The Dismantling: G. Willow Wilson on Ms. Marvel and a Divided America

As a White American woman, a convert to Islam, and writer of the Pakistani-American superhero series Ms. Marvel, G. Willow Wilson has to navigate multiple fault lines of American identity.

  • October 12, 2017
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  • Feature
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

G. Willow Wilson finds herself at a point writers both long for and fear to stand: Representing many things to many people.

The Seattle comics writer, novelist, essayist, and memoirist has written broadly about her experiences as a White American convert to Islam — a leap of faith that had to escape the dual gravity of an American atheist upbringing and post-9/11 prejudices. But it was by creating a super-powered Muslim girl— the latest version of Ms. Marvel—for Marvel Comics, that Wilson won acclaim as a skilled voice speaking to multiple corners of the American experience.

It hasn’t always been a comfortable perch for the 35-year-old writer. “If there’s a Venn diagram between my identity as a Muslim and my identity as an American, they’re two non-overlapping circles,” she says. “For a long time I had to write for those two audiences in a completely different way for completely different venues, and it’s only recently that I can write for large overlapping audiences at all.”

Chalk that up to Wilson’s iteration of Ms. Marvel — a.k.a. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen who can suddenly stretch, enlarge, and change shape after exposure to a transformative gas. Kamala wants to save the world, of course, but she’s routinely forced to weigh that instinct against the demands of family, faith, and friendship. Created with artist Adrian Alphona and Marvel editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, Kamala’s monthly comic has garnered industry awards and topped bestseller lists since her 2014 introduction, and the character herself has been adopted as a symbol of protest and resistance. In 2015, graffiti activists used Ms. Marvel to deface anti-Muslim advertisements in San Francisco. After the 2016 election, she turned up on placards at the Women’s March.

“Usually, writers and poets and inventors are very protective of the things they’ve invented,” Wilson says. “For a superhero, you want them to outlive you. … I’m not suggesting that Kamala has reached that level, but to see her in the wild as a symbol that people have taken up and that has given people hope, in what I think we can all agree is a somewhat dark time, is incredible for me to watch.”

Wilson discusses her life and work October 23 at Seattle’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, as part of Humanities Washington’s “The Big Split: Conversations About Our Divided State and Nation.” KUOW radio host Jamala Henderson leads the discussion, delving into topics of creativity, identity, and the minefields awaiting artists who try to reflect a diverse world.

Wilson became a fan of superhero comics as a 10-year-old when an anti-smoking circular was passed around her school featuring Cyclops, Storm, and the rest of Marvel’s X-Men battling the evil of youth tobacco consumption. “I tell people, ‘It must have worked, because I never smoked,” she says now. “But the thing that really stuck with me were these characters. This would’ve been the very early ’90s, or even the late ’80s, which was kind of the heyday of Chris Claremont and these meta-narrative superhero stories — the Dark Phoenix saga. It was kind of a time when superhero stories were getting very philosophical, and that, for me, tied together a lot of stuff I was getting interested in.”

The enthusiasm persisted as she grew into a writer and journalist, studied the Quran, and made her first visit in 2001 to Cairo, Egypt. (“I was 19, and thought of myself as being very worldly. It just took 45 minutes in a taxi for me to realize that was all complete B.S.”) She made Cairo her home two years later, and major magazines back in the U.S. published her articles about national and expatriate life under the declining Mubarak regime. Her migration to Egypt — and to Islam — became the subject of her first book in 2010, the memoir The Butterfly Mosque.

While writing about Egypt, she was also selling superhero scripts to DC Comics and Marvel, the two largest publishers in the business. She contributed story arcs for Superman, Aquaman and Vixen, and at DC’s Vertigo imprint, she developed the mystical graphic novel Cairo in 2007 and the monthly series Air, which ran from 2008 to 2010. Her comics work, as well as her techno-magical 2012 thriller novel Alif the Unseen, convinced Marvel she was the writer to bring a super-powered American Muslim teen to life.

Taking on this distinctly different project forced Wilson to think differently about storytelling in superhero comics — and about the collateral damage that superhumans tend to wreak when fighting evildoers. “This kind of peripheral destruction is considered normal [in superhero comics],” she says, “and that’s not really something I had to think about a whole lot until I sat down and tried to create this Muslim superhero. And it’s like, wow, that violence that we don’t think twice about at the hands of a Cyclops is going to be something different at the hands of a Muslim superhero.”

Kamala isn’t Marvel’s first female Muslim hero; she’s preceded by at least two X-Men characters. But she is the first to headline her own continuing book, where her forerunners have wound up neglected in plot-heavy, large-ensemble stories. Ms. Marvel has now won the Hugo Award, the Harvey Award, and the Eisner Award, the most prestigious in comics — twice.

That hasn’t shut up the haters, though. On social media, on comics-fan message boards, Ms. Marvel, its publisher, and Wilson herself have been targeted for perceived crimes of political correctness and crusading feminism. Whether or not Kamala Khan “comes with baggage,” the culture warriors who’d like to see her comic fail have been more than glad to assign baggage to her.

“This is a time when symbolism is so fraught, and these highly symbolic characters who were previously the common property, we thought, of Americans as a whole — and at times the world as a whole — are now being claimed by these various political factions,” Wilson says of this kerfuffle. “It’s almost like the dismantling of common culture. It’s like a big divorce. The country is getting a divorce, and we’re dividing up who gets what comic, who gets what sport, who gets what symbol. It’s tense.”

G. Willow Wilson will be discussing Ms. Marvel and American identity on October 23 at the Langston Hughes Institute for the Performing Arts in Seattle. Tickets and more information available here.

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