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Picturing the world

Framingham native creates complicated stories in comic-book format

With all the billions spent on the Big Dig, could it be that some secret project was budgeted into it? Did the government build something beneath it that we're not supposed to know about? And, on another note, if you're unarmed and attacked by assassins wearing night-vision goggles, what's the best way to fight them off?

These are the kinds of questions that romp through the mind of A. David Lewis -- at night. That's when he turns up his Bruce Springsteen CDs, scoots up to his desk, and churns out suspense-filled, action-packed comic books like his new series, "Empty Chamber."

Released by Silent Devil comics last month, the series tells the story of a conspiracy-theory-obsessed Boston student who finds himself caught up in a terrorist plot. When a friend sends Matt Mahtganee a clue that could foil the attack, Matt winds up running all over town trying to elude the bad guys.

"I wanted to set an adventure in Boston that made use of Boston's landmarks and mysteries, and the Big Dig just screamed mystique," said Lewis, 29. "It's everyday mystique -- something we see every day and get so used to that we stop even looking at it."

His comics may target a niche market. But Lewis, a Framingham native who lives in Allston, is making a name for himself in the business. In June, one of his shorts will appear alongside works by such comics greats as Alan Moore ("V for Vendetta") in a Random House/Villard collection, "Postcards: True Stories that Never Happened."

He's also an up-and-coming author of graphic novels, book-length works written in the comics format. He told the story of "Exodus" from the Egyptian pharaoh's perspective in "The Lone and Level Sands," which last year garnered three Harvey Award (one of the industry's highest honors) nominations, including best graphic novel and best new talent .

It's a good time to be in the business. Graphic novel sales have quadrupled since 2001, taking in $330 million last year, according to Publishers Weekly. As a result, mainstream publishers are now roaming what used to be fringe comics festivals looking for the next big name in graphic novels. Best-selling authors including Stephen King are signing comics deals, and the trend is toward better content.

"People are really starting to put the emphasis on the 'book' in 'comic book,' " said Mark Smylie, with Archaia Studios Press in New Jersey, which published the novel by Lewis. "And David's work fits very much into the sense of trying to approach comic books as literature."

A double life
Which brings us to the other half of the A. David Lewis story. Like the superheroes he eagerly read about as a child, Lewis too leads a double life. By day, he's an unassuming Boston University doctoral candidate in religion and literature. He's studying the intersection of religious texts and comics.

"I'm really interested in thanatology, which is the study of death, dying, the afterlife, mourning, and rebirth. Though I'm not a morbid guy," he said, laughing. "It's more that there's a tie-in to superheroes and comic books." He said there is no genre outside the Bible, and vampire tales, "that uses resurrection as much as superheroes comics, and that really fascinates me."

Religion is also fertile ground for his writer's mind. "The Lone and Level Sands," for instance, examines whether Pharaoh Ramses had free will when he refused to release the Israelite slaves.

"It started with the germ of every Passover meal I've ever had to sit through," said Lewis. "There's this line in the Seder that Pharaoh was going to let the Israelites go, but 'God hardened Pharaoh's heart.' That left me asking, does Pharaoh have a choice?"

Combining academia and comics makes sense for Lewis. He found his way to his career in both fields in a Shakespeare class at his alma mater, Brandeis University in Waltham. A professor suggested he write a paper about graphic novelist Neil Gaiman's references to the Bard.

"That just opened up a whole new world of comics academia to me. It's sort of a niche scholarly market," said Lewis, who went on to Georgetown University to earn a master's in literature that focused on comics.

While there, he began presenting his comics critiques at literary conferences and industry festivals, and he caught the attention of several small publishers. They invited him to try writing, which he did, and it came easy.

"I'd read comics since I was a kid," said Lewis. "So, I discovered I had this incidental wealth of knowledge about comics. I knew the stories, the characters, the writers, the writing styles, the editors, and the history of the medium. I didn't mean to be training for writing them, but I had been."

The Boss factor
Exhaustive research and an outline are his secrets. "I have to know how a story begins, what its guts and conflict are, and what its end is, and once I have all that, I can start scripting it," he said.

Listening to Springsteen is another trick. "He helps me remember that sometimes the best word is not always the biggest word," said Lewis. "And writing succinctly is very important in comics."

But why write in the comics format at all? Like many graphic novelists, Lewis does not illustrate his own work but rather directs the artist. He says he's drawn to the process by his love of theater.

"Writing comics is not unlike stage directing and thinking how a scene will be performed," said Lewis, who was active in high school and college drama. "The only thing that's different is you're also worrying about how gaps will be bridged and how the pace of flipping a page will change the experience."

He also likes that the medium is relatively young. "We're talking about only roughly 100 years worth of comics history," he said. "You can still pioneer here."

Today's authors like Lewis are doing just that as they leave behind the "men in tights" era to roam as freely as prose writers. Comics now venture into every subject, be it a comics version of the 9/11 Commission Report or a look at growing up as an immigrant.

The Internet is also changing the art form, and Lewis is riding the wave. A new style of semi-animated comics is emerging for podcasts, and three such films are in the works for "Empty Chamber."

"They stay true to the comics. The original drawings become a kind of animation," said Lewis. He explained that unlike animation that starts from scratch, these new "episodic downloads" use the artwork from the comic books themselves. They digitally cut out the characters, move them around over the backgrounds, and add dialog and sound effects.

Meanwhile, Lewis is reaching out to the next generation. Recently, he visited Walsh Middle School in Framingham, where a plaque in the hall still notes the essay contest he won there as an eighth-grader (under the name Aaron Lewis). He came to share the word about today's comics, which are now an accepted part of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework .

And at night, he's busy writing his next graphic novel, which will explore flood myths from various religions. He's also plotting out the graphic work that he said will be his magnum opus.

"I don't want to give anything away," he said, "but I will say Boston is a very underused location for some great adventure."