His name is Ardian Syaf. He’s an Indonesian comic book artist, having gotten his start working on The Dresden Files back when it was being published by Dabel Brothers (I have some original artwork from the series). He’s been seen as an inspiration to people in Indonesia, as he recently landed the plum gig of penciling the new X-Men Gold series for Marvel, which is one of the comic equivalents of playing the Big Room. He also teaches art to children on the weekends. Local boy makes good and all that.
That, however, was as of Friday.
X-Men Gold #1 hit the stands on Wednesday. On Saturday, people discovered a very...let’s be polite for the moment and say, disheartening set of Easter eggs hidden in Syaf’s artwork for the issue. Whatever can be said of Syaf’s generosity and achievements, they have been instantly destroyed by some stupid political and religious posturing. It’s the weekend, so we don’t know the final outcome of this once The Mouse gets into the office. But here is where we stand so far.
Before I go any further, a major major MAJOR tip of the hat to Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool, who did some major research to put this whole thing in context. It doesn’t change the outrage and the stupidity, but it does give us critics a much more defensible position.
So, Indonesia has the second largest Muslim population in the world. Jakarta’s present governor is Basuki Tjahaja Pumama, known as Ahok. Ahok is a Christian, and while campaigning against opponents, he referenced used some quotes from the Qu’ran. The quote is from Al Maidah 5:51, which states simply that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. I figured this was as far as the religious order was concerned, but a lot of Indonesians apply this as “Muslims should not appoint non-Muslims to lead them, period.” A video where Ahok said that’s not what it means was apparently mistranslated, and this version of the video went viral. A fatwa was declared, branding Ahok a blasphemer, and the National Movement To Safeguard The Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa organized a protest demanding Ahok be prosecuted and jailed. The protest happened on December 2nd, 2016, and drew hundreds of thousands of protesters. Because Indonesia is one of those countries that notates the date before the month, the number 212 has become synonymous with the protests, to the point where a follow-up protest happened on February 21, making another 212. It should be noted that Ahok has repeatedly apologized for the original video, but no one seems to care. The 212 and 5:51 in the region are seen as anti-Semitic and anti-Christian rallying cries.
Everybody still with me so far? That’s good!
So, Syaf. People have a tendency to sneak little Easter eggs in their work. Some tip their hats to friends, like Scott Rosema sneaking Brian Douglas Ahern’s Bumpkin Buzz into a crowd scene. Some vent their frustrations, like Al Milgrom lettering a message into his comic when Marvel EIC Bob Harras got the axe. Some just try to be slick, like Ethan Van Sciver sneaking the word “sex” into background art every chance he got. Syaf decided to stick his toe in the water during a gig on Batgirl. In the background of one scene is a billboard mentioning Jokowi, a.k.a. Joko Widodo, the previous governor of Jakarta. No one really noticed, and anyone that did didn’t really care.
And now, Wednesday.
X-Men Gold #1 hit the stands with a squish. The current malaise gripping the comic industry in general and Marvel in particular continued to flow over the scene like syrup over pancakes. And then, someone spotted this panel:
Yes. Those are references to 212 and 5:51 in the panel. And just in case we miss the point, Kitty Pryde, who is Jewish, is framed in the shot so that she is standing by a jewelry store sign so that it is highlighted that she’s Jewish.
What’s that? Coincidence, you say? When people started pointing this out to Syaf on his Facebook, he told them to hush up about it. No apologies, no, “You got it wrong, that’s not what I meant.” He knew exactly what he was doing and saying. The original artwork is at the top of this entry, and it clearly shows the messages were there from the beginning and were meant to be there. Further driving this point home is a scene later where the X-Men are playing baseball and Colossus, playing with the Christian Nightcrawler, wears a shirt with QS 5:51 on it.
(Quick question for those who believe it is always okay to punch Nazis because they are discriminatory assholes – does this mean Jews and we Christians are justified in punching someone like Syaf for being discriminatory? Just curious.)
There’s also a panel with Kitty sitting in the stands in the background while Nightcrawler is batting in the foreground. The angle and framing makes it appear that Nightcrawler, when he swings his bat, is striking Kitty in the head. Remember, Nightcrawler is German, and Kitty is Jewish. (There is speculation that this is not the intended message, but when you hide anti-Semitic and anti-Christian messages in your work, people stop believing in innocent coincidences.)
This, as they say in the business, got letters. People were protesting the anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sentiments of the references and imagery. It didn’t help that this was in a comic book created by two Jews, written by a guy raised Jewish, and in a series that has become a metaphor for racism and intolerance. On Saturday night, Marvel issued a statement that the Easter eggs were snuck in without their knowledge and would be removed from the digital and reprints of the issue. They did not, however, apologize or condemn, just said they believe in and support diversity and everything they said last week when they tried to pull their foot out of the anthill.
Also getting involved is G. Willow Wilson. Wilson is the writer for Ms. Marvel, Marvel’s first solo Muslim hero and a runaway success. Wilson herself is Muslim, and she took to Tumblr with a massive post schooling Syaf and anyone else on the original verse and what it really meant. She also put Syaf on full blast himself, saying, “This is all to say that 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. From what I can deduce off of Facebook, it appears he is trying to claim the Charlie Hebdo defense…ie, he doesn’t mean anything by it; we just don’t understand the nuance and subtly of the local bigotry. Much good may it do him. Goodbye, Ardian Syaf. We hardly knew ye, which is just as well.”
Other industry pros, from Rob Liefeld to Colleen Doran to my old buddy Franchesco, are also weighing in. Actually, I want to take a moment to highlight Liefeld’s reaction. He says that he feels Marvel editorial got duped, that they had no idea what was happening, and they don’t deserve any blame or scorn for this. When the man’s right, he’s right. It was an obscure reference that, unless you Google the stuff just right, won’t ever clue you in to what is going on. Don’t make Marvel a patsy here, the blame should all go on Syaf.
I really do feel sorry for Marvel. Months ago, when they were getting hammered for turning Captain America into a Nazi, I didn’t think things could get any worse for them. Then comes the one-two punch of “Diversity doesn’t sell” and Syaf being an asshole. I have a funny feeling a lot of innocent people are updating their resumes in preparation for Monday morning.