The Hero in the Hijab
The first teenage Muslim superhero girl will come to life at a kitchen table in Seattle.
This is what happens next: G. Willow Wilson, writer, mother, Muslim, will answer the phone for an interview. She’ll explain that comics “are unique because you can show multiple points in time at the same moment.” That is, juxtaposed panels can depict multiple events simultaneously on the same page.
For instance, you can jump way back to Boston University circa 9/11. The daughter of white upper-middle class atheists, Wilson was, as she has described it, “in the market for a philosophy.” Or jump-cut forward in time, to when Wilson was on her way to live in Egypt and converted to Islam on the plane.
Or to last fall, when Marvel Comics announced its first-ever teenage Muslim superhero series, Ms. Marvel, written by Wilson.
In the premiere issue, out in February, readers will meet Ms. Marvel, a shape-shifting crime fighter who’s the alter ego of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American high schooler living with her family in New Jersey.
Marvel contacted Wilson due largely to her previous work (see below), but also for her understanding of Muslim life in America. She’d also be able to draw on her anxieties as a mother. “I have two young daughters who are half Egyptian, half American. I think a lot about what it will be like for them to grow up with those dual identities at a time they’re being told they can’t be proud of either. Here in the United States to be an Arab or Muslim is somewhat suspect. In the rest of the world, the U.S. is often seen as a bogeyman.”
The trick will be to not only make Ms. Marvel appeal to an audience that’s traditionally white and male, but to integrate the new hero into the Marvel universe, an ever widening gyre of backstories and interlinking plots.
The name comes with baggage. Writers treated the first Ms. Marvel, in the ’70s, less than gallantly. “Like a lot of female characters from that era, she ends up impregnated against her will by an interstellar evil guy. She’s objectified in ways that we now would be quite legitimately freaked out by.”
In issue one of Wilson’s Ms. Marvel we’ll learn that Kamala Khan takes inspiration from her hero Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel who’s enjoyed an update in recent years—from sex slave to self-possessed protagonist. “Kamala very much admires Captain Marvel,” says Wilson. “She admires her strength and her willingness to make her own way in kind of a guy’s world.”
G. Willow Wilson, whose 2010 memoir The Butterfly Mosque details her conversion, will no doubt help Kamala make her own way in a non-Muslim world. She’ll even do so with humor (the G in her name is silent, she jokes, though it stands for Gwendolyn) and while sitting at her writing perch, a kitchen table in Seattle. She and her husband—to jump back in time again—moved here from Cairo in 2007, intending only to stay a year or so. Skip forward to the present, where they own a house and have become self-described Seattle “salmon snobs.”
She’ll sit at that table and battle stereotypes, panel by panel, forward and backward in time. For Wilson it never stops.
“I like to keep the beats coming.”