For a lot of Americans and non-New Yorkers, the number “212” holds no special significance. Neither does the number “51.” But for comic book artist Ardian Syaf, who slipped the numbers into Marvel’s newest X-Men comic book, they represent an anti-Semitic, anti-Christian message.
It’s particularly inflammatory and disappointing that it was smuggled into the X-Men, a team that’s represented inclusivity, empathy, and tolerance.
Syaf is Indonesian artist, and in Indonesia, “212” denotes a mass protest against Jakarta’s Christian Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Meanwhile, as the comics news websites Bleeding Cool and ComicBook.com explain, the number 51 refers to verse in the Quran (Chapter Surah 5, verse 51) that’s been interpreted by those protesting Gov. Purnama in Indonesia to: “Muslims should not appoint the Jews and Christians as their leader.”
In the premiere issue of X-Men: Gold which came out last week, there are a few instances where Syaf surreptitiously inserted the numbers into the comic. You can see an example in the panel below, which features Kitty Pryde, the Jewish-American leader of the X-Men, talking to civilians, and “212” appears on the awning of a building in the background of the scene:
Also notice the placement of the “jewelry” store near Pryde’s back:
There’s also this panel, which features Colossus wearing a T-shirt that refers to the Quran verse:
Creating comic books is a collaborative process, one that involves a back and forth between writer, artist, editors, colorist, and letterer. But it’s completely feasible, especially since the numbers probably seem pretty random to people who don’t have a background in Indonesian religious politics, for Syaf to have slipped something by his or her writers and editors.
No way they'd have caught it unless they were familiar w S Asian politics. I had no idea what any of it meant either. To me 212=NY area code https://t.co/cpCp771a9M— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) April 9, 2017
Over the weekend, Marvel released a statement regarding Syaf’s art, acknowledging that no one on the X-Men editorial team knew about Syaf’s actions and that the artwork would be removed from the comic book:
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.
It’s worth noting that Marc Guggenheim, Syaf’s writer on the comic book, was raised Jewish, that the X-Men’s creators — Stan Lee and the late Jack Kirby — are/were Jewish, and that the X-Men, more so than any other Marvel characters, have long been allegories for inclusivity and empathy.
Further, Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson, who is Muslim, has pointed out that while the original 5:51 verse can be translated in a variety of ways. The most important part of that verse, in her opinion, is knowing the context it came from.
“It [the interpretation of the verse that Syaf prescribes to] has very little relevance to a democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state,” she writes, explaining how the verse is representative of ancient Medina and the era it was written in. (She also points to this scholarly examination of the verse.) “It was revealed at a time when the fledgling Muslim community was engaged in a de facto trade war (that rapidly escalated into armed conflict) with its non-Muslim neighbors. In such a situation, appointing somebody from the opposing side as your legal representative does indeed seem like a pretty bad idea.”
It’s unclear at this time what will happen to Syaf’s run on the comic. X-Men: Gold no. 2 is scheduled to be published on April 19, and Syaf’s art for that issue has most likely already been submitted. Syaf hasn’t given an official statement, but has been tweeting that the media covering the controversy shouldn’t be believed. We’ve reached out to Marvel for a comment, and will update this story if and when the company the responds.