G Willow Wilson explains why she has created a Muslim superhero, and why Kamala Khan is not a poster girl for religion
A classic superhero story with added tension … the cast of Ms Marvel. Photograph: Adrian Alphona
In many ways, says the writer G Willow Wilson, Marvel’s new comic-book character is a typical teenager, dealing with the angst of high school, before discovering superhero powers. So far, so Peter Parker. Except 16-year-old Kamala Khan is female, and a Muslim: unusual enough in the world of comics to have caused quite a ripple when it was announced in November.
“She’s a child of Pakistani immigrants,” says Wilson from her home in Seattle, where she is already working on the third issue; the series will start in February. “On the one hand, she grew up in an American city as a fairly typical middle-class American kid, but she’s also got the tradition and history of her parents. She faces a lot of the same dilemmas many second-generation kids do.”
To begin with, the story establishes Kamala’s family and high-school life. “And then quite unexpectedly – I won’t quite reveal how – she finds herself with these extraordinary powers that allow her to grow and shrink her entire body, or specific limbs. Eventually she will be able to take on the appearance of other people and things, and so she really has to decide, ‘Why do I have these powers, and what am I meant to use them for? How does this change who I am?'” She takes on the name Ms Marvel, previously used by superhero Carol Danvers (now known as Captain Marvel). “It’s very much a classic superhero origin story but with this added tension of her growing into herself as a second-generation American Muslim.”
Kamala isn’t the first Muslim comic-book character, nor even Marvel’s first Muslim woman, but she is their first to lead her own series. The idea came from two Marvel editors: Sana Amanat, who had been telling her colleague, Steve Wacker, tales of growing up in a Muslim family. (The idea predates the recent rise to prominence of the similarly named, similarly brave teenage girl, education activist Malala Yousafzai.) Amanat and Wacker approached Wilson – who converted to Islam in college, and whose work includes the comic Cairo and novel Alif the Unseen – to be the writer (with artwork by Adrian Alphona). “My immediate thought was, ‘What are we going to get ourselves into?'” she says.
It wasn’t that she worried Marvel’s readership would balk at a Muslim teenage girl: “The comic-reading demographic is certainly changing and diversifying.” But, she says, “whenever you have a character representing any kind of minority, including women, who are underrepresented, there is extra scrutiny because there are no other examples. Everyone wants to see their own personal opinions in that character. So I knew we had to have a very deft touch.”
Amanat told the New York Times that Kamala’s brother is very conservative, her mother worries “she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant” and her father wants her to become a doctor. This led some to suggest the series reinforced the stereotype of a Muslim family, although the general response was positive. “I understand why people are apprehensive because any time you hear about a Muslim character in pop culture, you’re immediately bracing for all of that negativity,” says Wilson. “But Sana and I have tried to stay very true to our own experiences in the community. I come from a fairly conservative Muslim community in Seattle, and I know the positive side of those communities and nuances that are maybe not picked up in the media.”
Kamala’s faith, she says, “is part of her personal journey, but she is in no way a poster child for religion. She’s very much at the phase of deciding who she is, which many teenagers go through regardless of their background. I don’t think any of us were out to make some political point, just to reflect the reality and give voice to the young women who are at this very interesting point in history and trying to navigate two worlds.” Or three – if you’re a teenage superhero and about to enter the Marvel universe.