Sunday, September 25, 2011

Never Submit: Bosch Fawstin’s Uncompromising Vision

These are interesting days for the intersection of comics and the Clash of Civilizations. The real-life adventures of a former al-Qaida militant have become a popular comic book in Indonesia – the most populous Muslim nation in the world – chronicling his transformation from enemy to ally in the fight against terrorism. DC Comics, the home of Batman, sent him to Paris and replaced sidekick Robin with a French Algerian Muslim known as Nightrunner. “The 99,” a comic book creation out of the Middle East featuring 99 superheroes, each representing a different aspect of Islamic culture, has received the blessing of President Obama and is hooking up with other DC comic heroes as well as becoming an animated TV series.

And then there’s Pigman, the jihadists’ nemesis and the protagonist of Bosch Fawstin’s graphic novel The Infidel, a story of Muslim twin brothers whose lives veer in polar opposite directions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Infidel echoes Fawstin’s own journey from his Albanian Muslim beginnings, to apostate and Ayn Rand devotee.

Fawstin is a cartoonist who scored an Eisner Award nomination – the comics industry equivalent of an Oscar nod – for his debut graphic novel, Table For One. He’s also a FrontPage contributing artist and the author/illustrator of ProPIGanda: Drawing the Line Against Jihad, a collection of images and essays that serve as a companion piece to The Infidel.

Mark Tapson: Tell us about your youth as a Muslim, and why you left Islam and embraced the philosophy of Ayn Rand?

Bosch Fawstin: I was born in the Bronx, New York to Albanian/Muslim immigrants who weren’t very devout. I don’t think they knew much about their own religion, but I’d say we were culturally Muslim in that we adhered to certain prohibitions and traditions of Islam, such as not eating pork, celebrating its holidays, etc. We rarely went to mosque, maybe twice a year to one in Brooklyn where the Arab imam spoke in Arabic and my brothers and male cousins and I more or less aped the sounds and prayer moves he made.

But however lax my Muslim upbringing was, Islamic anti-Semitism & misogyny were almost always present. Fortunately for me I was raised in America, which allowed me to learn how morally corrupt this all was. I can’t claim to be fully conscious about it at the time, but my direct experience in the world made me very suspicious about the Islamic b.s. I was being taught, which led to my naturally phasing out of Islam without much of a hard break being necessary. The only God I ever “knew” was Allah, and the only time I ever invoked him was right before one of the beatings my dad gave me. And after one too many of those, with no help coming my way, the already tenuous belief in God also began to phase out of my life.

But atheism without a moral philosophy is nothing, so discovering Ayn Rand’s work and philosophy in my late teens was the most important thing that could have happened to me at that time in my life. Here was a morality based in reality with a reverence for individualism. And being raised in a culture where women were considered a necessary evil, as only they can deliver male heirs, and where the birth of a girl is something to mourn, I have to admit that the fact that this great writer and philosopher was a woman really surprised me at the time. The existence of this woman and her life-changing philosophy only proved further to me how full of it Islam was.

MT: Describe your early work as an artist and how the 9/11 attacks changed your focus and direction?

BF: The first thing I remember drawing well was a horse when I was 6 and the great reaction I got from my teacher and classmates helped me to focus on drawing more. Then my oldest brother brought home some superhero comic books, and I quickly fell in love with them. That helped focus me on what I wanted to draw when I grew up. I won nearly every art contest I entered from elementary school to high school, but I didn’t end up seriously drawing comics until my late 20’s after a number of years spent making a living as a waiter and going to about a half dozen art classes in New York over the years. My first graphic novel, Table for One, came from my experience in the restaurant business. And it was a day after one of those night classes in NY when 9/11 hit.

For me, as an American, as an artist, there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. Nothing would ever be the same and I knew that I wanted to respond to it with my work, but I also knew that I had a lot to find out about Islam and Jihad before I felt comfortable in writing and drawing a story dealing with it. So I continued working on Table for One, but post-9/11, I added some things in the book that I felt had to be said, as my first commentary about 9/11, mainly on a double-page spread where I allow the New York restaurant customers to talk a bit about it.

After I released Table for One in 2004, I continued my research on all things Islam and Jihad and began to put together a story that fit me like a glove. My first thought after the attacks was to create a Captain America story where he takes on Jihad, until I stopped cold and realized that Marvel Comics would never allow that story to be told the way I was going to tell it, so then I stepped back and started thinking about the enemy and what he fears. That’s where Pigman came from. Pigman is an ex-Muslim, Frank Warner, who was fighting Islam and Jihad in the battlefield of ideas for a number of years before 9/11 as a writer through his books. After the attacks, seeing how gutless and ineffective Washington’s response to the atrocity was, he decides to take the war into his own hands. Exploiting the enemy’s “pigotry,” he dresses up in pigskin leather and ruthlessly puts down the mad dog jihadists wherever he finds them.

But however cathartic the character and his actions were for me, I still felt I needed more to say about this post-9/11 world, particularly about the growing Islamic correctness that really took hold after the attacks with the anti-reality check of our time, “Islam means peace.” From that came my decision to have twin stories being told within a graphic novel I would end up calling The Infidel. It’s a story about twin brothers of Albanian/Muslim background who have diametrically opposite reactions to 9/11. One of them, Killian Duke, leaves Islam and creates the Pigman comic book and the other, Salaam Duka, fully submits to Islam. And their conflict is super-echoed by Pigman’s battle against his former friend and now arch-enemy, SuperJihad. This story has allowed me to say all that I’ve wanted to say about this post-9/11 world in the best way I can say it, through comics.

MT: What do you hope to accomplish with Pigman, the jihadists’ worst nightmare?

BF: I think it’s important that we see this enemy pay for what they’ve done, pay in a way that they fully deserve to, and pay on the page in clear visual form, at the hands of one who fully understands the enemy and speaks their language. There’s value in that, for me personally, and I think for readers, to show what should happen to those who plan and execute the mass murder of innocent human beings. War is ugly and so is Pigman. Some have told me that they wish Pigman was more heroic and attractive as superheroes ought to be, but my thinking is that Pigman was born from the horror of 9/11, and that this enemy deserves nothing less and nothing more than Pigman. They deserve a hero who will do whatever it takes to end their threat, however ugly a form that takes. The effectiveness of our real life soldiers in this war has been crippled because of the moral vanity of politicians who are calling the shots. We would win this war if our soldiers were allowed to fight it, and so Pigman for me is a way to show how to fight this enemy without any hamstrings.

MT: How is the clash of Islam and the West treated in the world of comics and graphic novels? Do you see the same kind of cultural appeasement in that arena as one can see from, say, Hollywood? And are we underestimating the cultural impact that comics have?

BF: Comics have been as truthless and as gutless as any corner of pop culture about Islam and Jihad since 9/11. The first thing comics at large did after 9/11 was to have benefit books that mourned our loss without ever mentioning who was responsible for it. There was even one comic book writer who chose to come out as a pacifist after the attacks and who vowed to glorify Islam in some form in his future comics. From what little I’ve seen, his attempts to do just that were pathetic.

And now this month, September 2011, is the month that a number of comic books dealing with 9/11 are coming out. There’s a “Truther” comic book coming out called “The Big Lie”; what an appropriate description of the book. Then there’s what appears to be an ode to Islam titled “Habibi,” written and drawn by one who actually said about the book that it’s “more out of shame of being American than any attack on Islamic society.” And this is someone who claims to have read the Koran, which should make him ashamed of being an Islamophile. And then there’s a comic about the killing of Osama bin Laden titled “Code Word: Geronimo,” which I imagine is a pretty straightforward take on the scumbag’s comeuppance, without any mention of his ideology. And finally, there’s Frank Miller’s Holy Terror, originally a Batman vs. al Qaeda story, which appears to take on the enemy in a more direct way than we’ve seen in comics so far, outside of my own work. I’m curious to see what kind of effect Miller’s book will have, if it will inspire more work that takes on this enemy.

MT: You were invited to appear on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” to discuss Batman’s Muslim sidekick in DC Comics. Tell us about your experience in the lion’s den of the left-leaning media.

BF: I knew I’d be taking a chance going on, since they’d have the power make me look like they wanted me to look, but it was truly an offer I couldn’t refuse, due to my inability to get any traction for my book from agents, editors or publishers over the years. Even those who showed interest cited Muslim reprisal as their reason for not taking it on. About my first contact with “The Daily Show, when I realized that the producer who emailed me was actually who he said he was, I went through two long conversations with two different producers about my work and why I do it. It was my critical essay/cartoon about the “Muslim Batman” that caught their attention, and I think in particular it was the one line that I had at the end of the piece where I wrote, “If you’re as sick and tired of this Islamicrap as I am, then check out my graphic novel.” My “interviewer,” the “Liberal Muslim” Aasif Mandvi, initiated a back-and-forth on my word “Islamicrap” which was funny, but which they ended up cutting. Since my appearance on the show, I’ve interested an agent in taking it on, which is just one concrete way that justified my being on.

(For a look at Fawstin’s appearance on “The Daily Show,” along with his account of the entire three-hour shoot, go here.)

MT: Tell us about some of your many stand-alone works like the cover of David Horowitz’s book A Point in Time, or one of my personal favorites, your poster in support of Geert Wilders and free speech. What’s your process from inspiration to finished work, and what would you say the major themes of your work are?  

BF: I was honored to have David Horowitz commission me to illustrate an idea that he had for the cover of his new book, with the understanding that the publisher might not end up using it. After a number of attempts to get his idea visualized – three stakes backed by a wall, to have a cold look about it, all in gray, white and black. As he told me, the centerpiece of the book is the description of Dostoevsky’s mock execution by firing squad and the illustration was to cover that. I’m happy to say that his publisher did end up using my illustration for the cover.

On my “I’m Geert Wilders!” piece (I’ve done two other drawings of him since): He’s the only Western politician who is completely honest about the threat we face with Islam, so I wanted to honor that and stand up for him like in that scene in Spartacus.

About my work, in a way I think I really write and draw about things that make my blood boil, whether against evil or in support of those who are fighting evil. These days, my main targets are Islam and Obama and how destructive they are to the world. And because Obama was raised Muslim and is as uncritical about it as can be, sometimes my counter-attack on one of these targets ends up being a counter-attack on both.

Superhero comic books have always been about the battle between good vs. evil, but sometimes, especially these days, comic book villains really can’t compete with the evil running wild in the world at the moment, so for the foreseeable future, I’ll keep going after the real world villains.
(This article first appeared at FrontPage Mag here, 9/26/11)