The Webcomic Overlook #170: Malaak: Angel of Peace
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Malaak: Angel of Peace!
*cue heroic sounding music*
Yes, it’s Malaak, strange visitor from deep in the forests who came to the city with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal women! And who, disguised as a student at a great metropolitan university, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the Lebanese way!
Malaak was created by Joumana Medlej, a Lebanese illustrator. She has done drawings for children’s books, specifically a Lebanese heritage series. In her FAQ, she descibes Malaak as “Lebanon’s first and only superhero or adventure full-length series.” This comic is similarly aimed at readers who are typically younger than the current American fanboy crowd … that is, younger than 30, at least.
So who is this Malaak, and how does she gain her superpowers? It’s perhaps one of the strangest origin stories to come out of the last few decades. The spirits that for generations have guarded the land weep for the country and the violence that has torn it apart. They send a hero to protect it. And, so, a pine cone falls from a tree branch, and, swiftly, it mutates into a ten-year-old girl. Malaak is then adopted by kindly parents who raise her as their own.
This origin is probably way too goofy for modern readers. We’re used to more “realistic” origin stories, followed by a lengthy (and typically angsty) period where the hero comes to terms with his or her powers. Personally, I found it a rather refreshing throwback to the Golden Age, when all you needed to tell the readers was that someone came from a distant planet, had a bat smacked onto their window, was born from a lump of clay, saved from near-death by a glowing lantern, or zapped by lightning while playing with chemicals. And when this comic is being aimed at a younger audience, the simple origin is all you need.
At the same time, Malaak’s origin just the right touch of realism to feel plausible and modern. Malaak’s story is set in war-torn Lebanon. When Malaak’s parents discover the catatonic young girl in the woods, they leap to some dire assumptions. They think that Malaak’s real parents met the same fate as many other children and were killed during the war, and that the trauma has reduced the girl to a catatonic state.
It’s a solution that’s elegant when you think about it. Let’s look at the updates to Superman’s origins in 1986. To make the Man of Steel more believable to modern audiences, John Byrne jumped through several hoops to try to explain how the Kents could have a baby that managed to bypass hospital birth certificate records and social security. The solution was that a huge months-long snowstorm hit Smallville some time after the Kents discovered baby Clark. The Kents then lied and told the townsfolk that Martha had the kid while they were stuck in their home, unable to get to the hospital. My, how conveeeeeeeeenient.
I also thought that the war-time setting was a novel one. Again, it feels more true to the origins of the Golden Age heroes than the domesticated settings of modern day. The 1940’s were a far different era: readers were looking for heroes in the days when the Great Depression made people desperate and global developments of frightening magnitude were pushing people toward a second World War. Kids in a Western society can’t relate, but I’ll bet kids growing up in Lebanon can. That country saw a long, bloody civil war between 1975 and 1990. Even now, there’s no peace: a conflict between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in erupted in 2008, and the government collapsed in January of this very year.
As a result, Malaak has to deal with armed soldiers and snipers who strike from crumbling buildings and confront civilians in busy city streets. But too much realism isn’t fun, and this is a superhero comic after all. So behind all the turmoil are ancient, malevolent spirits, specifically the Jinn. Some look like demonic parrots, while others take on human form.
As you might guess, I love superheroes. However, I’m really more of a fan of heroes who interact with folks in the real world. I love seeing Superman punching dudes through buildings or Spider-Man getting entangled in Venom’s sticky symbiotic skin. Good artists and storytellers can convey a sense of physics and heft, and the actions of the heroes that defy the rules make them seem spectacular.
I’m less a fan of supernatural/psychic comic superheroes, like Dr. Strange, Jean Grey, and Emma Frost. The problem is that these heroes spend a lot of time in an ill-defined astral plane, a place where rules of physics typically do not apply and you can always conjure something out of nothing. The rules of these kinds of adventures are generally loosely defined, and most of the time you’re stuck with boring monochromatic background scenery. And Malaak definitely does a lot of mystical traveling. She at least gets to travel to a dimension that’s very dreamlike and misty, which gives it a better artistic direction than most astral planes.
The illustrations where Malaak visits the Guardians are nicely rendered admittedly. Generally, Ms. Medlej’s art is unconventional for a superhero comic. Her style, though, never seems out of place. It succeeds in depicting both Malaak’s athletic grace in action sequences, the otherworldiness of the dream sequences … and even the beautiful costumes of ancient characters during flashbacks. It’s a combination of elements I don’t think I’ve seen in a superhero comic before, feeling more like Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo than Fantastic Four.
In the physical world, Malaak has some sort of second sight that lets her see past the Jinn disguises to see them in their true monsterous forms. Also, she can shoot green things out of her hands. And agility, I’m guessing. (Though don’t hold me to that. Lebanese students in Malaak tend to undergo a lot of combat training.)
In civilian life, Malaak is a mild-mannered college student. While she tries to keep her identity a secret, she’s not very successful at it. It’s only four issues in, and two of her chums have already figured out that Malaak and the local “Guardian” is one and the same person. However, the whole thing about people find out your secret identity? It turns out that it’s not much of a liability in the end. It’s actually a good thing.
One such friend, Adrian, turns out to be a fellow soldier in the battle against the Jinn. He ends up becoming something of Malaak’s sidekick. With the help of the guardian spirits, Malaak even crafts him a sword made out of salt. It’s not effective against human thugs, but a powerful weapon against the Jinn. (Also, a suspect, a vital ingredient in seasoning.) There’s a double standard at play: while Malaak has to save the city in costume, Adrian does not do the same … and this turns out to be the reason why her second friend guesses her superhero identity.
Stop being so self-conscious and swallow your pride! Just wear a matching superhero outfit already, Blondie! You could be “Guardian Lad.” Or “The Fantastic Mr. Salty Swordsman.”
OK, maybe not that last one.
Then again, Malaak’s outfit — which was designed by Adrian — does look kinda silly. Malaak herself thinks so. Was Adrian a huge fan of 90’s anime, and did he model Malaak’s costume after Frieza? Maybe it’s supposed to resemble the national flag, like the duds that nation-based heroes like Captain America and Alpha Flight wear. If so, that I think the costume would look much, much better if there was a green cedar on there somewhere. It might be clearer to the authorities that she’s the hero.
Of course, it’s not like the authorities mistrust her. They question the existence of a spandex-wearing hero for maybe two pages before they start hailing her as the city’s Guardian. One guy even has little heart bubbles coming out of his head. She gains their trust shortly after her debut when she knocks down the previously suspicious commander to save him from a stray bullet. Yup, nothing suspicious there! She’s completely trustworthy, what with her glowing green eyes and looking like a Dragonball Z villain and stuff.
Still, this general sense of bonhomie is completely compatible with the innocent world of Malaak. There’s a clear-cut split between the forces of good and evil. The people of Lebanon look up to Malaak unequivocally as a hero you can trust.
Even Malaak’s civilian life tends to be uncomplicated. When you get a cast of 20-something college students together, you’d sorta expect some soap opera style plots, wouldn’t you? But no: they tend to come across as people that Malaak sits down with for a midday lunch or spars with at the gym. The lack of emotional drama in Malaak’s personal life is almost subversive, in that it’s closer to how real-life relationships actually work.
You could argue that it’s a little one-dimensional. Older readers looking for a more mature take on superheroes (i.e., the current audience used to characters drawn at a towering 8-3/4 heads) may struggle with the uncomplicated storytelling of Malaak: Angel of Peace. But, as something of an aficionado of comics history, I thought the perhaps unintentional throwback to Golden Age stories to be quite refreshing. I’m reminded of a comment someone made about Christopher Nolan’s supposedly realistic take on on Batman: you can try to stick to less colorful villains who don’t fit your standards and explain away all of Batman’s technology … but in the end it’s still a story about a guy who dresses up like a Bat and beats up clowns.
Bringing superheroes back to a younger audience that would appreciate the action and adventures that superheroes used to represent may be one of the most daring and logical moves in recent memory.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)