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First Muslim superhero returns after 70 years, just in time to take down a few Nazis

An illustration from the new graphic novel “Kismet, Man of Fate,” by A. David Lewis. Image courtesy of A Wave Blue World

SOMERVILLE, Mass. (RNS) – In 1944, the world met Kismet, an Algerian superhero who fought against fascists in southern France while wearing a yellow fez.

He punched Nazis, foiled Hitler’s plans and came to the aid of civilians in need.

“The conquered people of Europe carry on their ceaseless struggle against the forces of tyranny,” reads the introduction to one of his adventures from Elliot Publications. “And fighting by their side, lending the power of his great mind and the force of his mighty fists, is Kismet, Man of Fate.”

After four issues, however, Kismet disappeared and was forgotten.

Seven decades later, Kismet is making a comeback in a new graphic novel from author A. David Lewis. The story drops Kismet in Boston as the city heals from the aftermath of 2013’s Boston Marathon bombing.

Lewis said that Kismet deserved a fresh start.

“He was basically abandoned to the public domain,” Lewis told Religion News Service in an interview at the comic store Comicazi, where he was signing books for fans just a few miles north of Boston. “That saddened me because there was this strange nobility about his character that felt anachronistic.”

Kismet is a reboot of what appears to be the first identified Muslim superhero character published in English.

Most Muslims in the Golden Age of comics were written as flat, one-dimensional characters, or in sloppy ways that fed into stereotypes and conflated Arabs and Muslims, said Lewis.

But, he said, Kismet was given some level of dignity.

“And I saw the potential in that,” Lewis said.

Other Muslim superheroes have suffered a similar fate as Kismet. In 2000, D.C. introduced a Turkish character named Janissary whose last appearance was in 2007. Marvel character Monet St. Croix debuted in 1994 but wasn’t identified as a Muslim character until 2011. In 1995, Marvel introduced Syrian superhero Batal and immediately killed him off.

Rebooting Kismet felt like an opportunity to do better.

Author A. David Lewis signs his new graphic novel, “Kismet, Man of Fate,” at Comicazi comic store north of Boston on Dec. 4, 2018. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

Lewis rattled off a list of common tropes about Muslim characters he hoped to avoid with his character: the “noble savage” who is uncorrupted by modern civilization; the mystical Muslim superhero; the docile Muslim woman; the perishable “cannon fodder”; and, more broadly, Muslim characters being carelessly boiled down to a nebulous racial and religious mass.

For Lewis, writing a Muslim superhero was also an opportunity to address the connection between superhuman ability and cosmology. Do the powers to, say, fly or manipulate fire come from God?

An illustration from the new graphic novel, “Kismet, Man of Fate,” by A. David Lewis. Image courtesy of A Wave Blue World

Those questions appeal to Lewis, who has a doctorate in religion and literature. Lewis, the author of “American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife,”  has spent years grappling with the connection between theology and comics.

He points to the Quranic story of the prophet Yusuf, which parallels the Old Testament’s Joseph. When Joseph was trapped in the Pharaoh’s prison, he despaired, said Lewis.

“But when Yusuf was trapped, he kept it together because he had faith in God’s will,” Lewis said. “That’s the sort of strength that I give to Kismet.”

The original Kismet had no special superpowers; he fought using just his hands and what the character says is “the freedom given to me by Allah and the Prophet.”

That’s true in Lewis’ version of the character as well.

“He doesn’t ultimately save the day because he’s the strongest or is the better hero,” Lewis said. “He wins because he has faith.”

Lewis grew up in a Jewish family in nearby Framingham, Mass., and converted to Islam 12 years ago. He initially saw Kismet’s story as a way to address the issue of Islamophobia. But by the time he began working the Kismet graphic novel for his publisher, A Wave Blue World, another thread of Kismet’s story seemed just as timely: the threat of domestic fascism and a new white supremacy movement.

While his hero punches Nazis in comics, Lewis tries to imbue the story with a more complicated perspective. When a video of a hooded protester punching white nationalist leader Richard Spencer in the face went viral early last year, Lewis was not on board. He even wrote an article for ComicsBeat.com saying as much: “We cannot already be at our last resort, namely violence,” he argued in January 2017. “I’m not waiting until the eleventh hour, but the Doomsday Clock still has a goodly number of ticks left in it.”

But after watching Spencer lead a crowd of neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Va., with torches a few month later, he reflected on the Quranic guidance in favor of self-defense. “And then I realized that we were there,” he said. “Then I realized it’s time to hit back.”

Lewis, who also produces free comics for Syrian refugee children as head of the nonprofit Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective, is clear that Kismet’s return is not a call for violence. “This is just saying that it’s time to pick a side.”

The new graphic novel isn’t the first time that Lewis has written stories about Kismet, whom he first discovered while doing his academic research. Lewis published two short stories with the character in 2015 and 2016 after a crowdfunding campaign. A Wave Blue World then commissioned him to produce a recurring web series with Kismet last year, before asking for a full-length graphic novel.

The new Kismet universe, set in Boston, incorporates American Muslim history – the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, the enslaved African Muslims, the fact that the United States’ first-ever treaty was with Muslim-majority Tripoli – and Boston’s local Muslim landscape into the lore of Kismet’s story.

A Wave Blue World’s publisher, Tyler Chin-Tanner, said the time is right for Kismet’s story.

“Comics have always had a strong link to politics and world events, going back to their roots during World War II,” he said. “And if you take a look at what’s going on in the world around us today, this is no time to ignore the lessons history has taught us.”

There are signs that a Muslim superhero comic can be successful. G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, alter ego of fictional Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, has been a breakout success. (Award-winning Muslim writer Saladin Ahmed will take over the Ms. Marvel series, which originally launched in 2014, with the upcoming release of “The Magnificent Ms. Marvel.”)

An illustration from the new graphic novel “Kismet, Man of Fate,” by A. David Lewis. Image courtesy of A Wave Blue World

But Lewis does not want Kismet to be “just” a Muslim superhero, nor does he want him to be a banner for Islam in any way, he told Columbia University students last month on a panel moderated by professor of Islamic studies Hussein Rashid.

Lewis drew on the sparse details of the original storyline to flesh out Kismet’s character and back story, giving him a real name, occupation, hometown, family and his own crises of faith: Khalil Qisma, a jail guard from Algiers with a wife and children, who says he prays “when he can” and wonders about his moral and religious imperatives to fight for justice. And then by setting up multiple Muslim characters who all have unique voices, backgrounds and expressions of faith, he was able to show degrees of Muslim religiosity, he said.

“It was important to show that Muslim identity is multivalent as well as expressed in so many different ways,” Lewis said. “And I’m not capturing them all, but I hope that I’m opening the door wider to all of these experiences.”

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, focuses on Muslims in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

23 Comments

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  • It’s probably very hard to produce a comic hero who is designed to showcase either a religion or an ethnic identify while deliberately downplaying any characteristics that have ever been included in stereotyping about the religion or ethnic identity.

  • Boo! Who is interested in Muslim superhero? Who’s gonna read that I’ll tell you who won’t. Muslims won’t, just as they hate Khamala Khan. And where all this nonsense about diversity comes in US, and UK?

  • People who enjoy the story will. Publishers are looking to make money. If no ininowas reading the comic then they wouldn’t ask for more. Obviously they are selling.

    As a Muslim I feel I could relate to thus character and his struggles and flaws. I’ll read it.

  • Yeah, I’d like to see how gays are thrown off the roof or stoned to death .And that women are seen as lower on totem pole. Why Ms Marvel is hated by the Muslims? Their money certainly didn’t enter in publishers pocket. Not a single plot can be done right, if particular character is proponent to his views and thru his creator.

  • Its been done rather recently.
    From the article but buried:

    “G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, alter ego of fictional Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, has been a breakout success. (Award-winning Muslim writer Saladin Ahmed will take over the Ms. Marvel series, which originally launched in 2014, with the upcoming release of “The Magnificent Ms. Marvel.”)”

  • Yeah, Marvel is known by keeping their sale charts clean .and evidently, that article is hilarious. Soon i see Sana Amanat name, a person that ruined Marvel.

  • “many Marvel’s muslim community”. Oh, boy… It’ll be interesting to see how Captain Marvel movie will do, critically or commercially. Considering the male actress total dumb look. Not every movie is Wonder Woman

  • Brie Larson is adorbs, plus the last Avengers film has left an audience hungry for content and primed. Which means at worst decent box office but not record setting.

  • Adorbs? Don’t make me laugh. With that wooden face with no emotions whatsover? Yes I’ve seen the trailer. And really, how many people are looking for Captain Marvel film.?

  • My libido has strange and varied tastes. I do not question it! (It explains why I have 2 seasons of Victoria on my DVR)

    ” how many people are looking for Captain Marvel film.?”

    I am guessing more than Thor 2 Dark World, but less than the Tom Holland Spider-Man sequel would be my best estimate.

  • We would have to see that sequel, but Thor 2 turned to be quite decent and good film. In fact, I expect Captain Marvel to perform just a bit below Thor 2. In best case. In worst…

  • Marvel and DC tend not to delve too deep into the nuts and bolts of any religion.
    Probably what will happen is we may see this character praying in a mosque but not delving too deep into any of the tenants of Islam.
    Wonder if they will have interruptions such as call to prayer in interesting locations, such as a dark warehouse, holding off the attack on the crooks below –its an ambush so the character can set up the prayer rug bow, to Mecca then once finished, commence the attack.

  • Why wouldn’t Muhammad be depicted? The century and city are irrelevant. Does art not exist in this comic world? Could there not be an historical painting in the background?

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