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The Writer Behind A Muslim Marvel Superhero On Her Faith In Comics

G. Willow Wilson’s unlikely path to the center of a debate about diversity in comic books.

Late last month, the writer G. Willow Wilson was at home, in Seattle, on a self-imposed Twitter break; she was one chapter away from finishing her second novel, a historical fantasy about a young girl on a quest to find a mythical king of birds in Andalusia. At the end of the day, she logged on to the social network to find her mentions flooded with links to an interview with David Gabriel, a senior vice-president at Marvel Entertainment, on the Web site ICv2. Wilson is the latest writer to take on Ms. Marvel, a hero first conceived, in 1968, as a white woman named Carol Danvers. In Wilson’s version of the comic, launched in 2014, Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American teen-age girl from Jersey City named Kamala Khan.

In the interview, Gabriel described a summit for comics retailers that Marvel had held the previous week to combat declining sales. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” he said. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.” Wilson’s first reaction was to feel sorry for Gabriel—in her estimation a passionate person who had spoken clumsily. (As the Times later reported, only two of the fourteen retailers at Marvel’s summit had raised these complaints.) Wilson received e-mails from NPR and the Guardian asking for comment, but she was in her novel-writing headspace—yoga pants, coffee, tunnel vision—and was determined to sit the controversy out. A few hours later, she noticed that several blogs had used images of Ms. Marvel to illustrate posts about the purported unprofitability of diverse comics. She decided to weigh in.

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Wilson’s Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American teen-ager from Jersey City named Kamala Khan, shown here in the cover art for “Ms. Marvel, No. 13.”COURTESY MARVEL

Wilson’s “Ms. Marvel” is part of a long-delayed demographic shift in the world of comic books. Thor is now a woman; the Hulk is a Korean teen-ager. The “Black Panther” franchise has been remade by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has recruited other prominent black writers—recently, Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey became the first two black women to write comics for the company. Kamala Khan is the first Muslim superhero at Marvel to have her own series, and though the character has been greeted with enthusiasm—the first issue reached a rare seventh printing—there has also been a backlash, which Wilson addressed on her Web site in a blog post titled “So About That Whole Thing.” “If you’re going to write a smug thunk-piece about the ‘failure’ of ‘diversity’ in comics, maybe don’t use the cover image of a book that’s had 4 collections on the NYT graphic books bestseller list, won a Hugo and cleaned up at Angouleme,” she wrote. She also argued that the focus should not be on “diversity” but on “authenticity and realism.” Within a day, her comments had been reposted thousands of times.

Wilson, who is thirty-four, has taken an unlikely path to the center of this debate. She was born in New Jersey, in Monmouth County; in her 2010 memoir, “The Butterfly Mosque,” she describes spending her adolescence as “an upper-middle-class American white girl with bland politics and polite beliefs.” She converted to Islam when she was twenty. Now she is often asked to do things that many minorities in white-dominated fields might find familiar: to speak on behalf of minority artists generally and to defend her work’s existence. I met her a week after the Gabriel kerfuffle, at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. She wore a deep-green hijab, a camel blazer, and whimsical jewelry—a bow-shaped bracelet, a tiny star-shaped stud in her nose. She speaks gently, alternating “shucks” and “gosh” with the occasional four-letter word. “Some people were really hoping that ‘Ms. Marvel’ had been run into the ground, and I’d live out the rest of my life as a brand killer,” she told me cheerfully. “The Katharine Hepburn of comics—nobody will see her stuff!” she added, alluding to Hepburn’s onetime label as “box-office poison.”

Wilson’s introduction to comics came in the fifth grade, when she was given an anti-smoking pamphlet featuring the X-Men. Later in the school year, she asked to join a group of boys who were playing mutants on the playground during recess—the “X-Men” cartoon on Fox had become her favorite show. They didn’t want a girl in their group, but she told them she could play the glamorous mutant Storm, who, in the comics, is the daughter of a Kenyan princess and an American photojournalist, and can control the weather. “It speaks to the power of women done well in this kind of role,” she said. “Those boys didn’t care much for girls but they really cared for Storm.”

Two years later, Wilson’s family moved to Boulder, Colorado. She was a goth teen—“black eyeliner, corsets, magenta hair, the whole thing,” she said. “There was lots of going to concerts and sitting in the under-twenty-one balcony, lots of tabletop role-playing.” She continued to devour comics, tracking down issues of “Shade, the Changing Man” at a local shop called Time Warp. Wilson’s parents were secular liberals who had left Protestant churches during the sixties. To them, God was a “bigoted, vengeful white man,” she writes in “The Butterfly Mosque,” and atheism was “not just scientifically correct, it was morally imperative.” Wilson had other instincts. When she was a sophomore in college, she started suffering severe adrenal problems, which helped spark a search for God—an experience she recounts in the memoir using language that wouldn’t be out of place in a superhero’s origin story:

The force that played havoc with the cortisol in my blood was the same force that helped my body recover . . . and the atoms in those cells, and the nuclei in those atoms, the same bits of carbon that were being spun into new planets in some corner of a space without a name. My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me. That unified force was a God too massive, too inhuman, to resist with the atheism in which I had been brought up. I became a zealot without a religion.

She began looking for one. God seemed too absent in Buddhism, and she couldn’t stomach Christianity’s idea of inherited sin. Judaism, she writes, “was a near perfect fit, but it was created for a single tribe of people.” Islam welcomed converts, and Wilson began teaching herself about the religion. She signed up for Arabic classes, started reading the Koran, drank less. In classic college-student form, she got a lower-back tattoo: it read “Al Haq,” meaning “absolute truth.”

Three weeks later, terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Watching news clips in which Muslim fundamentalists claimed that their religion was incompatible with the West, Wilson started to believe them. She sought out critics of Islam, hoping to puncture her attraction to it; she read novels by Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie. “I had high hopes that ‘The Satanic Verses’ would cure my religiosity,” she writes; it did not. For the next two years, she “went back to the regular college diet of jello shots and wine in a box.” Still, she remained unconvinced that she could live a secular life. Shortly before graduation, she took a job teaching English in Cairo, and, on the plane to Egypt, she “made peace with God. I called him Allah.”

In Cairo, she began practicing Islam openly. Through a friend, she met a religiously traditional Egyptian man who loved art and taught physics; when they got engaged, two months later, they had not yet kissed. She began to wear a hijab. She contributed to Cairo Magazine—a now-defunct publication that challenged the Mubarak regime—as well as the Times Magazine and The Atlantic. And she started writing comic books, for DC, including a one-off issue of “Aquaman,” which she puckishly set in the Sahara Desert, and a limited run of “Vixen,” a series starring a female superhero from the fictional African nation of Zambesi.

In 2009, Wilson moved back to the U.S. with her husband. She struggled to readjust—she had never lived as a Muslim in her own country. Her memoir was published the following year and then, in 2012, came her novel “Alif the Unseen,” a techno-fantasy about an Arab-Indian hacker. In a twenty-month stretch, she went on two book tours and gave birth to two daughters. Then she got a call from Stephen Wacker, a longtime Marvel editor, and Sana Amanat, at the time an assistant editor. Wacker and Amanat had decided that the new Ms. Marvel series should star a Muslim teen-ager, and that Wilson should write it. Amanat, a Pakistani-American Muslim, would be the series editor. (Amanat also edits the “Hawkeye” and “Captain Marvel” reboots, and has since become a director of content and character development at Marvel, known for her striking and unorthodox instincts.)

The idea seemed, to Wilson, shocking and wonderful; she had become resigned to compartmentalizing her faith and her interest in superheroes. She wrote her first comics shortly after the firestorm over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, in 2005, and when, in 2010, she wrote two fill-in issues of “Superman,” a message-board community had lamented DC’s flagship falling into the hands of a Muslim. “I could see the headlines,” Wilson recalled, of her thinking about Kamala Khan: “sharia law at marvel!” For a year, she and Amanat talked on the phone multiple times a week, for hours at a time, drafting different versions of Kamala. Every decision was freighted. Would she cover her hair? Could they find an artist to draw her without that cartoonishly voluptuous female-superhero chest? They knew the many lines along which the character could be criticized: traditional Muslims might want her to be more modest, and secular Muslims might want her to be less so. Some would be wary no matter what.

The conventional superhero brings peace through retributive violence; when Batman saves Gotham, much of the city is destroyed. This trope, Wilson knew, sat uneasily with certain Western ideas about Muslims. For a time, she suspected that only a tongue-in-cheek approach would work. “I had originally envisioned her power set very differently,” she said of Kamala. “Explode-y powers, an ironic type of thing.” On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, carried out by two young men who subscribed to radical Islam, she changed her mind. “I sat down and I tried to think, What would I want to put in their hands instead of the story they’d been given? What would the world look like if they didn’t have to be the bad guys? How can I draw on the same faith tradition and arrive at the opposite place?” Twenty-four hours later, she had figured out Kamala’s backstory.

The first panel of the first issue, lushly illustrated by Adrian Alphona, is a close-up of a deli B.L.T. The sandwich is off limits for Kamala, who, like any teen-ager, is figuring out her loyalties: she doesn’t wear a hijab but she also doesn’t eat pork. She’s a Peter Parker type—anxious, clumsy, winsome. One Friday night, she’s stuck at home writing Avengers fan fiction; her father disapproves of her going to parties as much as he disapproves of her unemployed, pious brother praying all the time. When she sneaks out of the house anyway, she gets caught in a mysterious fog, which activates her shape-shifting powers and induces a psychedelic vision of the first Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers. Soon afterward, Kamala transforms into Carol and saves a classmate from drowning. The heroics feel more natural to her than the blond hair and skimpy costume. The next time she goes off on a mission, she straps on a fanny pack over an outfit she’s made from an unworn burkini.

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In Wilson’s view, there’s a “neat ideological overlap between superhero comics and religion, in a positive sense. Both things are about voluntarily holding yourself to a superhuman ideal, doing good even when it’s not required of you.” Still, she and Amanat were intent on creating a character who would frequently fall short of the standards set for her. Wilson drew on memories of her post-Cairo readjustment period, when second-generation friends had taught her that navigating two cultures could be funny, that imperfection was fine. In one issue, Kamala argues with Sheikh Abdullah about the mosque’s side entrance for women; in another, she ruins her brother’s engagement party while trying to save the planet.

Eventually, Kamala grows into a natural shape-shifter, both in terms of her superpowers and her ability to navigate multiple worlds: an immigrant family, high school, the Marvel universe. Wilson draws out the humor in Kamala’s rapid code-switching. Though the series is warmhearted, it’s never cloying. (At a Valentine’s Day dance in Issue 12, Nakia, a hyper-woke teen, groans, “I can’t believe I let you drag me to this patriarchal capitalist display of false affection.”) A couple of years into the series, Kamala has joined the Avengers, and is an established figure in Jersey City, where evil has arrived in the form of gentrification: hipster tenants are being drawn to a high-rise condo built by the criminal organization Hydra and genetically reprogrammed through purple kombucha. In an attempt to damage her reputation, Hydra uses Ms. Marvel’s costumed visage to advertise the new development; protests calling her a sellout ensue. Meanwhile, Kamala is struggling to keep up with her teen-superhero duties. She makes golems of herself, which multiply into an enormous army of mindless, destructive Kamalas, wreaking havoc all over town.

The première of “Ms. Marvel” sold more copies digitally than it did in print—a company first. Marvel doesn’t release digital-sales numbers, but piecemeal statistics have shown female characters performing especially well in digital formats. Traditionally, comic books are purchased in single, floppy issues at dedicated brick-and-mortar shops, but these can be intimidating spaces for novices: when I walked into Forbidden Planet in Manhattan, I found myself wishing for the ability to act like I belonged. Some readers may simply opt to buy collected issues in paperbacks at regular bookstores or, increasingly, to download e-books. There are now, Wilson suggested, two audiences for comic books, and many people in the industry “are loath to recognize that these two audiences might want two very different things out of the same series. They don’t shop in the same places, they don’t socially overlap, and their tastes might not overlap.”

The relationship between this divided landscape and the most recent Presidential election is not lost on her. At the coffee shop, as a barista cleared our plates, we talked about how the stakes of every identity-politics debate feel heightened since November—and also about new alliances that seem to be forming in the election’s wake. Wilson spoke with some astonishment about the fact that she could include a gay secondary character in “Ms. Marvel”—the blond, popular Zoe—and still have mothers and daughters show up to her readings in hijabs. “It’s funny. Those right-wing bloggers who said my work was part of some socialist-Muslim-homosexual attack on American values, they really created the thing they feared. There wasn’t a socialist-Muslim-homosexual alliance before, but there sure as fuck is one now, and I love it.”

Three days after we met, another controversy involving Marvel and Islam bubbled up. An Indonesian artist named Ardian Syaf had seemingly embedded a political message in an issue of “X-Men.” The governor of Jakarta, who’s Christian, had been accused of insulting Islam. In one panel, Syaf alluded to a protest against the governor; in another, he referenced a Koranic verse that is interpreted by some to mean that Muslims can only accept the leadership of Muslims. Wilson responded to the controversy with another blog post, which explained to her readers that the verse in question “is subject to a truly fantastical amount of bullshittery in the modern era.” Syaf had taken a verse that originally addressed a seventh-century situation and applied it, in her view dubiously, to a democratic, multiethnic, twenty-first-century state. “Ardian Syaf can keep his garbage philosophy,” she wrote. (He was subsequently fired by Marvel.)

Wilson couldn’t help but take the dispute personally. When she wrote those two issues of “Superman,” seven years ago, the message-board critics had seen it, she said, as an attack on American values, simply because she was Muslim. Syaf, with his hidden messages, was playing into their hands. Wilson had told me that when she converted, some of her friends had worked to hide their apparent unhappiness; years later, she realized that they had experienced her choice as a referendum on American life. It occurred to me that this may be how some conservative comic-book fans experience her Ms. Marvel—as a referendum on “American” comics. Wilson agreed: “They’re asking, ‘What was wrong before?’ And you’re like, ‘It’s not about wrong. It’s about more.’ ”

 

 This post originally appeared on The New Yorker, written by Jia Tolentino. 

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