The Indonesian artist was pledging support to an ongoing blasphemy trial involving the Jakarta governor
Publisher Marvel unwittingly found itself at the centre of a political and bigoted controversy over the weekend after an artist sneaked hidden messages into the pages of an X-Men comic.
Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf, without alerting the writer or editor of X-Men: Gold #1, drew references to a religious conflict taking place in Indonesia, citing a religious verse that urges Muslims to distrust Christians and Jews.
In one panel of the comic, X-Men character Colossus is playing baseball, wearing a t-shirt with ‘QS 5:51’ splashed across his chest. The Quran verse 5.51 is often – though not universally – translated as “Do not take Jews and Christians as friends/allies.”
While the reference was subtle enough to go over the heads of most readers, Indonesia’s X-Men fans spotted it immediately, starting a Reddit thread that alleged that Syaf was using his artwork as “a tool to spread religious bigotry.”
The controversial interpretation of the 5:51 verse is currently being used as part of a protest movement against Basuki Purnama Tjahaja, better known as Ahok, the first Christian governor of Jakarta.
Throughout his political career, Ahok has found fierce opposition from Indonesia’s conservative Muslim leaders and their followers, with the governor claiming they had cited 5:51 to turn voters against him in an off-the-cuff remark during a speech.
The backlash was swift, with 150,000 Muslims in Jakarta taking to the streets in protest on December 2nd, demanding that the secular state arrest and prosecute the governor for blasphemy for his flippant reference to the verse. Ahok is now undergoing a very public trial that is forcing modern Indonesia to reflect on its religious past and present. The verdict is not due until late May.
A reference to the December 2nd protests was also included in the X-Men artwork, in the form of a sign reading “212.” The same panel has also been accused of anti-Semitic subtext, with Syaf drawing character Kitty Pride, a canonically Jewish woman, standing in front of a jewellery shop, with the word ‘Jew’ displayed prominently beside her head.
Other readers also claimed that two panels during the baseball game also had a coded anti-Semitic message, as Nightcrawler, a German Christian, appears to be striking the bat against the face of the Jewish-American leader of the X-Men.
Marvel, already reeling from the bad press of an executive saying diversity was to blame for poor sales, issued an apology, saying that the art 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,” the statement reads.
“This artwork will be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and disciplinary action is being taken.”
Among the comics community, the reaction from fellow artists and writers on social media has been very critical of Syaf:
I like Ardian Syaf's work, but I think what he has done in the recent X-Men book is very disrespectful and unprofessional. ☹️— Ario Anindito (@arioanin) April 8, 2017
Really bummed out by the shenanigans in the new X-Men comic. Feel for the editors and team that were duped, deceived and mis-led.— robertliefeld (@robertliefeld) April 8, 2017
I'm not often moved to feel sorry for corporate behemoths, but Marvel is having a lousy week.— Colleen Doran (@ColleenDoran) April 9, 2017
Responding on his now deleted Facebook profile, Ardian Syaf was unapologetic and pledged his support to the December 2nd movement. As X-Men comics are normally drawn in advance, his will still be credited on issues #2 and #3 of the Gold series, though is expected to be replaced, with Marvel likely to be going through every panel in search of hidden messages.