“I’ve always had a hard time seeing hard and fast boundaries,” G. Willow Wilson told me during a phone conversation about her career. We were talking about the porousness of realms of reality in much of her work, but her comment also applies to her success as a “professional genre-bender,” as she calls herself on her website (gwillowwilson.com).
Wilson, 31, has a rich and varied collection of work to her credit. A convert to Islam, Wilson spent the years immediately following her graduation from Boston University in Cairo, Egypt. While there, she contributed to American publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine, as well as the Egyptian weekly Cairo Magazine. She was the first Western journalist to interview Ali Gomaa after he became Egypt’s Grand Mufti; the powerful religious leader was so impressed with her work that he invited her for a second conversation.
Her experiences in Egypt are the subject of her lovely and thought-provoking 2010 memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, in which her personal story intersects with global issues, including what she calls the ongoing “clash of civilizations” that prevents accord between her culture of origin and that of her second home. Some boundaries appear impenetrable, but Wilson herself—an American and a Muslim—enacts life daily in a manner that refuses to accept that notion.
In her novel, Alif the Unseen, which garnered the 2013 World Fantasy Award, Wilson brilliantly blends modern day technology (the protagonist is a hacktivist) and ancient mythmaking to create a fast-paced adventure in which the seen and the unseen choose sides and battle for the soul of an unnamed Arab territory. It is a novel of both action and ideas. Wilson’s concept for how old, layered stories might inform modern day computing and social change is breathtaking. She also has much to say about belief, clashing cultures and the nature of fiction itself.
Her work in comics has been equally layered. Her first graphic novel, 2007’s Cairo, with art by M.K. Perker, features a collection of characters with conflicting backgrounds and beliefs who must come together (with the help of a jinn) to defeat an evil gangster/magician. In Wilson and Perker’s Eisner-nominated series Air (2009-2010), a young woman with supernatural powers of flight must untangle a complicated skein in which loyalties, motivations and the nature of reality are all open to interpretation. In the DC mini-series Vixen: Return of the Lion (2010), Wilson reimagined a key moment in the life of a Justice Leaguer, and she earned another Eisner nomination for her work on Marvel Comics’ Mystic: The Tenth Apprentice (2011).
This combination of storytelling experience and personal understanding of issues surrounding Islam in the United States—as well as the complicated nature of personal identity—made her a perfect choice to join the team when Marvel Comics editors Sana Amanat (herself a Muslim-American) and Steve Wacker had an idea for Ms. Marvel.
In the Marvel universe, Carol Danvers, the longtime Ms. Marvel, is now Captain Marvel and the lead character in an outstanding ongoing series written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. That left a spot on the Marvel roster for a new Ms. Marvel. Enter Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager living in Jersey City, whose burgeoning powers include the ability to change shape.
I asked Wilson if she anticipated that Ms. Marvel, the first issue of which was released in February, would serve as a vehicle for some of the larger themes found in much of her other work. She suggested instead that what makes the project interesting to her is its focus on a second-generation member of an immigrant family.
After talking with many children of immigrants, Wilson discovered that people like Kamala feel as though they are “a little bit of an outsider no matter where they are.” The fact that they may speak a different language at home or may bring different kinds of food for lunch highlights these differences. This may lead them to wonder if their true identity is elsewhere.
“They think the missing piece of their identity must be in the mother country,” Wilson said, “but when they go there, they’re the American.”
The strategy for dealing with this sense of disconnection? Turn it inside out.
“Rather than seeing themselves as outsiders,” Wilson explained, “they see themselves as insiders wherever they go. It’s American innovation at work.”
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Wilson herself is familiar with these feelings. “When I’m in the United States, I’m in the ethnic majority, but a religious minority. When I’m in Egypt, I’m in the religious majority, but the ethnic minority.” For Wilson, this dichotomy is part of her adult experience, but people like Kamala, she says, “inherit it at birth.”
From the opening moments of Ms. Marvel #1, with art by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, and lettering by Joe Caramagna, we see the conflicts Kamala struggles with. “I just want to smell it,” she says as she gazes longingly at a B.L.T. “Delicious, delicious infidel meat … ”
“She’s very much growing into herself,” Wilson explained. And while much of her story reflects what Wilson called the “universality of the teenage experience,” Kamala is also “trying to straddle those two conflicting sets of demands. Her journey is about coming to grips with the fact that you can’t please everyone all of the time, and that you shouldn’t have to.”
This internal conflict is highlighted in a lovely scene in which Kamala, having snuck out of her house only to be deeply disappointed by the party she thought she wanted to attend, has a mystical encounter with figures in the guise of Iron Man, Captain America and Captain Marvel.
“Zoe thought that because I snuck out, it was okay for her to make fun of my family,” Kamala says. “Like, Kamala’s finally seen the light and kicked the dumb inferior brown people and their rules to the curb. But that’s not why I snuck out! It’s not that I think Ammi and Abu are dumb, it’s just—I grew up here! I’m from Jersey City, not Karachi! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.”
Before the scene can bog down in Kamala’s angst, Wilson lightens the mood with an unexpected joke about the original Ms. Marvel’s “classic, politically incorrect costume.”
It’s a masterful sequence—well supported by Alphona’s art—that establishes Kamala as a three-dimensional character, with conflicting desires and a sharp need to understand just who she is. As such, she is likely to appeal to a wide swath of comics readers, but perhaps especially those who are seeking more diverse heroes. Wilson, citing changing demographics in comics fandom, credits Marvel for recognizing the need for changes on the pages of comic books. “They’re making room at the table for as many voices as possible. Readers are looking for authentic representations of their own experiences and the experiences of others.” Given Wilson’s well-established gifts as a storyteller, I’m confident the adventures of the new Ms. Marvel will always be engaging. I hope the book finds its audience and Kamala becomes a star of the Marvel universe.
Born colorblind and therefore convinced he’d never enjoy graphic forms of storytelling, Rob Cline was first bitten by the comics bug in college. The resulting virus lay dormant for many years before it was activated by the inscrutable work of Grant Morrison. Now Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic.