#Marvel Comics has had a difficult weekend. Last week saw the release of X-Men Gold #1, a blockbuster issue that's rich in character work and launches the franchise in a whole new direction. Unfortunately, fans quickly began to pick up on some troubling details that artist Ardian Syaf had slipped into the book — artistic touches that promoted his own religious and political beliefs. Was Syaf trying to sabotage the very comic that he worked on?
Who Is Ardian Syaf?
Ardian Syaf is a Muslim who remains politically active in his homeland of Indonesia. Specifically, he's been part of protests against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), the governor of Jakarta. A long-term ally of President Joko Widodo, Ahok is a Christian — and that became a massive issue when his opponents quoted a verse from the Qu'ran, Al Maidah 5: 51. Local translations of the Qu'ran render that verse quite simply:
"Muslims should not appoint the Jews and Christians as their leader."
Ahok subsequently criticized his opponents' use of the Qu'ran and as a result, he stands accused of blasphemy. Indonesia has seen a wave of populist Muslim protests against Ahok, often referred to with the number '212'. In December, over 200,000 Muslims joined the protest, and Syaf attended a second protest in February. Soon after that, Syaf began work on the art for X-Men Gold, which is where the controversy with Marvel begins.
How Did Ardian Syaf Promote His Own Political Agenda In 'X-Men Gold'?
Ardian Syaf actually has a history of dropping Indonesian politics into his artwork. Previously, the prolific artist slipped a nod to an Indonesian political figure into an issue of Batgirl. When one fan noticed and commented on Facebook, Syaf told them to 'hush', presumably because he knew that these actions would be frowned upon. Unfortunately, Syaf tested boundaries again in X-Men Gold, specifically by giving Colossus a T-shirt referencing "QS 5: 51" — that being Qu'ran Surah (or chapter) 5: 51, a clear nod to the above-quoted text. In another scene, where Kitty Pryde confronts a group of spectators, Syaf dropped in visual cues to '212' and, again, '51'.
Syaf isn't the first artist to slip in references like this — Ethan Van Sciver famously added the word 'SEX' through his whole New X-Men run. However, there's a world of difference between adding an amusing Easter Egg such as that and making subtle hints towards your own political viewpoint.
To make matters even worse, consider the context — the '212' and '51' are added in a scene where the Jewish character Kitty Pryde is speaking up as the leader of the X-Men, while Colossus wears that T-shirt in a baseball game playing next to the Catholic Nightcrawler. Oh, and it's worth remembering that Syaf is working on a book written by Jewish author Marc Guggenheim, adding another layer of antisemitism to this whole situation.
Incredibly, Syaf initially seemed to be proud of this particular image, even using it as the banner for his Facebook page! Fans immediately connected the dots between the numbers and their meaning, and many called him out for making a poor attempt at this kind of political statement, with one commenting:
"I sincerely hope this gains traction and you're held accountable for it. Doing it in a Marvel comic book featuring prominent and well-known Catholic and Jewish characters... I'd like to think you were smarter than that but apparently not."
As one might predict, it didn't take long for the media to pick up on the controversy.
Marvel's Response To The Scandal
Needless to say, Marvel is furious. The response was swift and — for Syaf — rather ominous:
"The mentioned artwork in X-Men Gold #1 was inserted without knowledge behind its reported meanings. These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation. This artwork will be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and disciplinary action is being taken."
Over on his Facebook, Syaf has insisted we shouldn't believe everything we read in the media, and finally declared his career to be "over". He tried to bring an end to the discussion with a post on Facebook, but it hasn't really been effective. Not least because, while he reiterated that he's not antisemitic, he went on to tell one newspaper:
"Marvel is owned by Disney. When Jews are offended, there is no mercy."
Given the contradictions in Syaf's public statements, it's more likely that he simply didn't show any hint of contrition. He insists that the numbers mean "justice" and "love" - but hasn't been able to explain why he felt they needed to be added into the comic in the first place.
The reality is that this really isn't Marvel's fault. The '212' reference in particular would slip past the vast majority of readers, although someone should have arguably picked up on the more visible reference to 'QS 5:15'.
Only a few years back, Marvel got in a spot of bother when a letterer hurriedly pasted protest signs into a comic from a quick Google search, unwittingly turning Captain America into an opponent of the Tea Party. It's unfortunate that Marvel's editors appear to have repeated the same mistake again.
A Dangerous Situation
The tragic irony to Syaf's actions is that he may have done real damage to representation in the comic book industry. Because of his unprofessional conduct, insiders are now worried that comic book companies may become wary of hiring international artists or those with Muslim beliefs. After all, it's much easier to spot unwise cultural nods when your editor and artist hail from the same background. Hopefully though, the Big Two comic book companies will avoid learning the wrong lesson, simply chalking this scandal up to one man's behavior.
One of the best responses so far comes from G. Willow Wilson, a notable writer for Marvel who just so happens to be the Muslim creator of Kamala Khan — an American-Muslim hero. Wilson is visibly furious at Syaf's actions, but rather than just stand by, the author has taken it upon herself to offer an education in the Qu'ran for comic book readers. She kicks off by pointing out that most Muslims can neither speak nor read Arabic. As a result, most Muslims depend on translations of the Qu'ran. (It's a similar situation to modern-day Christians, where only a few academics are familiar with the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts of the Bible.)
Given that's the case, Wilson then does a deep-dive into the verse at the root of all this trouble - Al Maidah 5: 51. English translations render this verse as saying a Muslim should not be a 'friend' of a Jew or a Christian; Indonesian translations that a Jew or a Christian should not be a 'leader'. Neither translation is accurate.
Wilson explains that the original Arabic word - Awliya’ - refers to a legal counsel or legal guardian. The verse was revealed at a time when the young Muslim community was locked in a trade war with its non-Muslim neighbors. As she observes:
"In such a situation, appointing somebody from the opposing side as your legal representative does indeed seem like a pretty bad idea."
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I've got to be blunt; speaking as an X-Men fan, I'm furious that X-Men Gold's launch has been sabotaged in such a way - and I'm pretty sure Marvel is just as angry. We don't know whether Syaf jumped or was pushed, but the reality is that he's just committed career suicide, and given Marvel Comics one more diversity headache.
Have you noticed any other examples of artists slipping their messages into comics? Let us know in the comments section below!