What if Superman landed in Karachi instead of Kansas? What if the infant Kal-El became Kahlil? That is the story of the webcomic Kahlil by Kumail Rizvi.
Originally launched in October 2015 and now spanning over 100 pages, Kahlil tells the story of the Kryptonian orphan landing on Earth just a few hours later than he did in DC Comics, landing in the farmlands of Pakistan instead of Middle America. Kal-El, now Kahlil, is raised very differently than Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s stories – but in a way, fights the same struggles.
From being raised in Pakistan, Rizvi’s Superman is raised Muslim – but that’s not what the story is about, and neither was Shuster and Siegel’s Jewish overtones. Instead it illustrates the timeless and location-less nature of the Superman story as a world myth, as exposed by a London architect moonlighting as a cartoonist and dealing with the modern world outside his window.
Newsarama: Kumail, where did the idea come from to repurpose Superman's origin in this way?
Kumail Rizvi: A couple years back, during my final year at university, I remember seeing this report done by a group of independent journalists covering every U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, and the numbers of civilians and specifically children killed in those attacks, and it was staggering and sad. I made an off-hand comment to a friend saying something like, “If Superman was Pakistani that just wouldn’t happen.” That idea stuck around in my head and evolved and eventually became Kahlil a couple years later.
Nrama: So who is your Superman then?
Rizvi: A boy crash lands outside of Karachi, Pakistan. He’s taken in by a kindly couple. He has a sister. He grows up Muslim, brown and Pakistani, in a world that doesn’t like him very much - even if he weren’t an alien with strange powers. He’s still Superman and he still wants to do the right thing. But this Superman lives in a world with drone warfare, sectarian violence, and terrorism. This first arc is him getting to grips with that world.
Nrama: What influenced you in terms of crafting the story after you had set up the concept?
Rizvi: So I was always taught to show and not tell so I try and do that wherever possible and I’ve always thought a show like The Leftovers was incredible at that, not that I’m saying Kahlil has much in common with The Leftovers. I think Brian Michael Bendis was probably an influence on how I wanted to decompress the storytelling at times and really let moments take their time when it needed to. I really enjoyed Lost and its flashback structure, to inform the present day plot and the motivation of the characters and I think that’s evident in Kahlil. Islamic mythology was also something I looked into a lot and you might be able to read some of those stories into Kahlil too.
The other thing I thought about was Breaking Bad. Andy Greenwald described the plot of the show as a chemical reaction. Everything was cause and effect. I tried to think about the plot of Kahlil the same way. If Kal-el lands on Earth slightly later, then he lands in Pakistan. If he’s adopted by Pakistani parents, then he’s probably raised Muslim. He’s going to live in a certain context and be exposed to a version of reality young Clark Kent never was. That will inform the kind of Superman he is, etc. etc.
Nrama: Superman's early stories dealt with crime and politics, and so does Kahlil. Why did you want to use the character to delve into these issues?
Rizvi: Symbols matter. They carry weight, history and meaning. Superman’s symbol literally means hope (has that been retconned? I’m not even sure). It means more to say that Superman could just as easily be African, Arab, Indonesian, Chinese, or even Pakistani. He’d still Superman. He’s a universal idea which means he doesn’t have to be limited to being a Kansas farmboy fighting Doomsday in Metropolis.
I remember reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods and he talks in there about how superheroes come and go from the culture, but they’re always there when people needed them. Superman came up after the Great Depression, Captain America during World War II, he disappeared and then came out of the ice right after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Superheroes are there when you need them. And it sure seems like I could do with a Pakistani Superman.
Nrama: In this, there's no Ma and Pa Kent, but there's a sister - Kara. Where did she come from, in your mind?
Rizvi: I mean in the first chapter, Maryam and Javed Khan are the parents who discover and decide to take in Kahlil, so in that sense, I think there is a Ma and Pa Kent. He just calls them Ammi and Abu. Kara is the Khans' biological child and older sister to Kahlil. I decided to bring that idea in to the fold because I never liked that Kal-el was the last son of Krypton except for Kara. And also Zod. And Also these 14 other Kryptonians we’ve never met or mentioned till now. Superman stories deal with being an orphan, an adopted son, etc. but in the 75+ year history of the comics he’s also had a Super family. Which I’ve always liked too. I wanted to talk about those ideas and family and I thought giving Kahlil a sister would lead to interesting stories to tell in that regard.
Nrama: So far you've done over 100 pages online. How far do you have this story mapped out?
Rizvi: The script I wrote was 13 chapters which would complete this volume/story/arc, however you’d like to describe it. Though I’ve written an outline for three more volumes/stories/arcs that would be the entire story, finished, the end.
Nrama: And do you have any plans to do a print edition?
Rizvi: People ask me for it, so I would love to do that and will definitely look into it.
Nrama: Have you talked to anyone at DC about co-opting Superman like this?
Rizvi: “Co-opt” sounds so negative to me. I think of it like Adaptation? And I’ve not, no, if someone at DC wants to talk to me about it, I’d love that. I don’t really make money off of this - it was just a story I really wanted to tell. It allowed me to grow as a writer and an artist and people seem to like it so I’m very grateful for that. I hope I get to keep making it. I love Superman, and there are people reading Kahlil who’ve not read a comic before, telling me they like it and are going to keep reading. Maybe they’ll love Superman too.