When friendly neighborhood grad student A. David Lewis isn’t pursuing a degree in comic books, he’s concocting nasty stories for his own not-so-funny pages.
Homicide is defined as the murder of one
person by another…
Suicide is defined as killing yourself…
Homicide or suicide…
Which would it be, I wonder?
“You don’t look like Baby Huey
You don’t expect A. David Lewis—writer, scholar, fanboy—to be so earnest, so polite, so gosh-darn chipper. He is, after all, the same disturbed soul who nightmared up “Disembodiment,” the illustrated tale of a woman who inhabits the body of the man who raped her. If she kills him, she kills herself as well. The story is a lotta things—alarming, unsettling, Freaky Friday updated by Stephen King—but chipper ain’t one of them.
“Why did you say Baby Huey?”
But you really don’t expect A. David Lewis to correct a playfully mocking description of yourself in the middle of a busy comic-book store. You made this self-deprecating comment over the phone for recognizing purposes only—and now it’s gone horribly, horribly wrong. Lewis isn’t being mean; he’s just being really, really…sweet.
Customers and employees guffaw. One guy actually runs out of the store laughing. “Baby Huey!” someone shrieks.
And the thing is, A. David Lewis isn’t done with catching you completely off-guard. Not even close.
Once a week, Lewis makes the short pilgrimage on his bike—his “trusty steed,” as he says—to Beyond Comics in Georgetown. This stocky, sweet-faced grad student already has some 8,000 comic books taking over his nearby home, and yet he needs more. Always more.
Lewis tornadoes through the crowded, cramped shop—an explosion of kaboom! colors illuminating the exploits of the Incredible Hulk and Daredevil and the Watchmen—like a man who knows exactly what he wants and exactly where to get it.
“My girlfriend has decided that this is the only vice I’m allowed to have,” he says, his eyes darting here, there. “I can smoke, drink, or buy comics. I figure this is the best for my health, and the least expensive.”
He pauses and smiles: “But not
Behind Lewis, at the top of a black rotating rack, are crisp, clean copies of Mortal Coils, the Twilight Zone-meets-Creepshow comic he writes and finances. This past August, Lewis printed 1,000 copies of Mortal Coils No. 1 through Red Eye Press, an independent publishing company run by some friends in California. In two months, he’s sold 300 copies at $2.50 a pop.
“That’s a really good rate,” he says.
That Mortal Coils can be found on Beyond Comics’ first floor is a big deal, too, because the second floor, Lewis whispers, is “where indies go to die.” The shop’s doomed upstairs titles include VIP, based on Pamela Anderson’s boobtacular TV show, and The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius by Judd Winnick, that preening schmo from MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco.
“They started me downstairs,” Lewis says, spinning the black rack and sounding relieved. “They’re nice guys.”
Surrounded by the caped crusaders and sneering villains that he knows better than anyone, Lewis is usually calmed by his sojourn to Beyond Comics. This place inspires him, centers him, takes his mind off his nagging day job as a coordinator in the admissions office at Georgetown’s School of Nursing & Health Studies.
But this is no ordinary visit to the store, because this is no ordinary week. Lewis takes a big breath and reveals that he is, in fact:
1. turning 25 in a matter of hours,
2. coming off a weekend bout of
3. preparing the release of Mortal Coils No. 2,
4. scripting Mortal Coils No. 3, and, the big one,
5. prepping for a 90-minute oral exam that will decide the rest of his life.
This test to end all tests—for nothing less than his master’s degree in English literature from Georgetown University—will occur in a matter of days. He’ll be fielding questions about what he calls “comic-book theory.”
Lewis, who grew up in Framingham, Mass., with a father, mother, and brother, “started reading comics around the age of 12 and never really stopped. I thought I was going to get into theater studies, acting, or dramaturgy.”
As an undergrad at Brandeis University (where he received a double degree in English and psychology), he took a class in which a professor “used the movie Total Recall to explain iambic pentameter. I thought this was great! So I went out on a limb…and used Neil Gaiman’s [graphic novel] Sandman to explain Shakespeare. My teacher loved it, so I decided to take it even further.
“For my senior independent project, I wrote 100 pages’ worth of literary analysis called ‘The Nightmare and the Dream: A Literary Survey of Watchmen and Sandman.’ I got an A, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how all the things I’d been taught in psychology and English applied to this thing I was enjoying daily. And I started finding that there were others out there just like me.”
There are, he notes, about 100 other comic-book scholars just like him in the United States.
“I was pretty balls-out about it when I applied here,” adds Lewis, who did a brief post-college stint as a copywriter at a Boston ad firm before heading south for D.C. “For most English departments, contemporary means James Joyce, which totally infuriates me. I believe comic books should be [in the] accepted canon.
“Fortunately,” he grins, “Georgetown liked eccentricity.”
If they can defeat me, their own creator, they
can grow to transcend any human…
I’m so proud…
They will vindicate me in the eyes of my naysayers…
They put their father in checkmate.
Even so…I win.
“Like the third nipple ripped off a toddler!”
Lewis exclaims this altogether alarming non sequitur at exactly the same time a waiter at Clyde’s stops by for an innocent water refill. The waiter shoots us a worried glance and leaves immediately. Very odd dinner conversation is officially under way.
“The third nipple ripped off a toddler!” Lewis repeats happily, as if this statement makes all the sense in the world. “Something like that is one of the little details that bothers you that your mind came up with….The devil is in the details, almost literally. It’s in the details where I surprise myself.”
Right: Toddler nipples freak him out; rapists and maniacs aren’t so bad. Lewis isn’t too worried about how and why he conjured “Disembodiment” and Mortal Coils No. 1’s other nasty tale, “Deeper Blue,” about a mad scientist who takes great pleasure in being chased—and getting caught—by killer robots.
In between bites of a hamburger—”That’s a boring order, isn’t it?” he worries—Lewis attempts to convince that he’s not twisted in the slightest.
“I’m pretty well-adjusted,” he says. “I just get interesting thoughts. I’m not a morbid guy at all. The good parts of life, the important parts, are defined by the bad parts.
“Although,” he admits, “I was worried about showing ‘Disembodiment’ to my mom.”
At first glance, Mortal Coils may appear to be standard comic-book fare. The art is influenced by Jack Kirby’s seminal pencil wizardry for such Marvel Comics staples as
Captain America and the Fantastic Four. There are cool sound effects: “Krysh!” “Fffashh!” “Shrrakk!” And, of course, there’s a smattering of chicks with killer bods, a requisite in this horny, guycentric biz.
But Lewis also weaves his work with quotes from Shakespeare, Foucault, and Seneca the Younger (look it up). Happy endings are for Archie and Jughead. And in Lewis’ shadow-strewn world, evil is personified by characters significantly more nuanced than Doctor Octopus.
“The theme of the book is the title,” he says. “The body and death—whether it’s the gendered body, whether it’s the artificial body, whether it’s body vs. the mind. I want to entertain the reader[s] on one level and have them think on another level.”
For instance, in “Disembodiment,” the heroine’s name is Angela Christi. “You could translate that as Angel of Christ,” he says. “I’m Jewish, so let’s keep this in mind. Fallen angel, reborn angel. That comes into interpretation. [The rapist] Todd Yazbek, I think he performed a horrible act that he can’t repent from. But I think that even average people can perform horrible acts. I want people to condemn rape. It’s horrible. But this guy still has a family. He still has people who care about him. I don’t want this to be a good guy/bad guy thing.”
“My stories are optimistic in a dark world,” Lewis explains. “Is it horribly tragic that [the scientist in ‘Deeper Blue’] is this misled? Or is it wonderful that he gets to die with a smile on his face?”
Lewis says that the stories in Mortal Coils No. 3 won’t be as gloomy…well, at least not to him. “I don’t know if the first story is depressing or hopeful,” he says. “It sorta walks a line. But the other one is probably hopeful.
“Well,” he adds, “hopeful in a very dark world.”
The brave Clyde’s waiter comes back for an offer of another Coke, but Lewis waves him off: “If I have any more caffeine, I’ll be biking home on my hands.”
Indeed: If Lewis gets pumped up talking about the intricacies of Mortal Coils, he all but rocket-boosts outta his sneaks talking about his curious academic pursuit.
“I treat a comic book like it’s a literary work,” he says. “What would you do with Moby Dick? You would discuss different literary theories and how they are present in Moby Dick. I discuss how these literary theories are present in Batman.
“I analyze how comic books convey information, how they communicate uniquely, as opposed to a movie or a book. What does the mind do when it looks at a panel? I look at the elements of a comic book. The same thing a linguist does with language…I discuss comics in terms of narrative theory and reader response and narratology….
“What I’m proving with this oral exam is that I understand theory”—he puffs out his chest—”so well that I can apply it anywhere, that I can do anything with it.”
For his exam—to be graded by hand-picked professors (psst: it’s a lock)—Lewis will dissect Watchmen by Alan Moore, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, Maus by Art Spiegelman, and Planetary by Warren Ellis. “I’m only mentioning the writers,” he apologizes. “I keep on forgetting the artists, but, hey, that’s sorta my thing.”
Lewis has tried his hand at sketching before, “but I’m no good,” he admits. “I’d have to take some serious, serious classes. Often, my scripts are asking for things that my hand could never pull off.”
That’s just as well, seeing as how Lewis doesn’t have much time for drawing anyway. Recently, he contributed an autobiographical story to 9-11: Emergency Relief, a collection of stories put together by independent comic-book writers and artists to raise money for the Red Cross. And he scripted the eighth issue of Valentine, a bang-bang comic about a curvaceous female assassin created by Red Eye Press Editor in Chief Dan Cooney.
After he gets his degree, Lewis will start work on an academic book tentatively titled Superheroes: Portrayals of Death. And he thinks Mortal Coils could “easily be a television show,” so he’s started talking to production studios.
He also has an idea for another comic series to follow Mortal Coils: “I came up with a superhero series that actually talks about the last day in a superhero universe,” he says. “They fight a villain and they lose. Each issue is the last day of this planet told from another perspective, told from another hero.”
“If there were a pre-existing character I could sink my teeth into, it would definitely be Captain America,” he notes. “Because I think he’s one of the most represented and least understood characters pretty much ever. The difficulty is, he’s supposed to be an icon and a hero and a man at once. Very few writers can focus or juggle all three and focus on all three. A very specific vision of America comes across with each writer, and I rarely agree with those visions of America. He is the peak of human ability; he’s just short of superhuman. He’s like supergymnast, super-martial artist, supertactician—just basically the most a man can inspire to be. And yet he’s humble and down-to-earth—and yet an embodiment of the American ideal.
“He’s a wonderful walking contradiction,” adds Lewis.
Yep, Captain America would be perfect for him. CP