Marvel debuts first Muslim heroine to headline a comic series

G. Willow Wilson, Seattle author of the new Marvel Comics series released next month, explains how a typical Pakistani-American teen and her alter ego Ms. Marvel should be everyone’s all-American hero.  

Kamala Khan shops at thrift shops and is described as a bit of a geek when it comes to fandom and gaming. She’s a typical 16-year-old Pakistani-American from New Jersey dealing with both cross-cultural and coming-of-age issues. But what’s not so typical is she has the ability to change size, form and appearance at will — and she’s fighting supervillains.

Owing to Marvel Comic’s efforts to diversify characters and appeal to a wider audience, Kamala will be the first American Muslim to star in her own comic. She will be taking on the mantle of Ms. Marvel.

Set to release in February, Seattle author G. Willow Wilson has been selected to write the comic. At a time when Islamophobia is “the last acceptable prejudice,” she said, she was impressed Marvel wanted a teenage Muslim superhero headlining her own series.

“I have two young daughters, and it means a lot to me to be able to help create a new generation of heroes that, I hope, will be relevant to the struggles they will face,” said Wilson, mentioning the dearth of young American Muslim representation in pop culture.

The author, who has been living in Seattle for the past five years, brings the necessary skills to the table. She’s written several graphic novels and comic series, including “Cairo,” “Air” and “Mystic,” also published by Marvel.

Seattle author G. Willow Wilson teams up with Marvel illustrator Adrian Alphona to create "Ms. Marvel." (Photo via Autostraddle.com)Seattle author G. Willow Wilson teams up with Marvel illustrator Adrian Alphona to create “Ms. Marvel.” (Photo via Autostraddle.com)

Her highly acclaimed memoir “The Butterfly Mosque” chronicles her closet conversion to Islam as a Boston University student after a brush with mortality, her stint as a journalist in Egypt and a beautiful cross-cultural wedding on the Nile to an Egyptian man before moving back to the U.S. It was named “Best Book of 2010” by The Seattle Times. Her second book, a spiritually-charged part real science, part thriller titled “Alif the Unseen” won the 2013 World Fantasy Award for best novel.

“This (comic) book is all about turning stereotypes on their heads,” said Wilson.

And that includes the portrayal of shape shifters in the comic world as often evil or dubious.

“To be a polymorph is to have a physically fluid identity — to literally wear different hats. So in a way, it externalizes the struggle that a lot of people feel when they are pulled between different roles and different aspects of the same life,” said Wilson. “Yet there is a strength that arises from the refusal to fit into predetermined categories.”

Part of the struggle Kamala faces is harmonizing her fused cultural identity; she has a conservative brother and overbearing parents.

Meet two generations of Khans in a sketch of heroine Kamala Khan and her family. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona)Meet two generations of Khans in a sketch of heroine Kamala Khan and her family. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona)

“There’s also the temptation to run away from one’s problems by putting on a different face,” said Wilson. “But does that really solve anything? Can we really turn our backs on our histories, our heritages, the things that make us who we are? And if we can, should we?”

Compared by The Guardian to Malala Yousafzai and deemed a watershed moment by other media sites, writers were quick to point out the significance of a Muslim girl depicted as a lifesaver, an identity that has been persistently labeled as someone in need of saving.

Superheroes have seen us through our darkest moments as a nation. Emerging as cultural icons during times of national conflict, Superman and Captain America are linked to the era of World War II. Thor and Iron Man’s stories can be seen as a reflection of the Cold War and nuclear threat. The rise in popularity of Wolverine and Spiderman after 9/11 is connected to the backdrop of fear that ensued after, though perhaps not a direct result of it.

Prejudices and fears once harbored can be imaginatively battled in the safe panels of a comic. And a superhero needs to be right for its time. Perhaps, the reversal of designated roles of the Muslim female, which Kamala presents, is a sign of a post-War on Terror sentiment emerging. At the same time, Wilson points out that Kamala isn’t meant to “score some kind of political point,” and only reflects the reality of a “singular young woman who is struggling to be true to herself and her roots at a time when it isn’t always easy.”

The idea behind the new character arose when Marvel Comics editor Sana Amanat shared anecdotes from her own childhood as a Pakistani-American growing up on the East Coast with fellow Marvel editor Steve Wacker. Wacker thought that a super heroine who reflects the unique stories and challenges of second-generations Americans would speak to the growing group of women and minorities reading comic books. Adrian Alphona was recruited as illustrator for the series.

“This is not a fluffy book,” said Wilson. “This is not a book about a token minority character whose sole purpose is to reassure people that the status quo is great and everybody is fine and dandy.”

Wilson continued.

“The added dimension of being the child of two worlds — of wanting to defend her heritage in a time when Islamophobia is kind of the last acceptable prejudice, and at the same time being a typical American teen in many ways — simply adds to that journey of self-discovery and identity and gives it a unique poignancy.”

Atia Musazay is a Seattle-based journalist. Her work has been published in The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal and several others. She recently graduated from the University of Washington where she studied journalism and English. When she’s not reporting news, she’s reading the poetry of dead, mystic saints, sipping tea and exploring the world through the lens of a camera. Connect with her on Twitter @atiamusazay.

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