An interview with comic book authors Kamaal and Malcolm Washington
For as long as they can remember, Kamaal and Malcolm Washington have dreamed of following in the footsteps of their comic- book-author dad, Alonzo. But it wasn't until Kamaal developed type 1 diabetes, at the age of 10, that the two brothers convinced their father that they had a really good idea for their own comic. Now 14 (Kamaal) and 12 (Malcolm), the Kansas City brothers recently spoke about their current and future work as artists and role models.
How did you get started?
Malcolm: We have always had these different characters in our minds. We always asked our dad if we could do a comic book. But he would say, "Wait till you're older." When we came to him with an idea to do a comic book about diabetes, he couldn't say no.
How were you feeling when you were diagnosed?
Kamaal: At first I was really scared because I didn't know about the disease. But I had a positive attitude. I asked my mom what I needed to do to be healthy. Then my dad came and told me straight that I could handle this, that all I had to do was take care of my diabetes, live healthy, and that I'll be able to live a long and successful life.
Were you given books to read about diabetes?
Kamaal: Most of the diabetes books were for my parents, in words I didn't understand at the time. My brother came to the hospital to visit. So we just started talking it over and collaborating. And we came up with the idea of writing a comic book that would be for kids so they can really understand what diabetes is, instead of it being only for adults to explain.
The first comic book deals with the symptoms of diabetes and how it feels to get it. In Omega Boy versus Doctor Diabetes, a boy finds out that he has type 1 diabetes, and he feels like a freak. He feels like he's not wanted and that he is so different from everybody else. So he absorbs his doctor and turns into a monster called Dr. Diabetes. He wants the whole world to get diabetes, so that everyone feels his pain. Omega Boy saves the day, sets Dr. Diabetes straight, and teaches the boy how to live with diabetes.
And the second comic book?
Malcolm: It's called Enter the Blaze! Blaze is an alien from outer space who comes to earth to destroy all the diabetic aids, from glucose strips to insulin pumps. Our new hero, Mighty Boy, comes to stop him. Then Dr. Diabetes comes back to cause trouble because he feels he didn't get enough recognition for his efforts. Together, Omega Boy and Mighty Boy show him the error of his ways.
How did your readers react?
Kamaal: Kids say it is very cool. They really open up and ask personal questions. We were speaking at a diabetes camp and one boy asked, "Have you ever given yourself an overdose of insulin because you were tired of dealing with the responsibilities of diabetes?" I haven't, but that's an example of how much other kids open up to us and look up to us and like the comic books. And they are really interested. They always ask us when the next comic book is coming out. They just really can't get enough.
Malcolm: At school, my friends inspire me to do more because they tell me what I am doing is really cool. Sometimes parents tell us that they've tried to get their kids to take care of their diabetes, but some kids don't always listen. But their kids liked the comic book because it talks to them in a way they understand. And now, they are more responsible about doing what they need to do. They say it gives them hope that they can have diabetes and still do what they want to do and not be a freak.
What's your next comic book about?
Kamaal: Dr. Diabetes will come back in the form of a politician. We hope it will get kids and politicians involved in supporting diabetes research, so we can come up with a cure faster. How long does it take to make a comic book? Kamaal: It depends. First you have to come up with a concept: what the story is, what the pages are going to be about. You can't just sit down and draw a comic book without developing a story. After you do a script, you start to draw the pictures. You may have to re-draw to make sure the pictures are to the best of your ability. Then you send it off to be inked; then it is colored. Then it is sent back to you and double-checked. Finally it goes to a publisher. It takes a lot of time and money.
What's next? What are your dreams for the future?
Malcolm: We're going to keep doing more stories. Hopefully, we'll get to write some PSAs—public service announcements—and commercials, or work our messages into a cartoon show, maybe even a movie. Kamaal: We want to write new characters for comic books and movies—and include more martial arts. We are working on making our company more successful and bigger to help kids deal with diabetes. That's where we started. Diabetes is our roots. It will always be part of the story line.
Shelley Lowenstein is a Chevy Chase, Md.–based writer.