuals, are not perfect beyond in that one power they have, Great point Ivo!
  • Sep 13 2011: I'd love to introduce The 99 to my son, whose 12. His favorite are Batman and Robin, but he also likes things like The Walking Dead. I don't suspect that any comic coming from his mother is going to impress him much. But I will give it a shot!
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      Sep 13 2011: Funny you should say that as THE 99 recently teamed up with Batman, Superman and other members of the JLA in a crossover published by DC comics!
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    Sep 13 2011: Kids can be more influenced with real Role Models like parents , grand parents even national or international great figures.

    When there are role models in real life , fictional role models role I am really skeptic about. Kids are aware enought that those are fictions.
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      Sep 13 2011: I think there is a role for fiction and a role for non-fiction in people's lives. Without fiction you lose the power of creativity and innovation. It also allows for the passing on of lessons in a neutral format.
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    Sep 13 2011: I really want to know what is the effect of superheroes characters on children's life. sometimes I feel those characters do not create positive trait on children's life.
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      Sep 13 2011: You're right. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. It depends on what is being taught and how that lesson is implemented. I think media can make the world of difference in how people perceive themselves. Think of all the violent roles Muslims are given in Hollywood versus positive ones. This creates ideas in kids' minds...Muslims and non-Muslims alike that this is what Islam is associated with..its a self fulfilling prophecy..
    • Sep 13 2011: I think that superheroes are generally good for a child's development, as long as the time spent in the fantasy is not excessive. I am the answering, though, as an American. It struck me from your conversation that the definition of a superhero MIGHT be something different then ours. And, in this climate, young people in America might incorrectly construe the enemy as a certain group of people.

      My idea of a superhero is one who fights an outside power that is threatening all people. I realize now that the "bad guy" is defined by many different factors, including culture and time in history. Possibly superheroes can serve as both extremely dangerous and and powerfully positive. It seems that, as with many things, it comes down to Good vs. Evil and the question of power corrupting.
  • Sep 13 2011: Salams, Congratulations, Naif on the success of THE 99 ! Btw your look has changed a lot since the TED Talk !!


    Just one question, have you got any support from moderate Muslim scholars across the world?

    Thanks!
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      Sep 13 2011: Hi there. We have gotten lots of support privately and in interviews that don't include us. It was much tougher initially. Now what we are up against is Islamophobia in the US...
  • Sep 13 2011: First Of All Thanks A Lot For Bringing Such A Wonderful Thought To All Of Us!!! I Would Like To Comment That Still Being A Teenager I Think Such Stuff Needs A Lot More Effort So That Children Have Huge Impacts On Their Mind!!! As You Must Be Aware Nowadays Cartoons Like Chin Chan And Ben 10 Have Gained So Much Popularity That Its Hard For Parents To Switch On Their Children's From That To This!!! My Answer Would Be Something Between Yes And No Although Its A Bravo Idea But Some Magic Is Needed!!! Assalamwaalikum!!!
  • Sep 13 2011: Dr. Naif, can you tell me when we can start to see the Justice League and 99 pairing up and saving the world together? Thanks!
  • Sep 13 2011: I grew up reading Superman, Batman, and other super-heroes. I love what you are doing here with this series of books. As I grew older I began to really go in depth with Superman(my favorite) and through it I was better able to understand what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were doing. I am from the Cleveland area which made it even more impactful. I admire very much what you are doing with "The 99" and look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
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      Sep 13 2011: Thanks so much John!
      • Sep 13 2011: To answer the topical question I would say this. I think that there is always a positive impact that these role models make. The best example that I can give is of a friend of mine by the name of Mike. Mike was a good guy who loved to read comics. He and I would often talk about the nature of heroes and superheroes. The conversations delved into topics that were very Joseph Campbell in their way of thinking. Mike recently lost his life in a house fire but in the process saved his brother and nephew. I can only think that Mike's sacrifice was due to his belief in a greater calling. That somehow the superhero stories had prepared him to be able to save his loved ones even at the cost of his own life. If "The 99" can impact other children in the same way then I think that the world will be a better place for it.
  • Sep 13 2011: Fictional super heroes where highly positive. In the normal thread of super hero stories. At the end the evil character was captured by the superhero and taken into jail. Now days the super hero at the end of the story kills the evil character or makes sure his foe has a horrible death or the "deserved" death. And on the way of the story our superhero hangs leaves a path of blood until he faces the ultimate challenge against his enemy.
    Remember that when we are kids 4-13 maybe less, we want to be this people we watch on tv. We want to be Batman or Superman or Iron Man etc. Its a natural phenomena. My advice for parents is to try to be the hero themselves. We must show our kids what a real hero is. Not a guy that can fly or kill 100 men after taking the life of the bad man. what do you think?
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      Sep 13 2011: Thanks Robert. I agree that violence is not the answer but at the same time I think our kids re at a disadvantage if they are not aware that there are those that use violence in the world. As a parent you don't have to be perfect, or a supehero, you just have to be good enough. Research has shown that is you relationship with your kids is positive, there is a greater chance that they want to be more like you. If the hero is killing or dying that's a PG13 rating which is not really for little kids anymroe...
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      Sep 13 2011: Hi Roberto. I agree that excessive violence for the sake of violence is problematic, as is violence as the only or best solution. However, I find with my daughters that well-written superhero fiction presents a series of moral choices and notions of sacrifice. In short, the action and violence is there, but so too is the notion of helping others, protecting the innocent, and making choices that help others. I use violence as teaching opportunities, both for describing the actual effect of real violence, and deconstructing the story to see what other choices were present or would look like. At this point, none of the comic book fiction they've viewed or read involves gratuitous taking of life or Wolverine-like bloodshed. When they grow old enough to absorb that kind of fare, we'll doubtless have further discussion.
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        Sep 13 2011: Well said blake, In THE 99, our fighting character always has to be kept at bay unless she is really "needed" because the bad guys are using violence....but sometimes our Love character is able to neutralize both of them!
  • Sep 13 2011: Comics are a great medium for communication. Unfortunately, if we are talking about mainstream superhero comics, there are very few role models for girls--instead we find a lot of sexism, misogyny, and absence. The best sources I've found are far outside the mainstream; which means that they cannot be found in your average comic book store.
    Truthout has been running a series on the problem of unsupported female creators--which is part of the problem (http://www.truth-out.org/graphic-evidence-inequality/1315924156).
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      Sep 13 2011: Thanks Tyler. Please look into THE 99 www.the99.org we have 99 characters almost evenly split between boys and girls and there is something there for everyone..no one stereotype..but I agree..the problem is that the readers of most of those comics are typically men and so its giving the consumer what they want if you will. With THE 99 we are trying to shape future generations of children with positive role models.
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        Sep 13 2011: As the father of two girls, I welcome the increased presence of female heroes. I've used the inequality as a teaching point with my daughters to talk about sexism and gender stereotyping. We experienced a great case study on this point with the WB Legion of Superheroes show, which in Season 1 had an even split between girl and boy characters, but in the second season pulled one of the strongest girl characters and added several boy characters as regulars. My daughters were outraged.

        We haven't yet had the conversation about body types and porn art references for women in superhero comics because my girls are too young. We have discussed body expectations generally and have noted that very few people in the real world look anything like superheroes. It's an ongoing conversation.

        We have enjoyed several indie comics such as Bone and Amulet, and have talked about comics written and drawn by girls. I suspect my youngest wants to grow up to become one of these.
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          Sep 13 2011: I have 5 boys! Your people should call me people! We have been very careful on the use of female heroes. We have 99 boys and girls from 99 countries and we have every stereotype imaginable which we hope negates stereotypes! The way we deal with that is not by identity but by the power one has and how useful it is to solve a particular problem.
        • Sep 13 2011: I agree with Blake (and bravo to you for being such an engaged father to two girls!). It is a misconception that the readers are dominantly boys. In non-mainstream there are a plethora of female readers (look at the huge female audience for manga) and creators. But female creators are not being hired, nor a female audience considered. I think that this population of readership has been shaped by what's available and the lack of welcome or intent toward female audience. I have a daughter who loves adventure and action, but, again, it's hard to find sources.
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    Sep 13 2011: Dr Naif, greetings from Dubai !
  • Sep 13 2011: Justice, honesty, patriotism, fairness, defense of the weakest...
    ...our children need a lot of that model !!!
  • Sep 13 2011: 99 are a favorite in our household, when is the marvel and 99 joint comic coming out?
  • Sep 13 2011: have them read or raed to them "The Little Prince" by Antoine St. Exupery or "The Little Train that could"
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    Sep 13 2011: Whole generations of kids have loved and enjoyed superheroes. I loved the TED talk where the 99 were introduced and I applaud the efforts to create positive models for kids. As a mom of 5 I see media as a major source of disillusionment for kids. Something positive like this has my support. I just hope it is always global and loving in its presentation.
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    Sep 13 2011: Dear Naif -- thank you for bringing this topic up, I especially like first sentence and yes, I am definitely motivated to help provide these ideas. I wrote a thesis about Science Fiction as an educational tool to help adolescents create their own vision of the future, so I definitely agree with the value of fiction for real life. I do think that children who lack positivle models in real life can learn from fictional characters. Of course, a super hero can never replace a mother or father, but imagination is a powerful tool, especially when you are young. I am not sure whether fictional role models are actually better than real ones. But it is true that oftentimes, behavior we observe in our daily lives is not suitable as a role model for children (from simple things like crossing a street at the red light to drinking on the street or torturing animals).

    How do you think the separation between fictional and real would be transformed if...

    a) comics were drawn after real-life heroes the children could actually talk to
    b) real persons would play the roles of super heroes like Batman and pretend they exist?
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      Sep 13 2011: Thanks for the question Simone. Here are my thoughts. Real people as role models and mentors are very important to the development not just of kids but if adults. I think comics, or drawings are an effective way of communicating since cave drawings emerged. Comics are a way to communicate the message but the message has to be one based on some sort of reality otherwise it won't persist. But I think a separation between reality and fantasy is important...one has limits, the other does not..but both can interplay and push the boundary of the other
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        Sep 13 2011: I think there's a point where the superheroes embody metaphorical traits and problems for the kids to decipher. In that context, they function as a different kind of role model, more abstract than an engaged adult or parent actually present in the kids' lives.

        At the same time, my girls really appreciate seeing powerful, active female characters able to solve problems without the intervention of males. I'm grateful that they gravitate to characters like Supergirl rather than Cinderella and the Disney princesses.

        They've found the current set of Subway sandwich ads that feature Olympic athletes to be cheesy and off-putting, much like the Hostess Twinkie ads in 70's era comics.
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      Sep 13 2011: One of the great things (maybe THE great thing) about the concept of the 99 is the rebalancing of ethnic and cultural diversity away from the predominantly white male comic characters. Kudos!