Comics scholar and graphic novel author A. David Lewis recently spoke with Muftah about Haawiyat, his comic book for Syrian refugee children. Lewis’s second ongoing project is the new Kismet, Man of Fate series, which is being released weekly on A Wave Blue World and will be published in a print edition in 2018.
Kismet, who made his first appearance in the brief Bomber Comics series in 1944, was the first fully and thoughtfully rendered Muslim superhero. As a French-Algerian, he is one of many heroes who fought the Nazis during the Golden Age of comic books. He used his powers to aid partisans fighting against the Vichy regime in southern France and was even shown landing a punch on Hitler in a promotional image.
Muftah spoke to Lewis about his unique interest in graphic novels and religion, the origins of Kismet, and the character’s new adventures in contemporary Boston.
Muftah (M): Let’s go back to the very beginning. When did you first become interested in the intersections of religion and graphic novels? Why did you decide to focus your attention on Muslims and Islam in the genre?
David Lewis (ADL): I didn’t consciously focus my attention on comics and religion until at least the tail-end of college, and maybe not even until I started my graduate school work at Georgetown University. Of course, it was percolating all along, from my Hebrew School days back in my hometown to using my weekly allowance to prune the convenience store spinner rack. By the time I began my doctorate at Boston University, not only had my scholarly ambitions come to focus directly on this intersection, but my creative pursuits as well. I self-published both a dark, mythic suspense series entitled Mortal Coils and a short run of what would later be compiled as the Lone and Level Sands graphic novel. Lone and Level Sands (LaLS) considers the Exodus story from the perspective of the Egyptian royal family. Among the numerous other sacred texts I consulted for LaLS, the Qur’an proved to be a remarkable resource for unfamiliar viewpoints on Abrahamic lore. It became a central voice in my follow-up to LaLS, titled Some New Kind of Slaughter, with artist mpMann. It was a book compiling flood myths from all around the world.
What I kept noticing — and was, initially, just as guilty of — was that in both scholarship on comics and religion or comics featuring religious content, Islam was absent from the whole conversation. Particularly in the superhero genre, stray Muslim characters might surface here or there, but it was all far, far from satisfying. And, in English at least, very few people were writing on the topic before, say, 2004. Especially after the publication of Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels which I co-edited, the absence was clearer to me than ever before. So, due to a growing personal interest in Islam and some educating at BU, I was eager to take it on.
M: How did you first encounter the character of Kismet?
ADL: Kismet came out of that dive into the scholarship [for Graven Images], really. I was looking into depictions of religion across comic books. The history of the superhero genre was especially relevant. When it came to the roster of Muslim superheroes, I was already familiar with a few. It was roughly 2007, so. Ms. Marvel hadn’t debuted yet nor had Green Lantern Simon Baz, but Marvel had just revamped their Arabian Knight character and DC Comics had premiered an intriguing superheroine named the Janissary a few years earlier.
I felt compelled to figure out who the first Muslim superhero was, and, after some digging, I found Kismet. There had been plenty of Arab characters in comics prior to him, but they either were not explicitly Muslim or they were not overtly superheroes.
Kismet first appeared in Bomber Comics #1 and was a featured character in each of the four issues in that short-lived series. Very much a man of mystery, Kismet’s story included very little information on his background or origin, save for being an Algerian Muslim and fighting for a free France, against Nazis, femme fatales, and even devils. In addition to gymnastics and fisticuffs, Kismet had a knack for knowing how a situation would unfold – he had limited precognition, in other words. Though his real name was never revealed, Kismet was dubbed “the man of fate.” After Bomber Comics ended abruptly after issue #4, the character never appeared again
M: For those of us who haven’t had the chance to read your series on Kismet, can you fill us in on the details?
AD: I first wrote about Kismet in a story for the successful Broken Frontier Anthology Kickstarter project. It was also my first chance to work with artist Noel Tuazon and colorist Rob Croonenborghs. (The lettering was handled by Kel Nuttal before we shifted to Ghost Glyph Studios.) In my short comic for the anthology, we provided Kismet’s ‘final’ story, in which he mysteriously vanishes.
In the Broken Frontier Anthology, Kismet discovers his French handler and mentor, Lamond Lamont, had turned traitor, and was forced to bring the Frenchman to justice. After Kismet had foreseen Lamont falling to his death, he changed his mind about turning his mentor in and made it his more immediate priority just to save the Lamont. The Frenchman would, however, rather have died than see the war end. As he struggled to free himself from Kismet’s grip, he fell to his death. Though Kismet had only delayed Lamont’s death by a few dozen seconds, the superhero became overcome by unseen forces as a result of his interference with destiny – the first time he had done such a thing. As a result, Kismet vanished for seventy years (until the start of this new series).
While I have yet to reveal the full circumstances of his return — they’ll be detailed in the print edition for Kismet: Man of Fate — he ‘slipped’ outside reality. Only after the Boston Marathon bombing was he able to physically rematerialize by trading places with the mild-mannered urban planner Qadar Hussein. The online series picks up a few months after Qadar has figured out how to live with this double identity, as Kismet is also beginning to gain fame in local media. He has become a street-level vigilante, not unlike Daredevil, defending the innocent in Boston and opposing its criminal element.
M: You characterize Kismet as the first truly Muslim super hero. Were there religiously ambiguous characters that came before him? Were there other Muslim superheroes created between Kismet and the modern crop (Dust, Ms. Mavel, and others like them)?
ADL: There were certainly Arab caricatures in comics before Kismet, and there were plenty of villainous “Mohammadeans” and lethal “whirling dervishes” and the like. What struck me about Kismet, even in his quaint 1944 adventures, is that he was imbued with some nobility. He was smart, brave, and dashing. Best yet, his “Muslim-ness” wasn’t overblown; his faith seemed to just be part of his character, not some overwhelming trait. I saw a lot to like in Kismet that, frankly, I found lacking in a number of Muslim superhero depictions over the years, especially with the way Dust from the X-Men comics has been handled at times. In as much as a lovely and loving job has been done with developing the character of Ms. Marvel and, to a lesser degree, Simon Baz or Batman’s ally Nightrunner, many Muslim superhero characters are figuratively two dimensional. Many of them are “one and done” characters, like Damascus from Stormwatch or Batal from New Warriors, who debut and die in the same issue!
M: What did you learn about the origin of the character while researching this project? Do we know why the creators choose a Muslim Algerian as their vehicle for fighting Nazis?
ADL: Ah, that remains something of a mystery! What I’ve pieced together so far is that the Gilberton Company, the publishers of the Bomber Comics series in which Kismet appeared, had broken off just a few years earlier from Eliott Publishing Company. Eliott had made a name for itself with its Classics Comics. With the United States then fully committed to World War II, upstart Gilberton wanted to cash in on the “masked men” craze, so they contracted Eisner & Iger to create a book full of various characters for them. Kismet was one of the characters they developed. I suspect they went with an Algerian Muslim because it was an original concept. In all likelihood, they went looking for an “exotic” character whom they could place behind enemy lines in France’Better a Muslim than a Nazi!’ was probably the bottom-line thinking here.
Kismet’s four adventures in the Bomber Comics are credited to an author named “Omar Tahan,” a relatively obvious pen name given what we know of Iger’s teams and of industry practices at the time. The most compelling theory I have read about Omar’s own “secret identity” is that he was likely a she — Ruth Roche. Several other Eisner-Iger stories attributed to her bear a similar writing style and approach. Frankly, I love the idea that, even though Ruth was a native of Massachusetts and not a Muslim, she might have written Kismet, with some sympathy because she occupied an “outsider” status within the comic book industry.
M: Why reboot an old Muslim superhero, which in its previous iteration embodied some problematic stereotypes, like antiquated gender roles. Why didn’t you just create your own from scratch?
ADL: That’s a very good question. I think it has something to do with the fact I’m a convert to Islam rather than being born into the faith. I also still maintain a relatively secular lifestyle despite wholeheartedly embracing Islam’s theology. I’ve always been more orthodoxic than orthopraxic, and compelled to relate to the spiritual in my own life on my own terms. I’m not suggesting that’s laudable or even right. But it is and has been my honest, wholehearted approach to such things, during my Jewish childhood, my agnostic adolescence, and my adulthood as a Muslim.
As odd as this sounds, I felt Kismet was my kindred spirit. Here was a person who fit only awkwardly into his superheroic environment, who showed signs of promise despite limited opportunity, and who had been nearly wiped from the history of the medium. Working through the problematic stereotypes, finding a revised place for him in comics, and giving him a new mission spoke to me personally. While the current series is fully fictional, there’s an autobiographical fingerprint on it. I brought the character into the present day, placed him in Boston, and am squaring him off against the realities of Trump World — in all these ways, he and I are now aligned, so to speak.
M: What influenced your decision to set the new adventures of Kismet in modern-day Boston, and not in his original context of Nazi-occupied southern France?
ADL: “Write what you know,” I suppose. I’ve seen WWII superhero comics done extraordinarily well, and the best of them have been grounded in the history and politics of the time. Though I love doing research for my comics (I really do), situating Kismet in Nazi Germany was out of my depth. I had grown up just outside of Boston but only slowly became aware of the city’s racial history late in my life. Even so, after several years away living and working in Washington DC, I came back to Boston more enamored with it than ever. Staging the series here combines my familiarity with the city and its mixed history with confronting modern-day hostilities right in my backyard. Massachusetts is a deep blue state, and yet I still see bigotry against minorities and hatred against Others even here. Again, it shouldn’t surprise me, given Boston’s darker past, but I felt this history was something that the story needed to confront first before I had the chutzpah to expand it further.
Also, just as an aside, I wanted to give Boston its own superhero! Everyone else is in New York or Metropolis or Gotham. I felt I was giving Kismet a home and giving my home a hero.
M: Kismet is an extremely political character- he doesn’t just fight bad guys, but a certain type of bad guy, both in his original and current forms. Is he unusual in this sense among superheroes both in the golden age of comics and now?
ADL: Well, he isn’t unusual circa 1944. The most notable (and profitable) superhero titles of that era had characters staunchly set against the Axis — and, in many cases, taking that position too far, with Superman suggesting readers “slap a Jap,” for example. Fortunately, Kismet was never quite that extreme, but, yes, he was fashioned to oppose the Nazis and the influence of the Third Reich.
In that sense, I felt he was particularly suited for superheroics in the modern day, especially as personalities like Pam Geller or Richard Spenser move ever more into the public spotlight. Persecution is un-American (thus my distaste for the anti-Japanese rhetoric of yesteryear), and calling for opposition against any one race or religion goes entirely against our national principles. In this sense, Kismet is well-suited for our times: a character who has always operated on principle, no matter how out of place or how alien he might seem.
My enthusiasm for Kismet has only grown in the past few years, especially with the Trump presidential campaign’s inflammatory and Islamophobic language, the rise of Steve Bannon to the White House, and the surge in hate crimes nationwide. As a character, Kismet never had that extremist edge even back in WWII when he potentially could have, so I feel confident positioning him against Islamophobia and fascism- as well as suicide bombings, honor killings, and terror campaigns. In a sense, I’m writing the sort of Muslim I wish I could be.
M: Have you experienced any Islamophobic push-back to the new series or fans dissatisfied with its political bent?
ADL: Heh, not yet, not that I know of. But, to tell you the truth, I feel as though once I do it’ll be a sign I’m moving in exactly the right direction with Kismet.