On Saturday, comics fans became enraged as they discovered alleged hidden messages in Marvel’s X-MEN: GOLD #1 by artist Ardian Syaf that some associate with anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiment.
In an early February interview with Newsarama, X-MEN GOLD writer Marc Guggenheim praised his colleague Ardian Syaf for his work on their launch issue X-MEN GOLD #1, saying: “Ardian did such a beautiful job with that moment. The facial expressions really sell exactly what I was going for in that moment, the bigotry that the X-Men face, as well as Kitty’s equanimity in dealing with that moment.” Little did he know his book’s artist, in drawing these exact panels, might have caused him to be involved in what could be one of the biggest political controversies in comic books this year.
This controversy had first been brought to my attention in an open letter a Facebook user directed at Marvel Comics, but threads on Reddit and articles by BleedingCool and other comic news sites covered the topic and eventually blew up. Only a couple hours later did Marvel release their official statement to Comicbook.com. What had happened? It’s recently been discussed whether artist Ardian Syaf secretly inserted allusions to antisemitic and anti-Christian sentiments into his work on X-MEN GOLD #1.
One of the panels in question shows Colossus wearing a T-shirt bearing the inscription “QS 5:51,” which many interpret as referencing a Quran verse. According to quran.com, this is the Sahih International translation of said verse:
“O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
Ironically, in the panel Guggenheim had referenced in the February interview, both the number 51 and the number 212 are visible in the background (as well as the word “Jew” as part of the word “Jewelry” next to Kitty Pryde’s head, who is Jewish herself). As suggested, the 212 could be referring to the “212 rally” in Indonesia’s capital, in which protesters demanded the suspension of Jakarta Governor Ahok for allegedly insulting the Quran. Ahok, who is not a Muslim, had previously been the cause of outrage after criticizing – you guessed it – verse QS 5:51. Because of its potential suggestion to not trust Christians and Jews, especially as political figures, Islamic groups had been using QS 5:51 as a reason to condemn the re-election of Ahok.
Admittedly, this seems far-fetched at first. But the likelihood of these mutually related, symbolic numbers being chosen at random when they reference recent political events in the artist’s home country is astronomically low. And some of the artist’s responses under a Facebook thread cause us to assume the inclusion of these allusions was fully intentional and 100% in support of the anti-Ahok rallies.
A day later, he released another quasi-statement on his Facebook page (which has now been deleted) in the form of screenshots of a private conversation with a fan. A conversation in which he refers to the anti-Ahok rallies as a “peace act” and claims to hate neither Jews nor Christians. In fact, he says he has good friends falling under each of these religions. Needless to say, the latter should be taken with a grain of salt. Tropes along the lines of “But I have friends who are ___!” or “I only hate some ___!” usually aren’t sincere clarifications but cop-outs for racists to make themselves sound less racist.
And although we can’t know for sure if the artist actually holds antisemitic or anti-Christian beliefs, Syaf’s track record almosts makes him complicit in the propagation of these beliefs. For starters, he intentionally alluded to QS 5:51 without criticizing the verse and the way it was being used against Ahok. It’s also very telling about his priorities that he would refer to rallies that demand suspension of a candidate because he is non-Muslim and dared to speak up against antisemitic and anti-Christian sentiments as a “peace act.” The implication still seems to be that criticizing the Quran should get a politician suspended or sanctioned in another way. According to the Jakarta Post, Syaf supports the interpretation of QS 5:51 that condemns non-Muslim politicians and decided to include the numbers after visiting the rally himself. None of these are values that belong in a comic book about tolerance.
The remarks made in his most recent statement from Monday seem to confirm this concern as he refers to 212 and QS 5:51 as “number[s] of JUSTICE” and “LOVE”.
To be clear, none of this should be taken out of context. Islamophobia has been a huge problem in political discourse in recent times, and we cannot allow this incident to further give rise to anti-muslim sentiments. In fact, it has long been argued by members of the muslim community, for instance on answering-christianity.com, that the way we mostly interpret QS 5:51 is due to misunderstandings and mistranslations. While some translations make it seem as if the Quran prohibits Muslims from having friendships with Christians and Jews, the author of this article points out how a possibly more credible translation talks about patrons, not friends:
“O you who believe! Do not take Jews and Christians as your patrons. They are patrons of their own people. He among you who will turn to them for patronage is one of them. Verily Allah guides not a people unjust.”
In this alternative understanding of the verse, the Quran doesn’t so much propagate mistrust or forbid friendship between these religious communities, but rather points out that while Christians and Jews protect their own people, Muslims should do so as well. In other verses, the Quran explicitly allows and encourages friendly behavior towards other religious or non-religious communities, as pointed out in the article. So this verse in and of itself is not necessarily problematic. What is problematic however is the political context in which it is being used to discriminate against non-Muslim politicians, which Syaf has apparently come out in favor of. It’s a phenomenon we see in many world religions, for instance when Republican voters questioned Obama’s validity as POTUS by claiming he was in fact a Muslim, not a Christian.
I can’t even begin to describe how off-putting this situation is to me as a reader and fan of X-Men comics. There is a lot to unpack here. Possibly anti semitic talking points that somehow made their way into a comic book written by a man who was raised Jewish, featuring a Jewish main character and a team originally created by Jewish men is a whole other level of cheeky and toxic. X-Men fans were hoping for a fresh new start for these characters, and it’s sad to see an otherwise strong title in the midst of this outrageous scandal. What Syaf possibly suggests is the opposite of what the X-Men have always stood for, since his words praise political mistrust instead of cooperation between religious groups.
It’s honestly surprising to me that this situation could ever come to be. If Syaf is ready to potentially propagate mistrust against the Jewish community, it comes as a surprise he would be willing to draw a comic book that puts one of the most important Jewish characters in comics front and center in the first place. It’s pure speculation whether the word “Jew” next to Kitty’s head was an intentional hint to further illustrate his potentially antisemitic views in combination with the numbers 212 and 51, but given other subliminal messages in the very same panel, it’s not completely excludable. It says a whole lot about his integrity – but also about professionalism, on his and Marvel’s side. Needless to say, inserting secret political imagery about unrelated conflicts without the knowledge of the company is pretty unprofessional in and of itself. Turns out, this is not the first time Syaf included his political views in the background of his panels, as artwork on BATGIRL (see below) demonstrates. The billboard on the left has the name of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo written on it.
Given this incident in the past, Marvel should have been extra cautious of hidden messages in their books. If they mean business in representing tolerance and diversity while also maintaining overall quality of their material, Marvel needs to change their policies regarding background checks and quality controls. In their statement, they claim:
“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.”
Another statement on Tuesday clarified what “disciplinary action” means, confirming the immediate termination of his contract. Given that Syaf hasn’t been able to provide sufficient evidence against the claim that the views he hid in X-MEN GOLD #1 are as bigoted as they seem, firing him seems appropriate. Marvel rightfully points out how contrary the artist’s beliefs are to what the company and the franchise want to stand for — which makes it even more embarrassing for the company that things have come this far.
The centrality of Jewish representation in X-MEN GOLD only makes this more ironic and disappointing. I speak for many when I say finally seeing Kitty Pryde as the leader of an X-Men team is a dream come true. There’s a reason she’s a role model for me and countless other fans. The aforementioned scene is a great example of how she will stand up to open bigotry using two of the most powerful weapons in the X-Men universe – her brain and her mouth. The same bigotry against her people, however, has now possibly found its subtle way into the background of the very same scene.