Late last year, Marvel Comics announced that it would reboot Ms. Marvel in February and put an all-new superheroine at the helm: Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim girl who lives in New Jersey. WIRED has the first look at Kamala from her Ms. Marvel debut, a preview that also will appear in the All-New Marvel NOW! Point One issue on sale in print and digital versions tomorrow.
Kamala, a second-generation Pakistani-American, isn’t Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, but she is the first to get a solo title — and certainly the first to get the title of Ms. Marvel. Although the most popular superheroes tend to be white guys created decades ago, legacy heroes who pass their familiar names to new characters are one way publishers like Marvel and DC Comics have brought greater diversity to their fictional worlds. (They do tend to revert to their original hosts as time goes on, however, making the added diversity seem a bit more tenuous.) If you’re wondering what happened to the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, she’s the star of her own title under the moniker Captain Marvel — another legacy title.
The new Ms. Marvel, which comes out in print and digital on Feb. 5, is illustrated by Adrian Alphona (Runaways, Uncanny X-Force) and scripted by G. Willow Wilson, a writer and novelist whose work includes the comics Cairo, Air and Mystic, as well as the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Alif the Unseen. Wilson, a convert to Islam, spoke to WIRED about the challenges of writing a high-profile Muslim superheroine who struggles with identity issues even before acquiring shapeshifting powers.
WIRED: There’s been a lot of scrutiny of the character since the announcement, particularly because of her Muslim faith. Do you feel like there’s extra pressure to treat her as a representative for all Muslims?
Wilson: There’s a burden of representation that comes into play when there aren’t enough representatives of a certain group in popular culture. So the few ones that do exist come under increased scrutiny and pressure, because they’re expected to represent everybody. Obviously, you can’t do that with one character and you shouldn’t, because it would stifle the narrative and prevent them from becoming a fully-realized person. So I think in situations like that, you just have to tread lightly and trust your gut. Kamala is not a token anything in any way. She’s very much her own quirky, unique, wonderful person. She’s not a poster girl for her religion and she doesn’t fall into any neat little box.
If you put the shoe on the other foot and said we’re going to have one Christian character that represents all Christians, the ridiculousness would be obvious right away. Are you talking about white Methodists from Oklahoma? Are you talking about Anglicans in Africa, who are the fastest growing group of Christians on planet Earth? It’s patently impossible for a Muslim character to represent “all Muslims.”
WIRED: What sort of response have you gotten since the character was announced in November? Has there been any backlash?
Wilson: There’s been some hate from people who don’t read comics, which I ignore because in terms of this medium, they are illiterate. There’s this sense that [Muslims] shouldn’t even be there because it’s somehow un-American… Especially in comics, because [comics] are seen — by people who don’t read comics – as this wholesome, 100% “truth, justice and the American way” product. They’re not thinking about manga; they’re not thinking about all the changes that have occurred in comics over the last decade or so. They don’t know the history of the medium that well… and the medium has evolved.
On the other side, there’s a certain amount of apprehension from the Muslim community about whether or not [Kamala] is going to be a stereotype or a whitewashing. I think lot of Muslims have gotten fatigued by the way Muslim characters, even “positive” ones, are portrayed in the media. But I think that [apprehension] will go away when the book actually comes out, because no one’s actually read it yet! It’s something that we really put our heart and soul into. I’ve spent my entire adult life in Muslim communities of various kinds both abroad and here in the U.S. and these are issues that are really close to my heart. So I hope people will be pleasantly surprised.
WIRED: Do you think the fact that Kamala is a woman as well as a Muslim will provoke different reactions?
Wilson: Possibly yes. We have this conversation in the American Muslim community a lot. Because the traditional mode of dress for Muslim women is so distinct – the headcovering, which is not there for guys – women carry a greater burden of representation than Muslim men do in non-Muslim societies. So there is that extra level of scrutiny about things like how the character is dressed or whom she interacts with. In the case of Kamala, I really wanted her to be representative of young American Muslims as they are, not how we idealize them. Most young American Muslim women do not cover their hair, so she doesn’t cover her hair… The key thing is authenticity, and not trying to please everybody with a cardboard cutout that doesn’t feel like a human being with flaws and quirks and charms.
WIRED: There’s a long tradition of super-powered characters like the X-Men in superhero comics serving as metaphors for issues of societal prejudice. Is there a metaphor behind Kamala’s shapeshifting powers?
Wilson: At the very early stages, I [said] I did not want her to have stereotypical girl powers. Nothing’s going to sparkle; she’s not going to float. I wanted her to have something kinetic and physical that would look fun on the page. There was a lot of back and forth about what her power set should be, and we settled on making her a polymorph.
Polymorphs have a very interesting history in comics, though, because they’re most often bad guys. They’re painted in a negative light because their powers are considered somewhat sneaky compared to the classic power sets like being strong or flying or shooting lightning bolts. So when we decided to make her a polymorph, it was very fraught because she can use her powers to escape what she sees as the conflict in her life between her family and faith and being an American teen. She can hide [from it], and that temptation is there. She can use her powers to try and be all things to all people, which also isn’t healthy. In a way, you’re unpacking two stereotypes, one about Muslims and one about shapeshifters, which I thought meshed nicely with the storyline. But it was a big risk. And I’m still having conversations about what lines to cross and which ones not to cross.
WIRED: In terms of her faith or her powers?
Wilson Both. Actually, in a lot of ways I’m a less concerned about the religious aspect. I’ve been writing about religion for a decade now and I’ve had these conversations many times. But when it comes to a polymorph, that means that you can change the look of a character in ways that are often very intrinsic to identity. You can change the character’s outward appearance of gender, you can change the character’s outward appearance of race.
WIRED: Do you think that the negative associations with polymorphs come, to some degree, from a cultural fear about fluidity of personal identity?
Wilson: Yes, I think that’s a huge part of it. I think you’ve put your finger on it. We do like to put people in boxes. We do feel more comfortable when people are something we can define. That way we can know what to avoid, what to say or not say. When there is fluidity involved, it makes it more complicated. It’s interesting to be writing this particular character at this point in history when we are starting to have a lot of those debates about gender, about race.
My children are – well, there’s a whole debate about whether or not Arabs are white or not white that feeds into this whole conversation. But they’re half-Egyptian, so they’re of mixed ethnicity. And the year my older daughter was born, 2011, was the first year that the majority of the babies born in the U.S. were non-white. The entire makeup of the United States is starting to change. There is more fluidity. There are many more people now who are the children of multi-racial, multi-ethnic families. We are starting to grapple as a nation with this idea of fluidity. In more than one way, this is a character whose time has come.