A David Lewis discusses Comics Studies, Muslims in Pop Culture, and the graphic novel “Kismet, Man of Fate”

"...we are at a moment like no other in American history, and Kismet, if nothing else, is encouraging readers to pick a side and stand their ground. My hope is that they choose a side that opposes bigotry, that supports of equality, and looks for justice to be done..."

I last interviewed A. David Lewis about his co-edited collection Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. Since then, Lewis has published the graphic novel Kismet, Man of Fate. The character Kismet was first published in 1944 but fell into the public domain. Lewis discovered Kismet – who is considered the first Muslim superhero – and decided to revitalize the character for a contemporary audience. Wanting to learn more about Lewis’s career and his work on Kismet, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Lewis by checking out his homepage and following him on Twitter at @adlewis.

 

Nicholas Yanes: Last time I talked to you, we discussed Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. How has life been for you since?

Professor A. David Lewis: For me personally, life has been fine; for the United States, it’s been rather disastrous. As we wrote and planned Muslim Superheroes, the idea that Donald Trump would be President was an outlandish idea. Yet, as it came into print, so did his administration. In some sense, I’m pleased by the resiliency that aspects of our country have demonstrated fiercely, from the fourth estate to grassroots activism. Just because it hasn’t yet impacted my privileged bubble of a life doesn’t mean that this Republican-led executive branch isn’t doing real harm to others: naturalized citizens, immigrants, refugees, victims of sexual assault, LGBTQ allies, early education recipients, etcetera.  I already see the actions and decisions taking place during this Presidency as having terrible long-term impacts on the world and my children’s future.

Bleak, eh?

Yanes: Given that I last interviewed at the beginning of 2018, was there any scholarship on comic books that caught your eye in 2018?

Lewis: There has been some really good stuff out there this year. Ongoing endeavors like The Comics Grid or Inks continue to highlight excellent scholarship; I was particularly impressed by the recent Inks piece by Dale Jacobs and Jay Dolmage on portraying disabilities (e.g. deafness) in Hawkeye. Also, I was particularly proud to be part of Comics and Sacred Texts edited by Ken Koltun-Fromm and Assaf Gamzou. But, if I’m allowed to cheat somewhat, the best thing I read in 2018 came out in December of 2017, namely Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere. Not only is Hillary a sensational scholar and good soul, but her book covers so much ground so deftly, particularly my two research interests of Religion & Comics as well as Graphic Medicine.

Yanes: You have decided to revive and tell new stories with Kismet, Man of Fate – who is a character from the Golden Age of Comics. What was it about Kismet that captured your imagination?

Lewis: His nobility. I mean, the superhero genre, particularly at this early stage in its evolution, wasn’t known for finesse or nuance during the Golden Age. These were usually boldly and roughly realized characters, going for more effect than sophistication. Yet, here’s Kismet, already the first of a kind in being overtly Muslim in this genre, being a combination of self-assured, intelligent, witty, moral, and focused. And so, so different. I immediately wanted to know more about his backstory, his last days in the war, and his legacy. When I found none of those existed and he had been left to obscurity, I had to provide those things for myself.

Yanes: You recently published “Boston Strong”, which is the first volume of a new Kismet, Man of Fate series. What was the inspiration for this specific story?

Lewis: The original inspiration for the story was the local response to the Boston Marathon Bombing; that is the event that truly pushed me ahead with wanting to do something with the character, I think. Shortly thereafter was when Ms. Marvel debuted, and I had been working briefly with the Huffington Post on Muslim superheroes at the time, too. I found that I had something I wanted to say that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Moreover, an Algerian Muslim World War II commando for France wasn’t exactly going to match anyone’s biography, so displacing him in time and bringing him to the present didn’t feel like culturally appropriating the character.

Even though it was the Marathon that inspired me to adopt the character — first for The Broken Frontier Anthology and then for my own series of short comics, collected in this volume, too — the uptick in Islamophobia and my own discovery of activism convinced me to go for a long-form story. Tyler Chin-Tanner at A Wave Blue World was presenting the opportunity to do more with Kismet, and I had the remarkable artistic team of Noel Tuazon, Rob Croonenborghs, and Taylor Esposito at the ready. (Kel Nuttal, incidentally, had been the original letterer.) Things lined up in such a way that, no, I won’t call it fate or kismet…but it was certainly fortunate. Kismet was what I could contribute creatively in an attempt, at first, to offset bigotry and, then later, oppose the election of Trump.

Yanes: While adapting Kismet for contemporary readers, what changes – if any – did you have to make to the concept?

Lewis: I think I had to add a little humanity to him, a little humility. It wasn’t so much that he was cocky, because, really, a principle of Islam is to accept that everything occurs according to God’s will: inshallah. But he was remarkably self-assured, and that limited how much suspense or danger the reader felt during any of his adventures.

The big things I had to introduce was his 70-year absence, his consignment to what the story calls “side-space.” I’ve been very up front in interviews and other discussions of the book that, basically, I pulled a Captain America: I made Kismet a man out of time. A difference, though, was that Kismet was aware of all his time away (or, at least, most of it). Tied for unknown reasons to the East coast of the United States, he witnessed the years pass, politics change, trends come and go; as a silver lining to his outside state, he could learn languages, experience popular culture, and come to terms with any outmoded ideas. So, when I popped him back into the present, Kismet wasn’t as disoriented as Steve Rogers. Living more of his existence outside of reality than within it, Kismet would come to understand himself differently from the wartime agent he once was.

 

Yanes: As one of the few Muslim characters in comic books, how do you hope Kismet influences future depictions of Muslims?

Lewis: See, here is where I have to differentiate between Kismet the character and Kismet the book. That is, solely as a character, I don’t know how much influence Kismet can have. He’s such a wonderful oddity that I cannot be sure he’s relatable to the general reader. Hopefully, he’s compelling, entertaining, and interesting, sure. But he alone is unlikely to alter one’s views on Islam.

On the other hand, I’m hoping that Kismet the book and its strong cast of supporting characters, many of whom are Muslim, do have an effect on readers. Namely, I’m trying to show variety — of piety, of Muslimness, of demeanor, of overall humanity. Very intentionally, Kismet is not the only Muslim in this book, so his is not the only understanding (or misunderstanding) of Islam to which the reader is exposed.

I have a sign on my office wall, There are 1.6 billion ways to be Muslim. It’s from a grass-roots initiative that I found to be wonderful: #waystobemuslim. It took a long time for me personally to learn about the wide diversity of Islam and even longer to accept myself as a part of it. If anything, I’m hoping that Kismet, the character or the overall series, contributes to that.

Yanes: When people finish reading Kismet, Man of Fate Vol. 1: Boston Strong, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

Lewis: I want them to take away three things, essentially. First, I would want them to recognize where they are in the current political climate. I do not believe in violence as an answer, I fully support the democratic process, and I urge people, whenever possible, to abide by our system of law and justice. However, we are at a moment like no other in American history, and Kismet, if nothing else, is encouraging readers to pick a side and stand their ground. My hope is that they choose a side that opposes bigotry, that supports of equality, and looks for justice to be done. I’m not deluded enough, though, to think my comic book is doing to sway their views; instead, I’m urging everyone, particularly the neutral or undecided, to examine their views and speak out for them.

Second, on another level, I want them to see how much is still possible. In the story, Kismet has a moment where, though he gives up being a vigilante, he acknowledges the role superheroes play in inspiring us. They’re a useful fiction, he says, particularly if they can cause positive real-life action. So, this is the one thread to the superhero genre that I’ve left open to Kismet: as much as I want people to take action, I want them also to believe that all is not lost. We can still, not just in spite of our differences but through the power of them, come together.

And, third, on a selfish level, I want readers to want more! There is so much mythos I have envisioned for Kismet and the wider cast that would have been incoherent if I tried jamming it into one volume. I’m hoping audiences are tantalized to want to learn more through future volumes.

Yanes: There is something about Kismet that seems very friendly for cosplayers. Do you have any suggestions for people who would like to cosplay as Kismet?

Lewis: Oh, that’s an awesome idea, I love it! Truly, I would adore seeing Kismet cosplayers.

The outfit is fairly simple: gloves, boots, tan pants (preferably jodhpurs), a billowing semi-translucent green cape, and a yellow fez with a red V in the center. Additional stitching on the gloves and boots along with a multicolored cloth belt around the midsection — like a cummerbund — would make it extra authentic.

The only major adaptations that Noel and I made to Kismet’s costume in the modern day was the inclusion of a form-fitting black shirt and, sometimes, a peacoat atop that and the cape. Also, we scaled back the stitching on the gloves and boots, I believe, almost entirely losing the belt.

Finally, the cosplayer who wants to go the extra mile would have modern-day Kismet’s cape attach directly to the skin across their back. A bit of spirit gum or some creative liquid latex would do the trick, I think!

Can I get a genderbent Kismet? Kismets of all different ethnicities? Steampunk Kismet? A baby Kismet? Send me photos, and I’ll send back personalized treats!

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Lewis: I’ve been producing more work in Graphic Medicine recently, and I’m at the early stages of a manuscript on cancer’s portrayal in comic books. From The Death of Captain Marvel to Our Cancer Year to Stitches to Deadpool, it is one of the most recurrent examples of Graphic Medicine in mainstream and independent works.

Additionally, my nonproft organization Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective (CYRIC) has taken up a good amount of my focus, especially as I work with artists and translators in creating free comics for Syrian refugee children from their own folklore. Fortunately, we should have a large wave of those books going overseas in early 2019, I’m pleased to report.

Finally, I can’t help myself from doing some research for another full-length Kismet storyline. After the New Year, I’ll decide with AWBW how soon we’re moving ahead but, from ancient Arabia to colonial New England to Occupy Wall Street to Michael Cohen’s sentencing, I have a lot in mind for Volume 2 — and beyond!

Remember, you can learn more about Lewis by checking out his homepage and following him on Twitter at @adlewis.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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