“You can stand there and agonize ’til your agony’s your heaviest load”
I’ve been looking forward to Kismet, Man of Fate for a little bit now, because it’s produced by creators I trust to give us good comics. A. David Lewis, who has written two of the best graphic novels of the 21st century, writes this, while Noel Tuazon, who has drawn, if not quite two of the best comics of the century, some very excellent comics, draws it. Rob Croonenborghs colored the book, while Taylor Esposito lettered it. Finally, it’s published by A Wave Blue World, which consistently puts out fine graphic fiction for your enjoyment and edification (plus, one of their grand poobahs, Tyler Chin-Tanner, is a hell of a nice guy, and I’ve never met the other grand poobah, his wife Wendy, but she seems awesome). So I was pretty keen on picking this up. It costs $19.99, and for that you get a nice big story and some short stories at the end. So there you go.
Before I get into this, we have to discuss Donald Trump. I know, I don’t want to do it, and neither do you, but we must. Trump is not in this book, but he casts his shadow over it – the book is set in 2016 and 2017, so it’s obviously going to be on characters’ minds. I am not a fan of the president. I think he’s incompetent, a bully, lacking empathy, comfortable with his degree of racism (if we agree with Avenue Q that everyone’s somehow racist – I don’t – then there are degrees of it, and Trump seems happy with his level), and not terribly intelligent. I am still stunned that his mocking of a disabled reporter on national television didn’t lead to a wretched defeat, and it makes me sad that it didn’t (he said plenty of things that were just as bad or worse, but because he mimicked the reporter, it felt somehow worse). I don’t think we can completely judge a leader until they are out of office for a while, as so many things leaders do in power don’t pan out until they’ve been gone for a time, but I don’t think history will judge Trump very well, and in real time, I think we can judge many of the things he’s done as simply bad for the country. One thing I don’t think Trump is, though, is evil. “Evil” to me presupposes intelligence – one can be destructive without being intelligent, but evil is a function of intelligence, I think – and I just don’t think Trump is that intelligent. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to be competent enough to be truly evil, nor does he have the attention span for it. So many people compare bad dudes to Hitler, and they’ve done it with Trump, but I don’t think that’s a good comparison at all. Hitler was more intelligent than Trump (I don’t think Hitler was a genius, but he had intelligence, even if he let his ego overrun it), and he was far more focused. I don’t think Trump is all that interested in the extermination of any group of people (which, I admit, is a low bar to clear, but some haven’t cleared it!). What Trump wants, it seems, is for people to love him because he’s in charge. He doesn’t, however, want to do any real work to be in charge – he just thinks being president is enough. As horrible as many despots are, they seem to share a strong work ethic, even if the “work” is toward something terrifying. Trump wants the “benefits” of being the strongman without getting his hands bloody. This leads to him being a buffoon. (To be fair, one of the characters does address this – see below – but it doesn’t seem like the others take her seriously.)
The reason I bring this up is because Trump, as I noted, shadows this book, and I kept feeling like it was a mistake. When Trump got elected, I said I worried about the environmental impact of his election (rightly, as it turns out) and the fact that he has the nuclear codes (something which hasn’t been an issue yet, which is certainly nice for humanity). Everything else, I thought, was too embedded to change too significantly. Trump is obsessed with illegal immigration, but illegal immigration is at a 20-year low because people only come here if there’s opportunity, and Trump is trying to strangle the economy. Trump going on television and saying “I’ve solved the border crisis by turning us into a third-world economy” doesn’t play well, though, so he keeps hyping illegal immigration as a national emergency, which it isn’t. I also wasn’t worried about social changes being rolled back. This is a bit more dicey, because as a straight, white man, I’ve never been subjected to any kinds of prejudice. But despite some of the stories we’ve heard, social progress continues to be made. Why? Because once people have something (like, say, equal rights), it’s very hard to take that away without sending in the jackbooted thugs. Trump and some Republicans might want to take away rights, but they’re finding it very difficult. Any attempt is met with a strong resistance, and any small “victory” for those who want to roll back rights is met with a bigger groundswell of support for the other side, to the point where we now see Congresswomen being sworn in on Korans and bisexual senators using a law book. People keep saying American democracy is fragile, and maybe if Trump declares a national emergency we’ll see that, but I don’t believe it. The reason Hitler comparisons don’t work is because German democracy in 1933 really was fragile. It had been in existence for less than 15 years, and prior to that Germany had been a fairly repressive empire and prior to that Germany hadn’t existed. It was far easier for the Nazis to destroy German democracy than it would be for Trump or anyone to destroy American democracy. I don’t doubt it could be done, but it would be very difficult, and I don’t think Trump is the guy to do it.
As I mentioned, I think the Trump presence in this book is a mistake, because the characters are so terrified of him. He’s not the villain (obviously), but his rhetoric and manner infuse the book, making one of the actual villains a bit more cartoonish in the process. But there’s a danger with making a current president the villain, because after everything is said and done, we do live in a democracy. Trump is trying to wreck the country just because of his bull-in-a-china-shop stupidity, but in the States, we have elections, and they’re scheduled regularly (unlike in parliamentary democracies, where they seem to have them any old time), so we knew 2018 would be a watershed election, and it was. The damage has not been repaired, but in our kind of democracy, there’s always the next election to look forward to, and even Trump hasn’t tried to mess with it too much. I also don’t like the implication in this book that the election was somehow stolen. There’s plenty of evidence that things were a bit wonky in 2016, but nobody can deny that Trump campaigned a lot harder than Clinton and that Clinton took far too many areas of the country for granted. She lost because she didn’t take Trump seriously, even if Russians were involved. The idea of Trump as some super-villain who headed a vast conspiracy is silly, yet this book comes close to implying that. I’m happy that Trump as president isn’t more of a presence, because Lewis is writing about ideology and empathy and tolerance, things that are good to write about no matter who’s running the country, and to peg it to the Trump presidency too much feels like a mistake. But that’s just me.
Anyway, I should stop ranting and write about the actual comic, shouldn’t I? Lewis takes a superhero from the 1940s, one who’s largely regarded as the first Muslim superhero, and uses him in a new story (he’s in the public domain). Early on, there’s a standard supervillain vignette, and it stands in contrast to the rest of the story, as it links Kismet back to his roots but also allows him to move forward. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t love the Trump parallels – the person is a fairly generic supervillain, but Lewis still links the plot to Trump and his politics, which makes Trump even more cartoonish than he already is. Once Kismet moves past that, the “real” “villain” – who’s not that bad, after all – is slowly revealed, and the main theme of the book becomes more evident. With the ascension of Trump, Kismet realizes that he shouldn’t rely on old-school superheroics anymore, because punching out bank robbers (which he later steadfastly refuses to do, to the chagrin of the bank customers and a new “hero” on the block) doesn’t solve the real problems of society. This is where the book is very strong, as Kismet and his friends – many women, most Muslim – try to spread a message of love and tolerance by resisting, sure, but through education and non-violence. The true conflict in the story is whether Kismet can keep his vow and move past the binary paradigm of Hero/Villain and the violence inherent in that model. The new vigilante in Boston thinks that Kismet is betraying his roots, as she thinks beating up on bank robbers is perfectly fine (Kismet could do it, he thinks, but they’re not hurting anyone and everyone’s money is insured, so why antagonize them to the point where innocent people might get hurt?), and the villain of the story believes that the greater good is more important than Kismet’s methods. Lewis gives every person plenty of time to make their points, which is why Lewis is such a smart writer – none of the principals get short shrift, and so we understand where they’re coming from much more than in a regular superhero story.
It’s this that brings me back to Trump. The bad guy in the comic, as I noted, believes in the greater good, and thinks that Kismet has betrayed that. This idea is common in fiction, and it always comes down to “Would I sacrifice one innocent so that millions will live?” Usually, of course, superheroes don’t have to make that choice – it’s presented to them, but they end up having their cake and eating it too – they save the innocent and still manage to stop the bad guy. Lewis doesn’t present the choice that way – it’s a question of whether Kismet’s new methods will bring about the change that society needs, or if it’s better for him to keep doing what he’s doing. It’s a fascinating choice and it’s handled well when the bad guy presents it, because Lewis subtly links Kismet’s origins with today’s world, and it’s why I don’t think Trump is necessary. If our president could form a coherent argument (I’m not convinced he can), he would probably say that much of what he wants to do is for the “greater good.” You can disbelieve him (and I do), but he could make that argument. In Trump’s mind, sacrificing some important things or people so that more people benefit is perfectly fine, because Trump, like a lot of powerful people, doesn’t consider human costs. Lewis doesn’t need to mention the president to make this the central conflict of the book, because even if Trump believes that, he goes about it so comically ineptly that it takes away from that central conflict. The point is, Lewis can make this entire book about Trump without mentioning him at all, because the reader would know exactly what he’s talking about. I apologize for harping so much on it, but it does bug me that the central conflict is handled so well and the peripheral stuff is a bit clichéd. Yes, Trump is horrible, but he’s a symptom. Lewis goes after the cause, and he does it much better than if he does when writing about the symptoms.
The fact that Kismet is Muslim and his two main allies, Rabia and Deena, are Muslim women, is important. It’s not even that Lewis makes a big deal about it, just that they are (that Rabia and Deena are a couple is also important, but Lewis also lets that come out organically). Of course, they use some Arabic phrases occasionally and Deena wears a hijab and she’s shown praying at one point and there’s some funny parts about Kismet’s garish costume (especially his fez), but what’s refreshing about the comic is that Lewis doesn’t make a big deal about the characters’ religion. There’s a tough line for writers to walk when they’re writing about minorities – do they want to make them “mainstream,” which in many cases makes them “white,” or do they want to emphasize their own cultures, even if in many instances the minorities are no more embedded in their own cultures than I am in, say, German culture? Lewis walks that line well, as he certainly never forgets that Kismet and Rabia and Deena are Muslims, but they’re also Americans, as concerned with justice for all as they are with “being Muslim.” Islam is simply part of their lives, but Lewis never forgets that they’re more than religion, even as religion informs their decisions. When Kismet, Deena, and Rabia decide to be more “proactive” in their resistance to Trump, Lewis has set it up nicely so that he never has to mention religion, but we know that it’s coming from their deeply religious feelings. Too often in fiction, religion is something showy, something to be brought out for a moment and then ignored while the characters do whatever the plot needs them to do. In this comic, Lewis spends time building up the characters with Islam as part of the foundation, so when they make moves, it’s not necessary to mention that it’s what “good Muslims” would do, because the reader knows that the characters are acting from a compassionate viewpoint that takes their religion into account. The conflict toward the end, such as it is, comes from someone who is trying to do good things but doesn’t have the foundation the others do. Therefore, it’s a perversion of what Kismet stands for, and Lewis shows this very well.
Tuazon is probably an acquired taste, but he’s always an interesting artist simply because of the roughness of his pencils. A lot of his older art almost looks like an attack on the page (not really in a bad way, but it’s hard to explain), but he’s evolved, and Kismet is an interesting step of that evolution. In other books, he was working in more genre stuff, so his gritty style fit a kind of storytelling model, and his rough hatching placed the art firmly into that genre, whether it was noir or outdoor adventure drama or even a dark family drama. Kismet might look like a superhero epic, and Tuazon does some good fight scenes, both in the present and in 1944 (Lewis flashes back to show how Kismet managed to be around in 1944 and then skip the many decades between World War II and our time), but it’s much more reliant on the way characters relate to each other, and Tuazon’s style might seem to work against him for that. But it doesn’t, for any number of reasons. He gives everyone a distinctive style, from their haircuts to their clothing, so even though they might change clothing, they all still remain in a narrow zone, which is not a criticism, as most people stay within a narrow zone of how they look even when they change clothing. There are a lot of characters in the book, and while Lewis helps out by using names a lot, Tuazon does a good job designing each character with a unique look, so it’s easy to tell them apart. He takes the time to show Deena’s modesty and Rabia’s more extroverted nature, he contrasts Kismet’s trim bulk with Rob’s shaggier largeness, and only one character has stubble, so it’s easy to know who he is even though he disappears from the book for a long time. I can’t be sure, but it seems like Tuazon is going a bit less abstract with this book – in other books he’s drawn, he uses looser lines to suggest things, while in this book, he uses more solid lines to create a sense of place – Boston – and characters. It’s not enough to change his essential style, but everything looks slightly more grounded in this comic than in a lot of other comics by Tuazon, which helps make the characters feel more real. The book is character-driven rather than plot-driven, so that makes sense, and it’s interesting to see the small changes in the way Tuazon draws it. He has never been particularly detailed when drawing faces, and he’s still not overly so, but he’s gotten good at using the facial features he does draw in interesting ways to express emotions, which is what the comic needs. The book is packed, too – Tuazon doesn’t get to use big panels too often, but he’s very good at making sure the book flows well and that we get as much visual information as we need. Croonenborghs’s colors are terrific, too – it’s a bright book, which is nice, but he also uses “unrealistic” colors at clever times, to highlight something unusual happening. He uses what in the old days would be gouache to highlight Kismet’s cape (it’s probably all computers these days, much like in Bill and Ted’s, but it looks like gouache) with nice white lines, and there’s a superb drawing of Kismet late in the book in which Tuazon simply lets Croonenborghs paint in red, highlighting a painful moment for our hero. It’s a nice-looking book, and while I doubt it’s going to raise Tuazon’s profile too much, it’s nice to see him always evolving.
I’ve written a lot about the comic, and a good deal of it in a somewhat negative way, but I don’t want you to think I don’t like it. It’s quite good, as Lewis knows how to write characters that have a lot on their minds and are always trying to figure out the world they inhabit. I think the Trump choice is a bit misguided, but I don’t want to imply that Trump is a major character in the book. His presence hangs over it, but Lewis does a good job making the problems Kismet and the other characters face a bit more universal even as he grounds it in a specific time and place. Meanwhile, the way he subverts the superhero narrative is well done, especially because he does it in a way that doesn’t take the easy path out, and he offers an interesting counterpoint to it that isn’t as evil as we usually see with these kinds of scenarios. It’s a thought-provoking comic, in other words, and that’s always appreciated. Tuazon is a fine collaborator, and the comic is a vibrant look at a community that refuses to back down or take the easy way out, and how we might be able to withstand any kind of evil, even the buffoonish kind. It’s a very fascinating read.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆