Kumail Rizvi was an architecture student in his final year of college at the University of Brighton when he read a report by a group of independent investigative journalists about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
“The numbers were just astounding to me, especially the number of civilian deaths, and as a sub-percentage of that, the number of children that were killed,” Rizvi said in an interview with Muftah. “It was all really terrible and sad and made me angry. And I just mentioned to my friends – I’ve been a fan of comic books since I was a kid – and I just said offhandedly, ‘Man, you know if Superman was Pakistani, that would not happen.’”
And thus was born Kahlil, Rizvi’s Superman-inspired web comic that imagines what would have happened if Superman landed in Karachi instead of Kansas.
The British-born Rizvi drew upon his experience living in Pakistan, his parents’ homeland, for three years as a child, a profound respect for comic books as a storytelling medium, and a sharp political consciousness to make the character and story of Kahlil come alive. The comic, which launched in October 2015, is available to read online for free, and there are five issues thus far – the fifth issue was released this week, on September 1st.
Kahlil makes a political statement from its very inception. Issue 01, “Not in Kansas Anymore,” begins in the White House, where the President of the United States is asking his team of advisors why drone operations in Pakistan are failing. They produce a photo of a flying man destroying a drone mid-air.
We are then taken back to the origin story – one most Superman fans will be familiar with, albeit a slightly altered version. A man is reading and smoking in his truck in an empty field when a spacecraft crashes into the earth. The man, Javed, finds a baby boy among the debris and takes him home. Javed’s wife, Maryam, is excited to adopt the child, as the couple, who have an older daughter, Kara, had recently learned they could not have a second child of their own.
They name the child Kahlil, after Maryam’s favorite poet, Kahlil Gibran. The name is also a play on Kal-El – the original Superman’s alien name on the planet Krypton.
A review of the comic by Blerds Online makes the case for why this particular retelling of the Superman story is so remarkable:
There have been countless retellings with various twist[s]. Superman is found in Russia. Superman is found in Germany and fights the Nazi party. Superman is a Nazi. The stories continue over and over again. Sometimes an Asian Superman will appear or a black Superman and it’s made clear that they are not “THE” Superman. “THE” Superman is always a white guy. He’s always the first Superman. That is something that has never changed, until now.
Recently Kumail Rizvi released the first chapter in a 13 part series called Kahlil. Kahlil is a retelling of the classic Superman story. However, instead of Kansas the spaceship lands in Southern Pakistan. Instead of being an only child, he has an older sister. Instead of being a Christian, he’s a Muslim. Kahlil as a man is the opposite of Clark Kent in every way.
Subsequent issues of the comic flesh out Kahlil’s character, explore his discovery of his powers, and provide brief glimpses into his relationship with his sister and social exclusion at school, where he is considered an outcast and “freak.”
Drawing on his architectural background, Rizvi reveals a preoccupation with Karachi’s urban landscape in the comic series, which includes beautifully intricate maps of the city that give readers a sense of the space and world that Kahlil inhabits.
The comic is very much informed by this geographical setting, and is firmly grounded in a cultural, religious, and political milieu that may be foreign to Western audiences. Readers get a brief lesson in the political history of Pakistan, as well as its religious makeup, which includes minority Christian and Baha’i communities alongside a Muslim majority. But, as Rizvi told Muftah, he did not create the comic with a particular audience in mind:
I wrote the story that I thought would be a very interesting one. And if someone had misconceptions about Pakistan or how that extrapolates to the Muslim world at large, then hopefully the comic would help a little in showing that we’re not what a lot of Western media might present us to be. But I didn’t necessarily think that this is for those people, to convince them of something else. Nor did I think it was all for Pakistani kids who would see a Pakistani superhero and think that would be amazing, though I hope that is the case. So, I’m not sure I had a specific audience in mind when I wrote it.
The resulting work is one that pushes readers to envision a different kind of superhero, at a time when brown and Muslim men are more often vilified than revered. And, like the original Superman story, which alludes to Christian mythology and symbolism (Superman is a Christ-like savior son sent from the heavens to save the people of earth), Kahlil’s story references Islamic themes and imagery.
“The story starts small and grows more political, dealing with terrorism, drone warfare, the relationship between Islam and the West. I’ve also rooted the story in Islamic mythology in some ways too. Through all that I’ve tried to hold on to the core idea of Superman, and I hope that comes through,” Rizvi told Buzzfeed.
For a story with so much substance, there is much to be said for what it leaves unsaid. In the first few issues, especially, Kahlil relies more on artwork than on dialogue to bring the story to life. His artistic style is simple and unpretentious, avoiding harsh colors and lines in favor of softer watercolors and a subtle but captivating use of light and shadow.
“I was always taught to show and not tell. So I always try to do that wherever possible,” Rizvi told Muftah. “I didn’t want to handhold the reader so much, and in fact, if they’re slightly confused about some things, I don’t really mind that too much, because hopefully they can figure it out after awhile.”
Kahlil is a refreshing and radical re-imagining of a timeless story of heroism and sacrifice, set in an important political moment. At a time when xenophobia and intolerance have become the new normal in so many places around the world, and black/brown/immigrant/Muslim youth are increasingly Otherized, marginalized, and maligned, we could all use a hero like Kahlil.
You can also buy prints, t-shirts, posters, etc. designed by Kumail Rizvi at his online store Hazaaro.