A sugar-coated villain

Two brothers try to teach other kids about juvenile diabetes through the pages of a comic book.

comic feat 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
comic feat 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
The evil Dr. Diabetes leaps from a hospital window, crashing through the glass, determined to infect anyone in his path with the chronic, debilitating disease from which he takes his name. The imposing, green, wild-haired monster scowls, punches the air and taunts, "I will make sure that everyone on the planet feels my pain. The whole world will have diabetes." In real life, 13-year-old Kamaal Washington - one of the creators of the Dr. Diabetes comic book character - faces his own battle with diabetes. The teen says the adventures that he and his 11-year-old brother, Malcolm, capture in their comic books are meant to spread awareness about the disease and empower those who have it. "You control the disease," says Kamaal, "don't let it control you." The comic books tell the stories of children who learn they have diabetes and find themselves visited by Dr. Diabetes. But his wicked intentions are foiled by the heroes of the comics, Omega Boy and later, Mighty Boy. The books are sold online but will be available soon at Walgreen and CVS shops in the Kansas City area and comic book shops around the US. Kamaal and Malcolm are working on their third diabetes-themed comic. Slated for July, the comic tells the story of a politician who refuses to work to increase funds to find a cure for diabetes and the heroes' quest to change that. Kamaal was 9 when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which is most commonly found in younger children and teens and makes them dependent on injected or pumped insulin for life. With this form of diabetes, the body's immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. As many as 3 million Americans may have Type 1 diabetes, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Kamaal checks his blood sugar seven to eight times a day and must watch how much sugar and salt he eats. He wears an insulin pump so he can get a supply of insulin whenever he needs it, without having to receive shots. The pump includes a device about the size of a cell phone that contains insulin, with a thin tube that allows the insulin to flow from the device to Kamaal's stomach. Diabetes was largely an unknown to the boy before a family trip to St. Louis in 2003 when Kamaal was taken to the emergency room after complaining of constant thirst and feeling ill. Kamaal's great-grandmother on his mother's side had Type 2 diabetes. But no other family members had the disease. "I got really scared," Kamaal says. "I was wondering what would happen to me." The diabetes books that doctors gave the boy, with their big words and medical terminology, weren't much help. So Kamaal and his brother, Malcolm, were drawing one day and came up with a way to make it easier for kids to learn about diabetes and how to control the disease. "We decided to do a comic book," Kamaal says. "We wanted it to be fun and educational." Their dad, Alonzo, an artist and civic activist, publishes the comics and through his company, Omega 7 Comics. The boys' comics, which sell for $5 each, can be bought on the Omega 7 Web site. Kamaal and Malcolm have sold and donated to diabetes groups about 90,000 copies of the comics and have given about half of their $135,000 in profits to diabetes causes, their parents said. The young artists remain as committed to their creation as they were when the idea came to them a few years ago. "At that young of an age, to not only think of themselves but to want to help others that are going through the same situation is very noble," said their mother, Dana Washington, who manages the boys' comic career. "There are many adults who are uncomfortable about speaking about their health issues, and for Kamaal to be able to talk about something that is so personal is just amazing to me." Their comic books have brought awards and taken them around the country to speak about diabetes. Kamaal has served as a Children's Congress delegate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, joining hundreds of other young diabetics in testifying before the U.S. Senate about diabetes research support. Kamaal and Malcolm - who count the Japanese anime series Naruto among their biggest influences - want to create their own animated series and perhaps produce a movie. "It will always have action and be fun to look at, but it will also be educational," Kamaal says. "We always want to have a message."