The Common Wealth: An Interview with Kumail Rizvi

Comics readers have so many great options for reading comics these days: from webcomics to crowdfunded anthologies to all sort of small press comics shows, it’s safe to say that making and reading comics hasn’t been this accessible in a very long time, if ever. However, here at POME, we’ve long wished for a stronger resurgence of one our favorite formats — the comics magazine. So, we were extremely excited when we found out about BUN&TEA, a brand-new project by Claire Napier, former editor at Women Write About Comics.

BUN&TEA is a monthly magazine which will contain a single chapter of twelve different stories. While the stories are serialized, each chapter is designed to stand on its own, even as it forms part of a larger complete narrative arc. Complete with an adorable MC, Bunton Cuppasham, BUN&TEA carries on a long tradition of comics magazines hosting an exciting variety of creators. At the same time, it fills a niche in the English-language comics landscape that has felt too empty for too long.

BUN&TEA’s adorable host, Bunton Cuppasham

We were fortunate enough to speak with Kumail Rizvi, who is creating The Common Wealth for BUN&TEA, the story of master thief who puts together a heist team for the richest man in Pakistan in exchange for his freedom. Rizvi is best known for his webcomic Kahlil, which re-tells the story of Superman as a Kryptonian refugee who lands in Karachi instead of Kansas. In the interview below, we talk about making the jump from webcomics to short serials, crime fiction, and more!

A chat with Kumail Rizvi about his new comic for BUN&TEA, The Common Wealth.

Ashley Gallagher: Your webcomic Kahlil has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for telling the story of Superman from a whole new perspective. Can you tell us a little about how you got into making comics generally, and what brought you to BUN&TEA, telling this particular story?

Kumail Rizvi:  Around the time I was finishing my undergrad, a friend and I were talking about one of the recent drone strikes in Pakistan, and I offhandedly said something like: if Superman was Pakistani, that just wouldn’t happen. That idea stuck around and after graduation, during my evenings, I wrote Kahlil. As I continued to work on Kahlil over the last 3 years, I started filling a folder of other ideas I’d want to get to one day, one of which was The Common Wealth.

Claire had said some very nice things to say about Kahlil, and when she asked if anyone had any interest in telling an original serialised story, I immediately volunteered. We had a discussion about various ideas I had, and The Common Wealth jumped out as suiting the faster, compressed style she was aiming for. I think she described it as, “Everybody loves crime, and especially crime for JUSTICE,” which may as well be the tagline for the comic.

Cover for Kahlil

AG: Webcomics tend to be a very long form format, which requires working over a long stretch of time. How is working on Kahlil different from something more compact and structured like BUN&TEA?

KR: With Kahlil, I wrote the entire script before figuring out how long it’d actually become. I had no idea how to write comics really, so I thought I’d let the story dictate how long things should be. And early chapter page counts went something like 20,16,12,18 until I eventually figured out how long to make those scripts.

With The Common Wealth, we decided early on that every chapter was always going to be 3 pages. So the storytelling is a lot more compressed, which is an entirely new way for me to work. Kahlil was decompressed, often using no more than 4-5 panels per page. For comparison, The Common Wealth has a 17 panel page. It moves a lot quicker, and I wrote for that speed, which I think fits for a heist story.

AG: The Common Wealth is a really exciting story about a master thief. Can you tell us a bit about switching from working on a character like Kahlil, who is a beacon of hope, to a character who makes a living on crime? In what ways are they similar or different?

KR: Kahlil’s history and part of his character has some of me in it. Not the Superman part so much; his experience of growing up in Karachi is similar to my own. And the Superman side to the character is, I think, a political take, insofar as a brown, Muslim, Pakistani Superman would be a political symbol to the world.

Qasim is different. He cares about doing his job (stealing things) well, and the people close to him. The greater world doesn’t concern him so much. And so while there’s definitely a political angle to The Common Wealth insofar as what they’re stealing is political, I’m not sure that is what motivates Qasim.

Also they’re both Pakistani, which is great.

Page from Kahlil

AG: Crime has a rich genre history in comics as well as other mass media, like film and pulp novels. Are there any big sources of inspiration you’re drawing from for this story?

KR: I saw Ocean’s Eleven for the first time when I was eleven I think? I’ve seen it a dozen more times since, I truly love that movie. So that vibe, the sheer confidence of that film, the idiosyncrasies of the Eleven, the complexity and impossibility of the job ahead of them, and the charm of Clooney, is always what I’m thinking about when writing the comic.

I’m usually thinking about the charm of Clooney anyways.

AG: There’s a really interesting dynamic going on in your story, where you’re arguably telling the stories of more than one kind of “thief.” There’s the man who is in prison for stealing, and then there’s also the British Empire, who have committed mass theft on a scale no one person could pull off. And then, you also have a mega-rich billionaire who hires people to do his stealing for him (perhaps in more than one way). Is there anything you think these figures have in common? Any major differences?

KR: I think there’s a certain brazenness and confidence to the types of theft they’re all wanting to commit. The British Empire plundered India, amongst other places, because they could. The billionaire wants the only thing he cannot buy, for bureaucratic reasons as much as – even he couldn’t afford it. And while justice is one of the motivating factors for Qasim in his job, ultimately he thinks this one last impossible job will grant him freedom. So ultimately what separates those characters is what motivates them to steal.

AG: I’m really excited to see how this story plays out! What do you hope readers will enjoy most about The Common Wealth?

KR: Thanks! The thing I’ve always loved most out of comics are the character interactions and dialogue. I worked hard to get that right, and I think people are going to enjoy it. It’s going to be fast-paced and a lot of fun. I know I’ve enjoyed making it.

BUN&TEA will be launching a Kickstarter for its first season very soon! Keep an eye out — we’ll be sure to tell you more as the launch unfolds! In the meantime, you can read Kumail Rizvi’s Kahlil here, and you can find him online on Twitter and Instagram!

Ashley Gallagher

Ashley Gallagher

Ashley writes comics and emails from zir burrow in the Pacific Northwest. Ze is a sentient subtropical swamp fern whose favorite food is old words.
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