Graphic Novelist Joshua Dysart Spotlights the Darkness of Iraq with Living Level-3

[ 0 ] April 14, 2016
Living Level-3, courtesy of Joshua Dysart

Living Level-3, courtesy of Joshua Dysart

Column » Comics & Dialogue: Islam in Graphic Novels

by A. DAVID LEWIS for ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 14, 2015:

A. David Lewis

A. David Lewis

New York Times best-selling graphic novelist Joshua Dysart has written about serial killers, about superheroes, and about the supernatural. Now, with Living Level-3, he brings his talent for dark themes to the real-life humanitarian crisis in Iraq. “Comics & Dialogue” had the opportunity to speak with him about goals of this online graphic novel, its challenges, and the social issues that comics can uniquely address.

In 2008, Dysart revamped DC Comics’s dormant property The Unknown Soldier into a exploration of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda (Vertigo Comics). For research, Dysart himself journeyed to Northern Uganda to experience the setting firsthand. The series, though shortened, was nominated for a comics industry Eisner Award and received two Glyph Awards focusing on black representation and issues in comics.

As with his Unknown Soldier preparations, Dysart accompanied the World Food Programme in December of 2014 to Iraq to witness for himself the refugees’ hardships in fleeing from ISIS/Daesh. The goal, ostensibly, was to inform audiences of the WFP’s work and of refugees’ dire circumstances (including kidnappings, rape, and, of course, hunger). With artist Alberto Ponticelli, Dysart crafted Living Level-3, chronicling the humanitarian crisis through the eyes of fictionalized WFP worker Leila and the refugee Bushar family. The graphic novel, which first debuted in serial form on The Huffington Post, is now complete and available online for free through Amazon subsidiary Comixology.

Unknown-3C&D: What led personally to Living Level-3? In your interview with Nick Robins-Early for The Huffington Post, you discussed how the World Food Programme (WFP) reached out to you, largely on the strength of your Unknown Soldier comics series. But what do these projects respond to you as a writer and as a person?

JD: A slight correction, they (the WFP) were not aware of my Unknown Soldier series until WFP and I were in communication. I like to think that Unknown Soldier helped sell me to them as the guy, but I don’t know…

Now, to your question, my first loves were documentary filmmaking and journalism. When I got into comics I had this constant itch, a need to use my fiction to amplify and contemplate subject matter that interested me instead of just creating escapism (and actually, I don’t believe there is such a thing as escapism; everything we create and consume speaks to and about us). I wanted to be like my favorite creators who place comics at the center of the human conversation, whatever that conversation is at the time, because that’s what I think stories are supposed to do: be delivery mechanisms for the human conversation. And I believe in comics as a viable artistic medium, so just like cinema and novels can have political and social justice elements, so too can comics.

C&D: What effect can a graphic novel like this have, concretely? This isn’t asked skeptically, just pragmatically. Certainly, it raises a reader’s awareness, and perhaps it can be leveraged for educational purposes. Where and how else can such a work be utilized?

JD: I want this to achieve three things, each to some small degree.

  1. I want it to reach across the news and information divide, to find its way into the hands of people who would not normally engage in this kind of subject matter because it generally feels too dense, or too dry, or too distant for them to care.
  2. I want to participate in the migrant crises debate by showing the lives of the people who are part of it. Every single person I talked to in Iraq in December of 2014, every displaced person and refugee, said that they didn’t want to go back to their homes if Da’esh were driven out or the Syrian war ended. They wanted to go to Europe. They wanted stability for their children. They wanted peaceful lives and opportunity. I didn’t realize it then, but those were the same people that, six months later, brought about the massive migration situation in Europe. So I feel our comic, unintentionally, has something to say on that.
  3. And this is a big one: I want the comic, and always want my work to, talk about a deeper human theme than just the details of this one story, or of Iraq, or of the fate of the Yazidi people at the hands of Da’esh. I want to talk about human universality. I want to preach against the idea of the Other. Whenever I do a story like this, the ultimate point is that we are so much more the same than we are different. We love the same. We laugh the same. We want the same things for the people that are in our heart.

My agenda is humanism. It is connectivity and tolerance. And I hope that if I show you the plight of people who may seem exotic to you at first, or different, that the comic will act as an empathy engine to one degree of another. It will make you disregard the cognitive shorthand that allows us to dangerously separate ourselves by ethnic, cultural and social parameters.

Living Level-3, courtesy of Joshua Dysart (click to enlarge)

Living Level-3, courtesy of Joshua Dysart (click to enlarge)

C&D: You write near-exclusively for comics  whether it’s on Buddha with Deepak Chopra , on superheroes for Valiant Entertainment , or on Joseph Kony in Unknown Soldier for Vertigo. What is it about this medium that particularly lends itself, for you, in addressing both fantastic themes alongside real-world concerns? 

JD: I think as a medium we are extremely powerful and do a lot with very little. Comics are visually engaging and graphically arresting. With no motion and no sound, in this ever-increasingly loud and “streaming” world, comics gives the reader complete control over time in a way other mediums don’t. We cross literacy and language barriers almost effortless. We distribute both through analogue methods and high-tech digital methods, our full impact is delivered either way. We are utterly egalitarian. Regardless of your education, cultural aptitude, or form of communication, if you can see… we can transmit information to you in an engaging, entertaining and always surprising way. (Sadly, we are not inherently a medium for the sight impaired – our single “elitist” pose.) We embrace personal artistic style more fluidly than other commercial art forms. And lastly, because we are one of the lesser commercially successful mediums (look up sales on a comic book compared to almost anything else — except maybe, sadly, novels. We are absolutely the underdogs), we have a freedom of creativity you only find when you’re less burdened by the need to generate profit. I think in these ways, we are the perfect story delivery system.

C&D: Living Level-3 takes the viewpoint of several different characters: Leila, the young WFP worker; Khaled and Hakima Bushar, the parents of Naser and Shereen; and so forth. Which character was the most difficult to inhabit? Whose voice challenged you the most?

JD: That’s an interesting question, because there are characters that pose narrative challenges. For instance, Leila practically does nothing the entire story, a regrettable product of limited space. And there are those that pose the kind of challenges I think you’re asking about, challenges of voice and representation. Along those lines, Leila is the mouthpiece for my personal observations, and so she was very easy to write in that regard.

So, if I fully understand the question, I suppose I should answer that the Yazidi characters were the toughest to write, because there are very real representational problems with a Western male like me taking on the voice of a Yazidi Kurd. But the experiences that were relayed to me during the research phase of the project were so detailed and had caused such trauma in their lives, that when it came time to write it all out, their voices rang very clearly in my head. My take on them is surely, obviously, inaccurate in so many ways, which is why this is fiction. But as long as I am being truthful about how they feel and think (and, who knows, but I try), then it’s all right in its way.

A more straightforward answer to your question is that the whole project was really hard for me to write, but it wasn’t necessarily because I found capturing the voices difficult.

Living Level-3, courtesy of Joshua Dysart (click to enlarge)

Living Level-3, courtesy of Joshua Dysart (click to enlarge)

C&D: There’s a particularly striking moment in chapter 4 of Living Level-3 where Naser recounts his time at the hands of Da’esh. He tells his father Khaled how all the captive boys were forced to recite and memorize passages from the Qu’ran, and any mispronunciation brought beatings with it. At the same time, as Khaled listens to his son’s harrowing story, Leila is reminded of her own grandmother peacefully and nurturingly reading Qur’anic passages to him as a child. The contrast is striking. From where did this scene of juxtapositions come? Did you yourself have any hesitancy in invoking a sacred text’s abuse and succor all in the same proverbial breath?

JD: The story of the beatings because of mispronunciations was told to me by the real boy from whom Naser’s story comes. I felt it had to be included. Partly, this is a story about fundamentalism. But it would also be reductionist for us to have that be the only representation of Islam in our book. By compressing those two beats together, I hope to invoke all kinds of complexities, which is what we need to do in these kinds of conversations: Not to oversimplify, but to fully reveal the complications and contradictions at the heart of the conversation.

All faiths have their fundamentalists who claim their actions are in accordance with their Word and their God. And also all faith brings great beauty and truth into believer’s lives. Saying solely one thing or the other is being dishonest in the context of this story, I think.

C&D: What’s next for you in this vein? The Unknown Soldier, Living Level-3, arguably “The Stain” (about experiences in a supposedly haunted lunatic asylum), and even your early break-through Violent Messiahs all trade on disturbing imagery and situations for the sake of a greater message. How are you looking to employ this trademark ‘spotlighting with darkness’ for further social issues?

Joshua Dysart

Joshua Dysart

JD: Oh, that’s nice. It’s nice to hear all of that stuff brought under one thematic roof. (It’s also nice to hear that someone read “The Stain.” Hah.) If the inclusion is going to be that broad, then what I’m doing over at Valiant right now should count as well, I guess. It’s a superhero story (more of a supervillain story, actually) called Imperium; it’s about a group of super-powered bad guys who will stop at nothing to create a global post-scarcity utopian society based on equal opportunity for all human beings. They’re bad guys because, to do this, they have to essentially act against the economic interests of every G-8 economy in the world. It’s as if Superman and the Justice League stopped punching bad guys long enough to disrupt supply and demand, end global arms trading, and redistribute wealth and opportunity to what we call “third-world” nations. Of course every “first-world nation” is against them, and they themselves are pretty flawed too. Sadly, because humanity is both beautiful and mad, the struggle for utopia means war.

So that’s Imperium, and it can get quite dark. But also, there will be another chapter of LL-3 coming very soon. I’m in the middle of preparing for a trip to South Sudan, the world’s newest country, as we speak. Lastly, I’m working on a science fiction graphic novel that is inspired by the industrial revolution’s use of child labor to build a globally toxic society (though if I do it right, it’ll be hard to pull the subtext from the finished book). And that’s it right now.

Thanks for showing interest in all of this!


A. David Lewis is the founding member of Sacred & Sequential, a collective of religious studies and comics studies scholars. He currently teaches at MCPHS University and has previously lectured at Northeastern University, Bentley University, Boston University, Tufts University, Merrimack College, and Georgetown University. He is the co-chair for the American Academy of Religion’s “Death, Dying, and Beyond” Group. His latest book is American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).  He is also co-editor of Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels (Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), co-author of Some New Kind of Slaughter from Archaia Entertainment, and co-editor of Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age (Praeger, 2014), a winner of the Ray and Pat Brown Award for “Best Edited Collection.”  He was nominated for a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award in the Best Scholarly/Academic Work category for American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). You can follow him on Twitter @ADLewis.


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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