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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Grain of Sands: The Personal Exegesis of A. David Lewis

A. David Lewis

In the course of creating The Lone and Level Sands (LaLS) with mpMann and colorist Jenn Rodgers, promoting its sale through our publisher Archaia Studios Press, and then having the opportunity to discuss the work more full — through either an awards event like the Howard E. Day Memorial Prize presentation or an academic conference like the Society of Biblical Literature annual congress — a great deal of pre-writing and later behind-the-scenes analysis has taken place. Usually, this sort of backstage banter is eventually doomed to deletion, especially in this era of widespread digital communication. However, on more than one occasion, certain issues — which I will immodestly call compelling or intriguing — have been raised amongst this scallywag; these are topics and observations amongst the creators themselves that would seem improper to force upon the casual reader, yet also have no formal mechanism for delivery, should an outsider actually want to listen in to our discussions.

One remedy to this unopen netherworld of creative dialogue is the rise of the Production Blog, a play-by-play of the work-in-progress posted online, either contemporaneous with the growth of the graphic novel itself or made available sometime after its completion, like a time capsule.[1] When mpMann and I first began work on The Lone and Level Sands in late 2003, neither of us was arrogant enough to think that our chatter would be of interest to people later: we just wanted to tell our story and get it into their hands! Suffice it to say that, with our next collaboration, we are already being slightly more conscientious — and, I suppose, presumptuous — with cataloguing our notes and discussions so that perhaps we, too, could take part in the Production.

With that option having already passed for The Lone and Level Sands itself, I am hoping in this article to (re)present a few of what I consider rich moments of LaLS scripting and discussion that have occurred over the past months away from the public eye. Thanks to Archaia Studios Press (ASP), we have already had the chance to add somewhat to the discussion of the book with their hardcover, color reprint of the original Caption Box material nicely maintaining the Foreword, Afterword, and Introduction by Eisner-nominated comic creator Ben Towle; further, ASP also spearheaded the recent Reader's Group Guide endeavor for LaLS: free pdf supplementary material through their website by which teachers or group leaders can better engage conversation over the book, its topics, and its themes []. Therefore, we have had greater occasions than most in revisiting our work, yet sometimes some things still slip through the cracks.

For instance, I find it striking to look at my original notes and story outline for the book and then by comparison at the finished product. To date, I have not published either of these — though, that could change in the future, depending on any expressions of interest and their perceived value — but I would like to dwell here just a moment on some of their features. In particular, there is the case of Nefertari, a character developed from research done on Ramses II's reign but obviously embellished for the purposes of storytelling in LaLS. What little is known about Ramses II's first, most prized wife relates primarily to her connection with Abu Simbel as well as her early death; this latter element was obviously incorporated into LaLS both to heighten drama as well as to problematize Ramses' humanity in the readers' eyes. However, in the original outline, she is strikingly absent from what later proved to be an altogether different depiction of Moses and Aaron's first confrontation with the Pharaoh:

XXXX Ramses' anger, betrayal, and astonishment turn what follows into something of a blur. Moses and Aaron stand before him, Khepseshef, and the assembled clerics. Aaron speaks eloquently, and Moses rambles with tangled threats, hypotheses, and observations. A staff is thrown. Snakes appear. Another set of wands fall, and the serpents abound. One suddenly becomes a massive worm, swallowing the all rest. Ramses can almost see his late aunt with her head bowed low in the back of the room. And soon, the pair have departed, leaving the clerics with their clear demands: That the Israelites be released for 3 days of wilderness worship. But Ramses can hear only his aunt's weeping.

Not only is the "blur" motif emphasized most highly on pages 31-33 — where, please note, the trademark conflict has been cut down to its bare, undialogued bones — but the haunting by a saddened apparition becomes assigned to Nefertari. While never directly identified, this is meant[2] to be Moses' adoptive mother and Ramses' sister, the late princess. When Nefertari was assigned as the narrator of Canto I, her viewpoint and eventual illness took on a new importance to the story; having Ramses already faced with supernatural elements even beyond those in the biblical text felt like too much all at once; therefore, the puzzlement was passed to Nefertari, who was not long for this world. As recounted from the original script:

Panel six. From over Nefertari's shoulder, the female figure in the back of the room can now be seen. The Queen clearly focuses on her and not the other, amazing events that are taking place between them, almost incidentally.

XXXX 6. Caption: — A woman appeared to me.

Panel seven. Closed in on the woman, looking almost exactly as Nefertari describes. If she is an apparition, then she was most certainly a royal, if only from the blurry garments she has manifested in. She looks on the scene — and Moses in particular — with deep grievousness.
XXXX 7. Caption: Regal and lovely, yet sad and mournful . . . I had seen her before . . .
8. Caption: She looked like the waves of air over fire. Like a graceful willow watching a flame approach.

Panel eight. Close-up of Moses' face, as it would be seen from the mystery woman's direction. His eyes are wild with intensity, his nose is flared, and his teeth are gritted.

Panel nine. Extreme close-up of Nefertari's wide eyes, reflecting back the vague, disappearing image of the woman.
XXXX 9. Caption: She told me only that the past was forfeit. That our future . . .
10. Caption: It held destruction.

With full approval and authority, mpMann chose to alter the panel-by-panel depictions so as to create more of a dreamy and fantastic environment — which also nicely suggested Nefertari's dizziness and delirium — but this moment does hold some poignance between the two royal women of Egypt.

On the subject of women in LaLS, there is Miriam, a late addition to the storytelling process. In fact, not to take anything away from their importance or verisimilitude, but very few of the supporting characters such as Seth, Rebcha, Axos, or Lissos were part of the original outline. Their necessity became apparent early in the process of scripting, each of them appearing in my first draft of the respective Cantos except for Miriam. Hers was a special case, and mpMann and I discussed how we might treat her. There had been, in my outline, an obvious lack of women to the story, perhaps a reflection of Exodus itself in some ways. With all of my historical incorporations of Ta, Seti, Khepseshef, and Bekenkhonsu, only Nefertari had risen as any sort of fully realized female character. Still, neither of us wanted to create a woman for the sake of creating a woman, nor did we want to marginalize women overall. From that comment came the compromised solution: Rather than portray ancient Egypt as wholly egalitarian, why not literally marginalize Miriam, never showing her clearly in the picture, but rather as obscured or distanced. Thus, without having to change his art greatly, mpMann was able to match language I assigned to Miriam on pages 113, 127, and 133 (and perhaps on pages 97-101) in a way that suggested her — and many women's — displacement.[3]

Lastly, I would like to discuss the role and intent of the narrator who bookends the tale in both the Prologue and Canto IV.[4] It should be noted that the Prologue was written separately from the rest of the book; it served as a testing ground for mpMann and myself in a variety of ways (e.g., how the collaboration would work, whether I could write in a digest-sized format, what sorts of layouts he could employ). Therefore, while it could — and was — amended and edited for later packaging with the rest of the Cantos, the role of the narrative voice in its sequence was not of great concern to me. It was not until I began scripting the Cantos themselves that the idea of an authoritative narrator began to trouble me: Would readers take this voice to be God? And, if not God, how could I make it an unobtrusive voice to a story which most people already associated with the textual authority of the Bible itself? Ultimately, for the first three Cantos, I chose to avoid this issue — letting the characters be de facto narrators without an intruding outside voice — knowing that, for the final Canto, I planned to return to the Prologue's narrator and embrace the possible confusion.

Many critics and reviewers of LaLS seem to assign the narrative voice in Canto IV to God rather than to the individual who, in my opinion, was a more obvious suspect: Me. Terry Clark, whose paper will appear in a future issue of The SBL FORUM, was kind enough to show me a draft of his presentation, since it included an analysis of LaLS. He advised that there was a potentially negative reaction to the book, since God is not portrayed in the most favorable light: God seems to force, manipulate, and outright scheme to have events unfold as He wishes. To some degree, this is true — though I did comment to Terry in our e-mail exchanges that, whatever supernatural events may take place, we never outright see God cause these things to occur. Even the "possessions" of the palace guard, Ta, Seti, and Nefertari come from an unidentified source, one that I would not be inclined to call God directly since these exchanges do not exist in the biblical account. So, from where else might they originate? In our e-mail exchange, I wrote the following:

I'm eager to discuss this aspect of the story, because it's one I reached organically; that is, I didn't have any plan to paint Yahweh in a negative light nor do I feel that way personally about the divine.

XXXX However, my explanation may get me in even HOTTER water, if you can believe that. In short, I don't blame God for Pharaoh's woes — I blame MYSELF. I mean, solely in terms of THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS, *I'm* the puppet master putting words in his allies' mouths. (I'm the one who chose to "animate" these folks in graphic novel form; it's the Bible's story, of course, but it's my mind that kills Ta, Nefertari, etc., you see?) If anyone's meant to be the villain in this story, it's me . . . yet, that also overlaps me with the "God" position to these characters (especially if they're seen as historical figures), making me a party to a strange form of heresy, dontcha think?

At almost exactly the midpoint of the story (pp. 73-74), Pharaoh's anguish over Nefertari's condition compelled him to ask, "Is this what is written? . . . Could only catastrophe for Egypt be what is written? And if so — what cruel author assigns us this fate?" Most audiences have been trained, like myself, to read this as a reference to God, especially in the context of a biblical story (albeit an adaptation). Yet, as much as I leave the possibility of Amon-Ra or Yahweh as the answers to this question, much of the scripting choices leaned towards myself as the author — a metatextual god — as the explanation.

Ramses, if not the reader, is allowed to catch on to our game, in some sense. Thus, on page 138, the script for panel 3 reads: "From a bird's eye view, we look down on Ramses, looking straight up back at us with a frown. He seems to be begrudgingly deliberating in his mind, saying nothing." He fully acknowledged that control of this situation was beyond him, in the hands of some higher power. Yet, I think it is telling that, even as he rails against that source on the final pages (pp. 144-147), he never once called it Yahweh (nor Amon-Ra nor anything else). Moreover, we return to the "bird's eye view" of Ramses in the second panel of 145, as if he is talking straight at us; the reader is made to assume the position that one might assign to a divine being looking down.

Thus, the reader is made almost as responsible (or, if one chooses, culpable) as the creator for both the liberation of the Israelites and the catastrophe of Ramses' people in LaLS: Why didn't he or she just close the book, after all? As a final gift to this compelling character, the narrative voice on the final two pages begins taking cues from Ramses rather than vice versa. And it is Ramses, not the narrator, not God, and not I, who elects to end the tale.

A. David Lewis

[*] Editor's Note: For an extended analysis of The Lone and Level Sands, see David G. Burke and Lydia Lebrón-Riviera, "Transferring Biblical Narrative to Graphic Novel," in the April 2004 issue of The SBL FORUM.

[1] It is worth noting that the concept of a Production Blog is not unique to the comic book medium nor does it necessarily originate here. Peter Jackson for his Lord of the Rings trilogy kept a video diary of the shoot, and director Kevin Smith frequently blogs on the progress of his films. There may be examples of this as well for music groups blogging from the studio or other visual artists chronicling the growth of an artwork, but the Production Blog has taken on specific meaning within the comics community.

[2] I am very wary of using the word "meant," since I am a great opponent of authorial intent. Therefore, I would like to add the disclaimer that, if anyone attempts to read this or any section of the book with a more satisfying explanation, they are welcome to trump my own viewpoints.

[3] Two notes from my early research did not survive to the scripting stages, both dealing with the women of Moses' life: "[Miriam] was struck with leprosy over protesting Moses' marriage to a Cushite woman, but it abated. Miriam was a prophetess: 'Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.' Zipporah was Moses' wife; she circumcised their son (too early, maybe?) to defend him from the Lord's assault en route to Pharaoh." The comment about it being perhaps "too early, maybe?" related to the notion that the required number of days after birth before a bris can be performed on a boy might have had some relationship to the newborn's clotting factor.

[4] Please see my second footnote.

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