A. David Lewis is a scholar of religion, literature, and comics studies. He has published graphic novels and several academic works that explore convergence of religion and comic books. His latest academic project is Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. Wanting to learn more about his career and his most recent project, I was able to interview Lewis for Sequart.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some of your favorite comic book titles and characters? Are there any that you are still a fan of?
A. David Lewis: I originally got hooked on all the licensed Marvel stuff: G.I. Joe, Transformers, and some of their Star Comics line. Eventually, I got interested in the original Secret Wars, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, and Uncanny X-Men; in fact, “The Fall of the Mutants” storyline was likely what introduced me to the vast Marvel continuity. I was drawn to Spider-Man, Wolverine, and (as I grew interested in DC) Batman, these superheroes with distinct emotional and psychological lives. As a grown man and a father, Tom King and Gabriele Walta’s Vision series resonated with me greatly, and, unlike some other critics, I’m fascinated by what DC’s attempting with the Doomsday Clock series.
Yanes: As you developed as a scholar, when did you realize you wanted to explore comics?
Lewis: Even in college, I knew that my studies were going to be atypical; I was always more interested in multidisplinary topics, in stuff like hypertext or abnormal psychology, than the more straightforward Humanities topics. I figured the world had enough Shakespeare experts or Milton researchers. Of course, it was only once one of those very Shakespeare/Milton experts gave me the license to write my Midsummer Night’s Dream term paper on the Sandman adaptation of the play that Comics Studies really opened up for me. Though I compiled what you might call a traditional toolbox of literary theory throughout my Master’s degree program and a solid background in religious studies for my doctorate, it was this early taste of Comics Studies that continually drew me back.
Yanes: On this note, what are your thoughts on the current state of comics studies? Are there any areas you feel could be improved upon?
Lewis: I’m especially pleased with the state of things at present, since I think we’ve seen some impressive advancement and development over the past decade, all with very limited concessions. As I mentioned, I was once quite interested in hypertext and digital narrative, but my experience of that field was that it peaked too early; unlike the medium it was evaluating, it became rigid and constrained very quickly. I’m much more pleased to see Comics Studies developing more like Film Studies, more organically and more on its own terms. Some people are looking for the rise of Comics Studies departments and majors as ‘proof’ of the field’s maturation, but I don’t necessarily wish that. We’re past the “wild west” stage, I think, but still in a nicely open and flexible period.
Yanes: In addition to scholarly publications, you also develop original graphic novels. How do you feel this creative activity has helped you grow as an academic?
Lewis: Creating comics helps me to remember the thought, the labor, and the obstacles that go into any product scholars might study and examine. Like many people, my entry text into Comics Studies was Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and much of what made his book feel so legitimate and so grounded was the fact that McCloud was both theorist and creator. This isn’t to suggest I have either Scott’s skills or his insight, but working in comics helps sensitize me to working on comics. Also, it helps to keep me from burning out or becoming too myopic, I think.
Yanes: You recently edited and contributed to the book, Muslim Superheroes – Comics, Islam, and Representation. What was the inspiration for this project?
Lewis: Prior to Muslim Superheroes and my own American Comic, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife, I co-edited another collection entitled Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. And, while I’m quite proud of the work that we all did on Graven Images, it did not afford adequate space to Islam overall nor Muslim characters in the superhero genre specifically. Only later, in conjunction with Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies (CMES), I was able to take a deeper dive into such representations, and it left me feeling like there was so much more to be said! Add to that the notable uptick in Muslim characters appearing in superhero comics over the past 10-20 years, and it felt like this work was well merited.
Yanes: Was there any information about Muslims and comic books that you learned that took you by surprise?
Lewis: I was surprised how many Muslim superheroes there have been in the mainstream U.S. superhero comics — only to be similarly disappointed by how many were quickly killed off or used as tokens. While Muslim Superheroes tends to focus on the most notable and high-profile examples, my research unearthed a lot of “cannon fodder,” Muslim characters created only to be sacrificed, “one and done.” Their expendability struck me, both in terms of how casual it was and what that might say about either the creative teams or their readership. For every Ms. Marvel or Nightrunner, there’s a Batal, a Damascus, a Veil whose story potential was cut very short.
Yanes: What are some ways you think comic book creators can improve the representation of Muslims?
Lewis: Research! Again, this might be the scholar in me talking, but I would expect a writer creating, say, a character with artificial intelligence to go out and read up on AI. Or, a series about a Jewish martial artist in Chicago should require study of all that character’s elements: her faith, her discipline, her geography, etc. If there’s any problem that has plagued the superhero industry overall, it’s been its insular nature — some writers knowing only superheroes and feeling no need to reader beyond superheroes. While I genuinely appreciate continuity and superhero history experts like Mark Waid or Kurt Busiek, what makes their works and the works of other creators of high quality is the incorporation of other fields of knowledge. This is only all the more true of Islam’s depiction and the dimensions of Muslim characters.
Yanes: Reflecting on this project, how should academics analyze the representation of Muslims in popular culture? Are there any clear guidelines you could recommend?
Lewis: Recently, there was an article about how office workers, men in particular, should interact with their peers. The basic advice was, in addressing female workmates, to treat them like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; if one wouldn’t feel comfortable saying or doing something to The Rock, then one shouldn’t do it at all. I’d apply a similar logic here: analysis of or sensitivity to Muslim characters in popular culture should be done with the same deftness as if it were representations of Christians, of Caucasians, or of “normal” Americans. If the lens being used would not be suitable for these groups, then it isn’t for Muslims, either.
Yanes: When people finish reading Muslim Superheroes – Comics, Islam, and Representation, what do you hope that they take away from it?
Lewis: Rather than any one message, I hope they take away the enormity of the content we’re just beginning to tap into. The book was never meant as a final word but, as my co-editor Martin Lund and I like to say, as a starting point. Hopefully, Muslim Superheroes will compel even deeper, richer scholarship — coming from perspectives and fields we could not have even imagined!
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?
Lewis: Much of my time outside the classroom these days is split between writing scripts for Kismet, Man of Fate with publisher A Wave Blue World and preparing adaptations of Syrian folklore for my non-profit organization Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective (CYRIC). In 2018, however, I hope finally to dive into my next academic manuscript, this time looking at the peculiarly potent depictions of cancer battles in the comic book medium (tentatively titled Cancer and Comic Books).