A. David Lewis is a comics scholar who’s written books like American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife and co-edited many books including Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation, and Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Lewis is also the founder of CYRIC, Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective, which makes and distributes comics for children.
Lewis has written comics, but it wasn’t until recently that he wrote a superhero. Kismet, Man of Fate was a character originally created in 1944 as part of the wartime comic boom. An Algerian operative fighting the Nazi occupation in the original stories, Lewis along with artist Noel Tuazon (Elk’s Run, Tumor) has brought the character into the present in a series of new stories. After making some standalone short comics, the two have been serializing a new longer story. Kismet wraps up today and will be collected later this summer. I reached out to Lewis to talk about his many comics and comics-related projects.
He was part of the fad of publishers all trying their hand at the next marketable character. He appeared in four comics and then fell into public domain. I discovered him when I was doing research on the religious backgrounds of various heroes and who were the first identified superheroes for each religion. I found Kismet – and I found also that he wasn’t written badly. It was ham-fisted. It was forties superhero in the war comic. I was expecting something gross and stereotypical out of a Muslim superhero at the time. They weren’t exactly doing kind caricatures of the Japanese or people who were Jewish, but there was a nice nobility to him. I wanted more and the only way to get more was to make it myself.
From my reading of the period, I think ham-fisted is a good general description. The artists must have never seen a Japanese or African-American person before the way they drew. But I’ve also read comics where say, Chinese characters are not drawn like the Japanese and can have some nobility. It’s very strange
I will say that I think Kismet was written under a pseudonym. It’s attributed to someone named Omar Tahan and I don’t think Omar Tahan exists. He wasn’t on the staff of any of the creative studios at the time. A likelier story is that it was a pen name for a well known female writer Ruth Roche. That may have been the character’s saving grace. She’s writing as this outsider in this boy’s club and so imbues this outsider character with some nobility and class. At least that’s my working theory as a scholar. It’s also my guiding star as I write this just thinking about any number of people and categories that have been portrayed at one point but can be redeemed narratively now.
I hate a narrative vacuum. As a scholar, as a reader, and as a creator I’m always interested in backstories and connectivity. The four stories of Kismet that exist from the forties give us nothing on his background. There’s no origin story and I don’t even think we get his real name. As much as I was admiring the adventures, my imagination was percolating all the things this character might be. At first I thought I was just going to write one short story. It appeared in the Broken Frontier anthology and I got to team up with Noel Tuazon, who’s an Eisner-nominated artist. I thought that was going to be it, but I was hooked. [laughs] I did two more short stories and then finally said I need to figure out how to get this financed or finance this myself, but there’s a lot of story here. It started to become autobiographical in small ways. No, I’m not an Algerian and I didn’t fight in World War II and I don’t have superpowers – but the idea of pulling a Captain America with him, bringing him to the present, provided the opportunity for me to think about being Muslim now in the U.S. and what that means. It just grew organically. I kept making more and more room in my life for the character.
There is a narrative vacuum and Ms. Marvel has demonstrated that in the comics, the way that Black Panther has become the movie of the moment because it has filled a vacuum.
There’s a danger to that – we checked that box and we’re done. I hugely admire G. Willow Wilson, I enjoy Ms. Marvel, but I don’t want that to be it. I don’t want audiences or readers to say, we have one Muslim superhero, all done. Kismet is not to challenge Ms. Marvel, and I won’t even say supplement, but to be a part of a wave. The same goes with Black Panther or Wonder Woman with the movies.
We need the pearls falling to the ground in the perfect Frank Miller fashion. Exactly.
Fady Joudah wrote an essay late last year, “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful”. It was about how Arabs in America are seen through a very narrow lens and as these unknown outsiders who just arrived. Kismet isn’t Arab, but you seem to be responding to a lot of these concerns in the comic, a character who is part of this larger historical tradition.
I agree with that, but I am being cautious in that given that Kismet is Algerian. I think he would still fall into that category of “other” as a non-white outsider so I want to be careful. But that does resonate with me. I think it was also the reason why I didn’t just create some new character. I don’t even know that I have a particular interest in creating new superheroes. I usually write well outside of that genre. Kismet is one of the first superheroes that I’ve seriously written, but he’s already part of the tapestry. Not just our publishing history, but our cultural history. I thought that made him worthwhile to revive and explore.
I wanted to ask about that because you’ve written comics before, but not superheroes. A lot of your scholarship is about superheroes, though. Especially now having written Kismet, what is it that intrigues you about the superhero and what do you think that it can do?
One of the early works I read in the nineties on comics scholarship was Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. It’s been challenged since so I don’t stand by it one hundred per cent, but it rang a bell for me. Outside of American tall tales like Paul Bunyan I don’t think any other genre goes right to the heart of the fantastic in the U.S. the way that the superhero does. We share any number of fantastic genres globally like scifi and fantasy, but superheroes do have qualifiable American roots. They’ve gone global and that’s terrific. I’m not saying that it’s America first by any means. But if you’re going to think about American cultural imagination – particularly American cultural imagination that hasn’t been totally overshadowed by authorities and gatekeepers – then the superhero is the creative space to do that in. It’s where we do the most satire. It’s the most recognizably iconic. Kids throw a blanket around their shoulders and now they’re superheroes.
It is, fairly or not, the most recognizable genre of the medium. Whereas Japan will have a huge variety of genres with manga – even the U.S. at one point had much wider variety, which is coming back more and more by the year – but it’s still the superhero by which the U.S. industry is largely judged or represented. That makes it a scholarly focus. That’s where the attention has to be paid. Especially now that we have mega-corporations supporting them. One thing I should add: I have a great fondness for the superhero, I love reading superhero comics, but they’re quite flawed and they can be quite limited. It’s the academic in me that keeps pulling me back to them saying, this is where the front line work is happening. Comics like Blankets or Persepolis are going to be read by slightly more of an elite audience or in an academic setting, whereas superheroes remain the headline genre for U.S. comics still. That is changing, but it hasn’t yet. I don’t think the movies are letting it.
In fact my next book doesn’t deal exclusively with superheroes. I’m looking at representations of cancer in comic books and graphic novels and how many stories both fictional and nonfictional are being told about the cancer experience whether losing someone or fighting through it conspicuously through graphic novels. I’m testing the idea that there’s something about the medium and the illness, or the experience of the illness, that go together. It’s a working hypothesis, I don’t have an answer yet. I think there’s a there there; I don’t know what it is yet but we don’t have a lot of graphic novels or comic book stories about tuberculosis or even about heart disease, which is huge in the United States, or AIDS during the height of the AIDS epidemic and even now. Cancer is this thing that comics keep coming back to in a way that film or music doesn’t so that’s what I’m trying to dive into next. It will include the Death of Captain Marvel, it will include Jane Foster’s Thor, but it will also primarily go outside the genre.
Your other major project is CYRIC. Can you say a little about what it is and what you’re doing?
Kismet grew organically and I didn’t know that was going to be my next big focus, but I know exactly where CYRIC came from. That’s a combination of all the images and news that was coming back to us about the Syrian Civil War – and about how much all the children in those images looked so much like my own kids. My own kids are healthy and safe and having good lives and I saw that and I was struck by, there but for the grace of god go I. One quirk of fate and almost anyone’s family could have been caught in something like this. I’m not an international human rights lawyer. I’m not a doctor without borders. It took me a long time to really think about what meaningful way I could contribute. I was donating time and money where I could to any number of causes, but it was my wife who encouraged me to think, you make comics and you have a background in religious studies, what can you do with that? What can you usefully do?
It struck me that one of the few things I could do is make sure that the stories from Syrian culture not only weren’t getting lost, but were given back to these kids if only as a sign that we know you exist, we value you, these belong to you. The world isn’t going to take everything from you. CYRIC itself isn’t only and specifically Syria-focused. The name is Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective so I can’t say what the future will bring, whether during the next humanitarian outbreak we’ll have the opportunity to help another population. Right now we continue to raise funds to distribute a new wave of a new full color comic to children 6-12 years old, in camps or in schools displaced from Syria, largely in Turkey. We’ve been using this past year to bring on additional artists and we’ve been receiving beautiful art form them. We use the funds to fairly pay the artists. It is a nonprofit and I take no money, but it’s not volunteer only. The next phase is to move into printing and distributing these stories overseas and that’s where the focus of the next fundraising will be.
While I have a number of friends and family members fluent in Arabic, I am not. So I’ll do the research in English of what stories have been collected throughout the years in the Syrian region – going back even to the Assyrian period. I’ll script it as you would a comic script and work with the artists. Then I’ll have a separate team of translators working on the captions and word balloons. The artist has to work in manga style, right to left. That’s the only way it affects the artists themselves by and large, and then you have translators turning all of the lettering work into Arabic. I’m working with an amazing letterer Taylor Esposito. He’s been tackling bringing the Arabic lettering onto the page. It‘s being done in Arabic because literacy is probably the highest in Arabic than any other language among Syrian refugees, but also CYRIC was founded to reverse a trend which was that a number of comics about Syria were being made, but not for Syrian audiences. They were made in English for U.S. or western audiences, and while their intentions were in the right place, I wanted to reverse that trend and send back stories for this population. I include an English language script so people can understand the comics by almost reading it with subtitles, but the final product is entirely in standard Arabic.
You’re wrapping up Kismet in May, today in fact.
It will be online in May and then we’ll be going to print for Boston Comic Con and debut it there in August. Then the question is whether or not to do more. I am already talking with Tyler Chin-Tanner, the editor in chief of A Wave Blue World, about what’s next for Kismet. He’s open to doing more. I want to close out this first storyline, but I’m already seeing what could come next if there’s a response to it. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, it’s a complete story, but there a number of threads that become more apparent right at the end of the story. We’ll see if people want those threads tugged on.
I’ll have to ask A Wave Blue World Editor-in-Chief about the legal niceties of including the old comics or not. But, otherwise, yes, the original short comic that we did for the Broken Frontier Anthology, one we did for Geeked Magazine, and two other never-before-seen vignettes will be appearing in the collected edition. I’m excited for all of these, along with Kismet himself, to see the light of day!