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Mesopotamian Multiverse: Marvel, Iraq, and Global Narratives

Marvel is a global phenomenon - a creative powerhouse producing comics, films, merchandise translating into a billion dollar business empire around the world. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, Spiderman- all household names thanks to cinema, but their origins are still firmly based in the comics. Their adventures more recently jump between different universes, but did you know they have all been to Iraq!

Marvel takes inspiration from mythologies around the world through its characters - but also through its themes, repackaging them for modern audiences. A great deal of artistic licensing has been used - these modified stories projecting the studios vision for heroes and villains, gods and demons, and story arcs. The Marvel powerhouse is able to ensure that their myths can be accessed to anyone who seeks them (provided that the film is not banned in their country or a spurious streaming platform is available). It has the power to create new narratives, and influence the way people perceive places and names - bending to global perspectives and trends. Iraq is no different.

The first feature of Mesopotamia in a Marvel comic dates back to the 60s, where Dr Strange goes to Babylon to search for the book of Vishanti (Strange Tales, #150, Nov. 1966). Later in the early 90s, Captain America (Captain America Annual #11, Jan. 1992) and Thor (Thor Annual #17, Jan. 1992) first meet Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian king. The storylines play closely to the original source material with Gilgamesh seeking Utnapishtim in his search for immortality. This modern rendition of Gilgamesh, albeit with Captain America saving the day, briefly explores key themes that all literary heroes are built on - fame, glory, reknown. Gilgamesh became a recurring character and most recently featured in the 'Eternals' movie, which lacked any identifying features to his literary heritage. It is interesting to see how before the 2003 war, inspiration was drawn from mythology and is almost a celebration of Mesopotamian storytelling, even those published after the Gulf War of 1991.

The gods have also had roles in the Marvel universe, once again reimagined away from their historical forms. In an Iron Man series, Tony Stark becomes the Secretary of Defence on a mission to Iraq, instead of dealing with the reconstruction of the country upon his arrival, he heads to Hatra to investigate the disappearance of some US forces and an archaeologist (Invincible Iron Man, #79-#82. April 2004). There he is introduced to a fiery villain initially going by the name of Ishtar who has taken up the residency at the fictional temple of Ishtar, claiming to have restored her throne from where she ruled the Assyrian Empire. Hatra is a unique city that blended many international and regional cultures together, but was founded long after the collapse of the Assyrian Empire. Of Ishtar's dual personality, Marvel ignores her role as a goddess of love, sexuality, and fertility - focusing on her role as a deity of war and conflict, in line with the way in which the studio uses Iraq as a theatre of conflict.

Ishtar, is later revealed to be Leyla, a Kurdish native of Halabja, who had been studying in Baghdad and had received the patronage of Saddam Hussein for her chemistry skills. Her work hijacked by 'Chemical Ali' and family killed by the Baath regime in Sulaymaniyah, she pursues a vendetta against the idle Americans and aggressive Iraqis, lamenting at the lack of an independent Kurdistan. The conversation with Iron Man reads like an analysis of average American attitudes to the middle east, simplified and uniformed - the fact he is the secretary of state, may be an indirect attack on the ignorance of the Bush regime. Nevertheless, blurring heritage between Assyrian and Kurdish lines is currently a sensitive subject and the storyline itself represents an indifference to the diverse range of identities in north Iraq, feeding pre-existing narratives of conflict and anti-American attitudes.

Of course, Anti-American attitudes are best represented in the comics by the archetype dictator Saddam. He features as himself after recruiting 'The Arabian Knight' and dispatching him to Wakanda to convert the people to Islam - the attempt inevitably fails when the Arabian Knight is killed by the Black Panther and Storm (Black Panther, #15, Apr 2006). Published shortly before his death, the brief storyline serves to strengthen stereotypical perspectives in the west of Saddam by creating fictitious claims that he was funding religious conversion programmes in Africa. Whilst referenced by the dictator himself, the fact that Christian missionary groups on the continent had been far more aggressive and exploitative, that concept is ignored by the writers. The idea can be dangerous, promoting islamophobia through story writing that continues to vilify real people, further justifying the US occupation, whilst American missionary groups continue their work even within Iraq. A character loosely based on Saddam (discretely disguised as the originally named Saddam Abed Dasam) is the target of a mission by the assassin Elektra (Elektra, #1, Sept 2001) , as she seeks to bring down threats to world peace, whilst having a different name, the storywriters continue to project authoritarianism and violence on a country that continues to suffer. Interestingly, the publication of this series was just 10 days before the destruction of the World Trade Centre in September 2001, in dictating how the Iraqi dictator was collectively seen by audiences even before the launch of the 'War on Terror.' A blind assassin, originally named as Blind Ali (X-Statix - #13-#14, Oct/Nov. 2003), is an Iraqi character that is tasked to kidnap someone but gets decapitated with a skateboard. We didn't feel the need to discuss this one as it says it all - just after the launch of the 2003 invasion.

Ultimately, Iraq features in 70 appearances in the Marvel world and almost all of them are a setting related to armed conflict, with most of them featuring after the war of 2003. Those scenes that feature Mesopotamian cultures are also exposed to conflict too (Kang the Conqueror travels back in time to destroy a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk on one of his campaigns), their gods and goddesses attached to contemporary themes removing them from historical or literary traditions that builds new disconnected narratives - a contrast to the heroic portrayal of figures from Norse, Roman, or Greek mythology (who occasionally get huge character redemption arcs such as Loki). The Iraq War, and subsequent conflicts, created a global narrative centred on violence which now means there is a market (just look at the video games industry and film sectors), and Marvel has actively participated in promoting that when realistically it has the potential to rebalance that through involving Mesopotamian myth building as it has done with more euro-centric cultures. That said, occasional veiled criticisms of American war-makers, peer through the voices of their characters. In one scene, Tony Stark arrives at Baghdad airport (kudos for the representation of the iconic ceiling design and green colour schemes) where he is met with frustrated Iraqi politicians who cannot complete their work due to the absence of the American administration.

There may be hope after all though! The more recent representations of Iraq draw back to mythology with Spider-Man (in a parallel universe) working on an archaeological excavation in Uruk. Working to unlock the tomb of Innana, he must solve puzzles and enter the underworld. Are Marvel creators returning to mythology when it comes to Iraq? If so, fantastic - it is an opportunity to highlight a heritage that is rich in storytelling, that has faced decades of systematic destruction through conflict and mismanagement. These stories also highlight the changing narrative of Iraq amongst global audiences, we can learn a great deal about society, politics, and in grained biases before, during, and after global events.

Creative producers that use Iraq as inspiration for their work need to bring more Iraqis into their companies, to readdress the way that they create products for global consumption, consider what they are doing to influence public opinion - in the words of Marvel's very own Uncle Ben when talking with Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility." There are some incredible storytellers, creatives, artists in Iraq that are a huge asset to companies globally, combine that with increased knowledge or Iraq's rich heritage it is a recipe to change what we know, and foster social development and break down stereotypes.

Creative Iraq will be highlighting emerging comic book makers who are using their experiences to tell stories, contributing their voices to the genre, and telling stories from their perspectives. Comic books have always had power to give agency to under-represented voices, so lets celebrate Iraqi comic book makers who are telling their own stories.

In the meantime, if you want to find out more about Iraq inside the Marvel world, you can check out their Marvel Unlimited collection - app download needed too - with a 1 week free trial (we don't get commission here unfortunately). You can check out some of the issues here:

  • Strange Tales - #150, Nov. 1966

  • Captain America Annual - #11, Jan. 1992

  • Thor Annual - #17, Jan. 1992

  • Elektra - #1-#4, Sep. 2001

  • X-Statix - #13-#14, Oct/Nov. 2003

  • The Incredible Iron Man - #79 -#82, Apr-May 2004

  • Black Panther - #15, Apr, 2006

  • Spiderman Noir - #4-#5, Sep. 2020

Let us know your thoughts - are you happy to see stories like this made or is about time Marvel changed track? What stories would make for great graphic novels or comics?

*All of the images above remain rights to Marvel.

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