In 2001, DC Comics chose Turkey as a country on which to focus the last in their DC Planet series of internationally-themed comics. The story was published not long after a devastating earthquake struck Izmit, Turkey in 1999, killing over forty thousand people. It’s reasonable to believe that the outpouring of international support for Turkey in the immediate aftermath was a big reason why the country was selected to receive its very own DC superhero. The new character, Dr. Selma Tolon, is revealed to have been a heroic first-responder after the earthquake who, after somehow surviving a collapsing building and awaking in a five hundred year old cache wherein she discovers the magic, flaming sword of Suleiman the Magnificent and Merlin’s magic book of spells (there’s of course a good backstory explaining why these two objects were stored together). Armed with these two magic items, the former granting Selma the ability to fly, she assumes the persona of Janissary to defend the honor of Turkey, and maybe Islam.
Before we dive in deeper, let’s get a few things squared away. This post is meant to be a semi-amusing, semi-serious review of a little known comic book story that is effectively a case-study in how not to write a comic character for a foreign culture. However, the story rather uncomfortably touches on subjects that have become far more serious than amusing in recent months and years. This post is not meant to make light of the coup attempt that occurred in the summer of 2016, but it does not hide away from the comic book’s eerily prescient plot elements. Less importantly, this is also not intended to be a petty criticism of the people behind the story, but is definitely a criticism of the result of their work.
A quick intro:
I first heard rumor of this character in 2012 from Andrew, whom you may know from my award-to-be-winning radio show and podcast, who rather inaccurately recalled the premise of a story he came across in some forgotten comic shop in the Beşiktaş neighborhood of Istanbul. We were both freelance English teachers at that time, and I thought the character might make an interesting reading and conversation exercise with my students. It wasn’t half-as-hard to track down as I had expected, and the next week I introduced the character to my students, expecting amused confusion but prepared for all manner of strong reaction. What I got from my students was anger; my students (all women) were very offended by the character’s appearance and really nothing about the story got them past it. Below is what they saw and I’ll break down a bit about what they hated about it.
First thing, my students (who did not cover their hair) objected to the image of a woman in something analogous to a niqab. The fact that the character is not actually wearing a niqab, but rather something more like a hashshashin’s desert garb, didn’t help much. It’s also a very strange costume selection for the character, but more on that once we get into all the places where this character and story went off the rails. One of my students, who might be characterized as an old-school Kemalist (look that up if you don’t know what that means), was disgusted by what she saw as a glorification of female, Islamic terrorist imagery. Turkey has been a bloody battleground for several competing ethnic and religious ideologies for several decades, and there was probably no way this character wasn’t going antagonize are lease a half-dozen of them. Everyone who saw this character told me they believed the appearance of the character was part of an American conspiracy to either celebrate and legitimize what they consider to be domestic terrorists or to promote an Islamic “Arabication” of Turkey. The best I could offer was my belief that the character was a well-intentioned misfire by a group of people who were obviously working with limited information. I pointed out that the story and character were created by Brian K. Vaughan, author of the award-winning and deeply-moving Pride of Bagdad. Unquestionably, the two stories couldn’t be more different in terms of the attention paid to character and setting. Still, Brian K. Vaughan has proven he can write nuanced and sensitive stories. The introductory story of Janissary is not such a story. Let’s dive into it.
Dr. Selma Tolon is a doctor and super heroine living in Ankara. She can fly with the power of the Sultan Suleiman’s flaming sword, which is truly confusion. Why does it grant the power to fly? Why is it flaming? Most of the time, it’s not shown to be on fire. Selma is shown to be devout Muslim woman who carries around an incredibly powerful book, which is paradoxically not a copy of the Qur’an. That point strikes me as an incredible bit of parody that I have to believe was unintentional. If it was intentional, kudos to the Vaughan for a truly ingenious trolling in a time before the internet made that a sport.
When Selma leaves her hair uncovered, but then chooses to cover it when she becomes the shining hero of Turkey. The character’s representation of dual female iconographies is actually a pretty knowing reflection of the conflicting views of ideal womanhood in Turkey, but the character doesn’t really seem to acknowledge that these roles are not seen in Turkey as two sides of a coin but as antithetical. This conflict is not purely a religious one but has deeply rooted political and nationalistic elements. Until just a few years ago, woman were not permitted to cover their hair in public institutions, including universities. Religion, race, history, and politics are inseparable in Turkey. The fact that Selma/Janissary is shown to occupy contradictory spaces without addressing the contradictions is a missed opportunity for Vaughan to add something to the character and story, but it’s pretty obvious that this one-off comic was not meant to anything more than a feel-good cash grab. Unfortunately, I doubt you could find many Turks who felt good about this character.
On to the story:
After introducing Selma as Janissary, the story introduces the villain as a Turkish general conjuring a demon. The demon is specifically from the Islamic demonology, Iblis, helping the reader to know again that Turkey is a Muslim country, so its problems must be Muslim problems. How comics deal with religion is a fascinating subject, particularly as Marvel and DC try to make their billions internationally through film. This comic goes over-the-top to establish Islam as a component of every reference to Turkey. It’s heavy-handed, but there’s a logic to it. However, a significant part of Turkey really doesn’t appreciate Westerners excessively Islamifying Turkey. I doubt many Americans would appreciate a foreigner’s over Christianization of mom and apple pie, so there’s a lesson here somewhere for anyone trying to represent foreigner culture in popular culture.
The fact that the villain is played by a “radical” Islamicst in the Turkish military who intends to bring back the Ottoman Empire was truly farcical prior to the summer of 2016. Military coups in Turkey had typical been directed against elected Islamic governments. The military of the Turkish Republic was founded by the man who ended the Ottoman sultanate and who also went to great efforts to distance the country for the last few hundred years of the Ottoman Empire. The idea of a Turkish military coup by religious radicals against secular government is a parody. That said, the 2016 coup was purportedly orchestrated by a religious sect present in the military. In many ways, this forgotten DC comic is eerily predictive. But, predicting that a coup will happen some day in Turkey isn’t really as impressive as, say, the Simpsons predicting Trump’s presidency over a decade beforehand. There’s been almost one coup attempt every decade since the 1950s.
Rereading it now after last summer reveals some truly uncomfortable visual and narrative elements. The conspiring general is approach by a demon who offers to inhabit his body and make him Sultan of an Ottoman Empire reborn.
Following that plot setup, we get the Justice League of America’s briefing on Janissary and their journey to meet her in the city of Izmit.
There’s a bit of witty banter, our main stable heroes split with Batman and Green Latern going off on a green motorcycle to infiltrate the coup plotters’ military base in Malatya. Janissary and Wonder Woman fly to the Atatürk Dam deep in the southeast of Turkey while Aquaman swims there. To reiterate that point: Aquaman decided to swim from Izmit to Şanliurfa because it was faster than flying. He gets this by swimming the Euphrates apparently the whole way. Never mind that the Euphrates River starts in Turkey’s far east and spends much of its course in Iraq. This geographic fantasy is no more egregious than the opening of the James Bond film, Skyfall. Along the way, he calls upon his crocodile friends (that look like alligators (trust me, I’m a herpetologist)) specifically to help fight undead Ottoman soldiers they push off the dam into the reservoir. There haven’t been crocodiles in Turkey in recent human history and probably not in Iraq either. Aquaman must be an endlessly annoying character to write for, because how often must stories take ludicrous turns in order to put conflict near water and then still necessitate the totally arbitrary concoction of aggressive sea creatures.
Interesting side note, the city of Batman sued Warner Brothers after the release of The Dark Knight film for damages done to its reputation and public psyche by the violence and popularity of the character. Ignoring that the character of Batman is actually older than the city’s use of the name Batman (it was renamed Batman from Iluh in the 1950s), mayor Hüseyin Kalkan apparently argued that the psychological impact of Batman, the superhero, was a probable cause of the city’s significant number of unsolved murders and female suicides.
While the dam thing was going on, Batman and Green Lantern beat up Turkish soldiers and interrogating one with a mixture of basophobia and a Turkish to English dictionary. Batman, as usual, seemed to take to the violence with gusto. I’m sure this was part of the Warner Brothers pitch to Turkish Airlines when they did that huge advertising partnership for the Superman vs. Batman movie in 2016. Come to think of it, it’s pretty amazing that this comic and the scene of Batman smashing Turkish heads didn’t come up in summer 2016. Even more amazing when you consider that was when the most recent coup attempt took place.
If Green Lantern had been thinking, an English to Turkish Dictionary would’ve been more useful for Batman. It’s not like they’re showing the dictionary to the solder and asking him to answer in English.
Did you know that there’s a city in Turkey called Batman? Every English speaker in Turkey notices that quickly and most want to visit for no other reason than the name (most don’t actually visit because there’s not a whole lot to see there). To be a fly on the wall of that writers room when someone realized that there’s a city in Turkey called Batman… The comic devoted several pages to setting up the big reveal that Batman is a city too. The fact that Batman is the only Justice League hero who already knows that there’s a city in Turkey with that name isn’t surprising; I imagine I’d be the first among my friends to know if there was a city named Michael somewhere in the world (I actually don’t know of any).
Little does Green Latern know that this soldier isn’t terrified into stupefaction, but that he’s giving up the key piece of information about Batman to Batman.
In addition to being the secret base of the villain, for no other reason than get excuse to use the Batman/Batman joke, the city of Batman is also home to some guys inexplicably cruising around on flying carpets. Despite their purportedly Jewish Levantine origins, magic carpets do not feature prominently in Turkish folk tales and popular culture. Sprinkling in just a few flying carpets in the background here is akin to throwing a few samurai into a story set in Korea. My Turkish friends didn’t recognize what they were supposed to be, but they sure appreciated the culture misidentification when I explained what they were. There was an Al’Addin Hill in the city Konya where I once lived… so maybe there is an Anatolian connection to flying carpets. Certainly affordable, quality Turkish carpets are known to fly off the sales room floor during peak Tourist season.
Now in Batman (the city), the story comes to its conclusion, and of course the climactic showdown must happen in a mosque.
The showdown in the mosque sets up two fascinating storytelling decisions. The first is Wonder Woman’s delayed entrance to fight the demo who is threatening to kill millions so that she can change cover herself. Wonder Woman shows her religious respect by cover her hair and body, except, inexplicably, her chest. But, she does then proceed to explain and declare that she is in fact a god. I think we can all appreciate a pagan divinity flying around in a temple to monotheism.
Wonder Woman’s status of a goddess has long fascinated me because of how often it must put her in direct conflict with the religions of people she helps. You can’t go far in the world without tripping of some place of religious worship, and her adventures must’ve forced at least a few thousand people to reconsider their religious beliefs. This is what happens when comic book characters interact with the real world subjects. There’s been a lot written about religious symbolism in comics and even the debates about Superman’s Christianity and Jewish creative origins, but much of that took place before films made super heroes a billion dollar, global industry. Now that Woman Woman is portrayed in film by an Israeli actress, the scene of Wonder Woman in a mosque becomes somewhat less likely to be depicted in film.
Cultures having to deal with imported creative content that question or violate aspects of their beliefs didn’t start with blockbuster films. Harry Potter is a good example of an irrefutably blasphemous premise that never the less became widely beloved. I know people who dissuade their children from watching the films or reading the books for religious reasons, both in Turkey and the United States. Yet, the ubiquity of Harry Potter forces them to begrudgingly accept that their children will eventually see the films anyway. Mythological or mystical characters like Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange also fall into this grey zone of acceptability, while others like Batman and Superman are simpler matters. It will be interesting to see if the globalization of DC and Marvel characters results in mainstream characters becoming more vanilla or more niche. Both comic companies have tended to satisfy their gender, ethnic, religious, and social diversity concerns with tertiary and one-shot characters (like Janissary).
The second incredible storytelling decision is the manner in which Janissary saves the day. Janissary is given the option of killing the possess general, which presumably will result in some kind of bad deal for everyone, or submitting. After cleverly offering up her body as the vessel for the demon Iblis while the JLA heroes stand around like wallflowers, she asks in desperation for Aquaman to kill her with her own flaming scimitar. When he refuses, she prostrates herself and prays.
That’s it. I’m forever amazed imagining what the thought process behind this must have been. The entire conceit of the character is an orientalist wet dream. A strong, Westernized Turkish Muslim woman is able to defeat the religious corruption threatening Turkey through her devotion to Allah and country, but only after effectively attempting suicide. There’s a lot of subtext to parse in that. This story was written just before the September 11 attacks. What would it have looked like if written a couple years later? Would it be any different? What would this story look like if written today? American’s views of Muslims were already pretty complicated and confused prior the day the American worldview forever changed. This story is like a little time capsule of a moment of time in the mind of an American author and a pop culture entertainment company.
Not to be ignored is that the book that features prominently in this panel is her pagan book of magical spells, from which she derives much of her super powers, and not the Qur’an. I have defended the creators of this comic to friends and students on the premise that they seemed to really have sought out to make a pleasant, if offensively naïve, story for the people of American and Turkey in the direct aftermath of the 1999 earthquake. The placement of the book so obviously in the panel is something that makes me cautious about how much credit I give the authors. It stretches belief that they would not be aware of the incredibly irony of placing the spell book here. It’s clear that it’s not even just the result of zealous attention to detail, as Janissary’s Flaming Sword of Suleiman isn’t depicted and the book is placed in a way that doesn’t appear related to the physics and actions of the scene. It’s there explicitly to show you that it’s there. Is it an artist’s in-joke. a bit of a truly ballsy trolling, or a deeply conflicted piece of commentary? I’m not really sure.
There’s a little epilogue story at the end of the issue that presents the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent as some kind of heroic force for good in the world, that was either destroyed or corrupted by evil in the 16th century. Certainly many Turks that I’ve talked to do consider the last several years of the Ottoman Empire as a tragedy of corruption and foreign influence, so this short story at the end may actually reference that. But, it’s hard to imagine that it informed the author’s story given the confusion that typifies the rest of the story. The main purpose of the flashback story is to explain how and where Selma Tolon found her magical relics.
Batman shows off his knowledge of history with a rather explicitly judgmental description of the Ottoman Empire. I wonder if he would describe the British Empire, France, or Rome in as violent usurpers. Throughout the issue, Batman is the expositional authority that frames the moral failings of both the villain and his goal to re-establish the Ottoman Empire.
A reference to Israel manages to find its way into an American story about a Muslim country. It’s particularly tone-deaf here because Turkey and Israel, until recently, had a relatively strong relationship. Turkish resentment of Arab revolts in the First World War makes it much easier to side with Israel in Arab-Israeli conflicts. For a bit of history, Jews expelled from inquisition-era Spain were welcomed to settle into the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Beyazid II, and they did so in large numbers. Jews ultimately became an influential minority community in the empire, going so far as to briefly be a majority of the major city of Salonika, modern day Thessaloniki and coincidentally the birthplace of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The bat-explanation comes across as a bit of “all Muslims are Arab and hate Israel” type of thinking.
Selma is clearly one of the less than 0.1% of the population that could read Ottoman Turkish (Osmancı) in 1999. Calling the language ancient might seem a stretch, considering it was the language of Turkey until the 1920s. Contemporary Turkish differs from Ottoman in that most Greek, Arabic, and Farsi vocabularies were removed to create the Uber-Turkic language we know today as Turkish.
This Devil doesn’t wear Prada, but he (it?) does wear some snug boy shorts. I don’t understand drawing tight shorts on something that clearly doesn’t have note-worthy genitalia (at least not in the usual place). You’d be able to see the outline of his junk, should it have any, through that devilish spandex. If there’s nothing to hide, why wear anything at all?
Prior to the happy ending and nationalistic public service announcement, there’s the payoff on the earlier subplot that saw Janissary lusting after Aquaman. To be fair, Aquaman does appear to be attractive and Turkish men and women both possess a weakness for blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigners.
The smallish Turkish towns of Malatya and Izmit sure look a lot like Gotham…
Janissary keeps her costume in her locker at the hospital, presumably the safest place for her secret identity.
Janissary’s true super power is to make parachute pants look heroic.
Easily the best panel and quote in the comic. That I don’t see this emblazoned on t-shirts all over Istanbul is an absolute amazement.
In the second epilogue, there’s the almost obligatory scene of a young, modernist Turkish woman educating an old woman about the strength of women to lift large rubble with knowledge of physics.