G. Willow Wilson has spent her life telling stories. She’s told her own in her graphic novel Cairo and memoir Butterfly Mosque. She’s chronicled the escapades of a young Arab-Indian hacker in her novel Alif the Unseen. She’s written dialogue for the likes of Aquaman, Superman and the X-Men. And in her latest comic book, she writes for Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Kahn, a 16-year-old Muslim shape-shifting superhero living in New Jersey.
“Stories are how we build our identity. Nobody sits down and watches CNN and says, ‘Oh, I’ve had a transformative experience and my whole philosophy has changed. I’m going out and being a totally different person.’ I mean maybe they do,” Wilson says with a laugh. “But usually there are things that prompt those big deep dives. Those soul-searching changes in us come from stories.”
From a young age growing up in Colorado, writing was the only thing Wilson wanted to do. And her love of comics started early, specifically in health class one day when she received an anti-smoking booklet starring the X-Men.
“It must have worked because I never took up smoking,” she quips. “The thing that really stuck with me were these characters who seemed to have it all figured it out. They had these amazing costumes and amazing powers. And instead of using all that stuff for very selfish ends, they used it for the greater good.”
In college she wrote music reviews for an alternative weekly magazine and interned at a digital comic company. This was around the time the internet was gaining popularity, and many comic book creators had online forums where fans like Wilson could learn more about the medium.
After graduating college in Boston, she moved to Egypt to teach English. And that’s where she wrote her first graphic novel, Cairo, about a city that she says was an endless source of inspiration.
“It refined who I was as a person… and impacted how I see the world,” she says. “I was writing constantly there. I felt a need to digest everything I was seeing. It was right after 9/11. People were both afraid and curious about the ‘Muslim world.’”
It was also around this time that Wilson converted to Islam. “Encountering Islam sort of reflected to me the things I already knew I believed,” she says. “It was like finding something I didn’t know I had been looking for.”
Although she had been considering converting before September 11th, the aftermath of the event made it difficult for her to follow her truth in her home country.
“I felt very guilty,” she continues. “I thought this is something that I need to explore, and I’m going to be miserable if I can’t have access to this part of myself and figure it out, as most 19 years olds and 20 year olds are trying to figure out who they are and where they sit in the world. If I can’t do that, I’ll panic. If I can’t do it here, then I’ll do it somewhere else.”
As Muslims were being harassed in the United States, Wilson found a different experience in Egypt.
“There wasn’t an equal and opposite anti-American sentiment there,” she says. I was never made to feel terrible for being American, or like it was my fault that this horrible war was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. People were curious, they were like, ‘What’s going on, what are people thinking, why are these things happening?’ But it was nothing like what happens here, where every Muslim is responsible whether they’re 5 years old or 90 years old, whether they’ve ever set foot out of the United States.”
Unfortunately, Wilson says, Islamophobia is worse today than it was when she left the U.S. in 2003. But she’s quick to say that she doesn’t have it as bad as other people.
“I have it a lot, lot, lot, lot better than some people — people who are named Muhammad, people who don’t hold American passports, people who have accents, people who have a skin color and a background and a nationality that we instantly associate with terrorism,” she says. “And I would never compare them to things that a lot of people I know have faced, which they can’t escape because they’re intrinsic parts of who they are.”
But it’s in the comic book world that Wilson says she feels comfortable. It’s a space where she can be accepted for herself.
“Part of what I love about the comic book culture is that kind of by nature it’s outsider culture. Geek culture is outsider culture. I feel like we’re all freaks, together,” she says with a laugh. “I get stared at less in my headscarf at a comic book convention than I do wandering around the streets.”
Even though Wilson says she’s been lucky to tell her stories in both the DC and Marvel worlds, she recognizes that comic books are not a utopia of diversity. They have been chided for their lack of minority and female characters, artists and writers.
But Wilson and her colleagues are helping to even the odds. A few years ago, Wilson was approached by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker to create a monthly comic series about a female Muslim superhero.
“I thought initially they were nuts. I was like, ‘You’re going to get so much hate mail that you’re going to have to hire an intern just to open the hate mail,’” she says. “By the old industry wisdom, [Kamala] was the trifecta of death: New characters don’t sell, minority characters don’t sell, female characters don’t sell. By the old math we should have been given the ax after five issues.”
Kamala’s first book, No Normal, hit stands October 2014, and it was the best-selling graphic novel of that month. The following month it reached the second spot on New York Times Best Seller list of paperback graphic books, with subsequent issues nabbing high spots as well. It turned out that hate-mail-reading intern wouldn’t be necessary.
“To see how well the series did right out of the gate and to see how people responded was magical and life affirming, and I still pinch myself,” Wilson says.
Kamala is not the first heroin to strap on the Ms. Marvel series mask. As it is common in the comic book universe, plot twists and complicated back stories abound. Kamala Kahn inherited the name of Ms. Marvel from Carol Danvers, a blonde, blue-eyed officer in the United States Air Force who became Ms. Marvel in the ’70s. Decades later, in 2012, Danvers herself transformed into the new Captain Marvel, a moniker that was originally assigned to a white male in the ’60s.
Wilson sees the progress as a generational passing of the torch, one that’s reflective of the time period.
“I think when the original Captain Marvel was around, the male iteration, we sort of saw the experience of straight white, middle aged men as the default experience, both of America and of the human race,” Wilson says. “To have that evolve, we get Carol Danvers during the women’s movement — she was the character that originally came out of that era as Ms. Marvel — that sort of suggested that, ‘Hey, there are other perspectives out there. We can’t sort of ignore this experience of half the human race or assume that their experiences are not also sometimes universal.’ The evolution of that, and now to Kamala.”
Living in such a diverse world, Wilson says, it would be a disservice to this generation to continue to pretend that the white American experience is the only one. But comic books are a medium that evolves with time and with its storytellers.
“That’s what’s cool about superhero comics. You get these characters who are 60, 70, 80, 90 years old, and who have been reinvented for each new generation to reflect the specific issues of that generation,” Wilson says. “To me that’s what Kamala is. Carol had something very specific to say when she first came around as Ms. Marvel, and now that she’s evolved into Captain Marvel, the conversation has changed. And Kamala is a continuation of that conversation of who we are.”
And what is Kamala adding?
“I wouldn’t presume to sum it up in one sentence, but she’s trying to say that being American means a lot of different things. And that heroes don’t all look the same or speak the same language or believe the same thing. The thing they share in common is they do what’s right even when it’s difficult,” Wilson says.
She calls Kamala lightning in a bottle and credits the comic’s success to the fans, calling the audience the magic ingredient.
“We could have done this exact series 10 years ago and it would have flopped,” she says. “Today there’s a critical mass of enthusiastic, wonderful, creative, committed comic book readers who like to have fun, who are less into the dark and gritty, and are into some kind of optimism. But at the same time, they don’t shy away from confronting real life issues.”
Unlike many superheroes, Kamala doesn’t come from a broken home, nor is she seeking vengeance. Kamala has both parents, a brother and a sister. As a child of Pakistani immigrants, Kamala struggles with her faith — a choice Willow says was intentional, as the comic’s creators didn’t set out to write a “model minority book,” where life is perfect.
Ms. Marvel delves into the troubles in Kamala’s life, from the trivial desire for a taste of bacon to the heavier issue of skewed perceptions about headscarfs. “But I mean… nobody pressured you to start wearing it right?” a friend asks Kamala’s sister in Issue 1. “Nobody’s going to, like, honor kill you? I’m just concerned.”
And even though Kamala’s problems seem specific, they cut to the core identity struggles of adolescence.
“We wanted it to feel very relatable,” Wilson says. “And everybody struggles with big ideas of who they are and what they believe and what they’re meant to do at some point in their life.
“And I think the fact that Kamala is 16, when you’re really starting to struggle with those issues and you’re starting to define yourself independently from your peers and your family and your school, makes it very poignant because we’ve all been there.”
But most importantly, Kamala is just a teenage girl, who happens to be a shape shifter, dealing with the same drama — succumbing to the standards of beauty or failing at living up to expectations. These issues were essential to make the character real to her readers, which ultimately is the point of Wilson’s work.
“I think no matter how fantastical the story that you’re writing,” Wilson says, “if you can’t give the reader something they can walk away with and use in their life then you haven’t done your job.”
On the Bill: G. Willow Wilson at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Sept 23-25, Boulder Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-441-3100. For a full schedule go to jaipurliteraturefestival.org.