‘Ms. Marvel’ Creator on the Right-Wing Backlash to Her Muslim Superhero and Remixing Wonder Woman
G. Willow Wilson opens up to Melissa Leon about the surprising ‘Ms. Marvel’ phenomenon (as well as the ugly backlash) and updating ‘Wonder Woman’ for the 21st century.
The writer G. Willow Wilson hears the same line a lot, though she swears it never gets old. It comes from fans and readers—or in this case, a journalist—at conventions, in letters, online or in interviews. They tell her that Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, a character Wilson co-created and is now nearly synonymous with, is largely the reason they became comics fans at all. They’re often women, often young, often Muslim; in Kamala, they see someone like them.
A gawky and winsome Pakistani-American teenager (and the first Muslim character to headline her own Marvel Comics series), Kamala has appealed to readers beyond the regulars at comic-book shops from the start. Way beyond: collected volumes starring the breakout character cracked the New York Times bestseller list four times since her 2014 debut; she’s become an Avenger, a playable video-game character, an animated cartoon. “We’re going into the 10th trade paperback of a series that we thought would only last 10 issues,” Wilson says with a laugh. She once hoped Kamala might live on as a sidekick in other books; instead, the unassuming New Jersey teen with “embiggening” powers is a phenomenon all her own.
Wilson’s path, meanwhile, now leads her to another comics icon: Wonder Woman, at rival publisher DC Comics. (She’ll continue writing Ms. Marvel, she says, until it becomes “clear” that other storytellers “can take her places that I can’t.”) Wonder Woman #58, on sale Wednesday, pairs Wilson with Eisner-winning artist Cary Nord for an arc that at once reexamines the values Diana Prince stands for and challenges her with a fraught situation where “good” guys are virtually impossible to tell apart from the bad: 21st-century warfare.
Wonder Woman and her longtime love Steve Trevor are both World War II-era characters, Wilson points out, created by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter at a time when war, for the most part, entailed two armies squaring off across a battlefield. The erupting civil war in the fictional country of Durovnia, on the other hand, looks more like the American-backed proxy wars of today. Diana rushes in to search for Steve and finds her closest human friend, Etta Candy, along with the American Air Force and Navy, lending support to the Durovnian government as it quells an indigenous independence movement—“democratically, of course,” as Etta sardonically puts it. The Americans, she explains, are bound to help by a treaty—their hands are tied. But that matters little to Diana as she watches ground troops rack up civilian casualties.
Complicating matters is the reemergence of an old enemy: the god of war himself, sprung free from his Themysciran prison and now claiming to fight for justice. “Is there such a thing as a just war nowadays?” Wilson asks. “And if there is, what does it look like?”
The Daily Beast spoke to Wilson about her journey to DC Comics.
I know you’ve been on sick leave for a few months. Are you feeling better?
I am, thank you! Yeah, I did not intend to spend my fall, ever since the operation, on bed rest but I’m up right now. (Laughs.) I’m at my desk. So things are improving. Thank you.
How exactly were you drawn over to DC? Is Wonder Woman the first title they’ve offered you since the success of Ms. Marvel?
It was kind of a happy coincidence. I had just wrapped up work on my second novel—or “book without pictures,” as I call it for my comic-book fans—so I turned that in, really cleared my plate and I was, for the first time in years, open to new projects. I had kind of planned to kick back and marinate and think about things for a while—to see what I wanted to do, see what was out there, send out some feelers. But as it happened, about two days after I’d kind of cleared my desk, I get a call from [DC editor] Chris Conroy saying, “Hey, are you free to write Wonder Woman?” So it really did feel like fate. And of course I said yes. (Laughs) Because you don’t say “no” when you get that call. And then it was off to the races.
Your Wonder Woman establishes herself pretty quickly as a symbol of love and justice, two pillars of her character over 75 years. What does writing her represent to you?
I think she, for me, was both a unique opportunity and a unique challenge. I think she’s the most difficult of the quote-unquote holy trinity to write, definitely—the holy trinity being Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. It’s funny, I was just talking to somebody about this but I think with Batman and Superman, there are very human parts of them for readers to relate to. The ordinary farm boy who discovers he’s got this great destiny and the rich kid who has everything but then everything gets taken away and becomes an anti-hero. Even if you’re not a multi-millionaire or a farm kid, there are elements of their stories that you can really grasp. But none of us have grown up on Paradise Island as part of a matriarchal utopia. You know? That’s just so far removed from any human experience that the big challenge is to make this character relatable, while at the same time paying homage to that very difficult origin story. So it really, to me, was a chance to up my game, to flex my storytelling muscles and to try to get better at what I do.
One thing that struck me is how accessible your story will be to people who know only the basics of Wonder Woman, or who have only seen the movie. And yet it’s a continuation of an ongoing series, not an origin story.
Yes, it absolutely was. I didn’t want to do another reboot of her origin story because we’ve had so many of those recently that even longtime comic-book readers are a bit confused. God knows I am. But at the same time, I wanted to keep those elements from prior runs consistent, to have those characters in the status quo that we’re familiar with, and tell an ongoing story that would be accessible to readers who maybe are coming over from Ms. Marvel, or maybe have never picked up a comic book in their life but loved the movie. So it’s balancing the old and the new. That was, I think, the big challenge for this opening arc—was to provide a jumping-on point for new readers, but also a nice, meaty story for readers of the ongoing series.
It’s encouraging when a new comic-book arc is accessible to people who’ve only seen the movies, since that’s how lots of people get interested in comics to begin with.
To some people, that’s how they get into the superhero world. I mean, I had a crush on Christopher Reeve when I was like, 8 years old. (Laughs) I don’t judge. However people come to superhero comics, it’s all fine by me.
Durovnia is set in Eastern Europe somewhere, right?
Yes, quote-unquote, big hand-waving, yes.
So the situation Diana drops into is one where Americans are backing a government working to “suppress the independence movement of the indigenous ethnic minority.” That seems like a very true-to-life situation, with all the shades of gray that entails. Why did the parameters of this conflict feel right for this story?
To me, it was interesting that Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor are World War II-era characters from a time when warfare was still largely about two armies facing each other across a battlefield. And of course, in this day and age, warfare almost never looks like that. It’s almost always asymmetrical. It’s urban, there are massive civilian casualties, there are proxy wars, there are insurgencies. So warfare itself looks very, very different than the era in which Wonder Woman arrived on the scene in the 1940s. And I wanted to challenge her position in the context of modern warfare, where very few things are black and white, it’s not as easy to determine quote-unquote good guys from quote-unquote bad guys, it’s very rarely two armies facing each other from across a battlefield, and kind of see what happens.
And to also bring in the god of war, and to see what, really, his role is in this new age of asymmetrical warfare and after he suddenly decides that he wanted to be on the side of justice. What would that look like? And can Wonder Woman trust him? So it’s really about putting these classic Golden Age, World War II-era characters in this much grayer, 21st-century conflict and seeing what happens.
Ares creates a particular tension here: readers tend to like the idea of redemption, the notion that even someone like the god of war can see the light. But then, you know, he’s Ares. And he already seems to have picked a side.
It really lets us ask a crucial question about human nature and that is: “Can people really change?” And is the god of war one of them? (Laughs) What is the god of war if he decides he wants to be a good guy? Is there such a thing as a just war nowadays? And if there is, what does it look like? So it’s really asking some fundamental questions about not just this classic Wonder Woman villain, but about ourselves as well.
And you’re still writing Ms. Marvel, too. How much longer do you see yourself with Kamala?
You know, we’ll see. When I came on board to write the character, [Marvel editor] Sana Amanat and I thought we would be lucky if we got to ten issues. And then maybe, maybe at some point, Kamala would show up as a sort of sidekick in some bigger books, and that way, she would go on in the Marvel universe. We had not a lot of expectations. And now she’s a phenomenon. She’s in cartoons and she’s been on the Avengers and she’s in a bunch of other books. And we’re going into the tenth trade paperback of a series that we thought would only last ten issues. (Laughs) So I think at some point it will become clear that Ms. Marvel has become bigger than me and that there are other amazing storytellers who can take her places that I can’t. And honestly, that is not even bittersweet to me, that is amazing because we never thought we would get here and I’m honestly thrilled, as I’ve said, to have seen her show up in somebody else’s book, and to see somebody else’s interpretation of her. So I am just glad that we made it this far. And whatever my role is in her life going forward, I will be a fan for life.
Ms. Marvel and Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Captain Marvel are actually the two titles that got me reading comics regularly for the first time. That’s a story you must hear a lot by now.
Awesome! Yeah, you know, I do and it never gets old. (Laughs) It’s just so delightful and such a huge honor to me to be part of the reason that readers are coming to comics and honestly, it’s been the biggest honor of my life to be a part of that. To meet people and to hear their stories and to listen to the amazing way that maybe they came to comics with their sons and daughters, or someone brought them in or something, and the way that they’ve built community through that, and to be part of that community, even from thousands of miles away from behind my laptop, typing away, is really, really profoundly moving to me. And I just never get tired of hearing those stories. It’s amazing.
Since Marvel Studios is phasing out its first round of marquee heroes, Kamala seems like a natural fit for the next generation of live-action superheroes. Have you ever thought of who you’d like to play her?
(Laughs) You know honestly, I think the field is so wide open and there’s been such a bottleneck of talented South Asian actors and actresses who have not had the opportunity to have big parts in big movies that I would not want to jinx it by expressing a preference of any kind. It’s just really cool to me to think that those people might get that opportunity someday soon. I can’t wait to see it.
Do you feel a certain protectiveness over Kamala now?
No… Yes and no. I think Sana and I, when it became clear that this character was really going places and it was planned that she was going to show up in other books in the Marvel Universe, we kind of laid some ground rules, like, “OK, here are the things that Kamala cannot do.” (Laughs) You know, she cannot drink alcohol. She’s not going to have sex. Not in your book, anyway! I think in order not to dilute the purpose and the grounding and the foundation of that character, we did set some parameters. But other than that I don’t hover. Like, I don’t offer advice that is not asked of me, I don’t comment without being asked—because if a superhero is both psychologically and artistically and emotionally the collective property of many people, I think it’s not good to hover and confine and constrain what happens to that character.
Those are parameters you pass on to anyone else who writes her?
Yeah, just because anything else would sort of not be her. (Laughs) But within that, it’s like “Well, would she say this?” You don’t have to ask me dialogue stuff. Like, honest to god. I don’t want to be one of those people who is so much of an auteur that they stifle the trajectory of their own character.
What has been the most meaningful reaction for you about the way Kamala’s story has been embraced by Muslim readers?
What is really, really fun to me is the emails and the messages that I get from comic book retailers who are really excited when girls in hijabs come into their store and ask for Ms. Marvel. And then they get to recommend, “Oh, if you like this there’s this other book that I think you should read and there are these things and that,” and now instead of being one book in isolation, it’s a community of people. And the fact that more young Muslims, especially young Muslim women, have a place in that community and feel that they’re heard and are becoming readers is just incredible to me. And that would’ve happened with or without Ms. Marvel. I don’t want to pretend like those of us on the book can just take credit for this. This is partially just that we are out in history now. But to be a small part of this is a tremendous honor for me.
I know when Ms. Marvel first debuted, there was an obvious backlash among right-wing blogs. But I was wondering if harassment online for the simple fact of Kamala’s existence as a brown Muslim superhero lead is still something you face five years later.
It occasionally comes up. It’s not a huge factor in my daily life. But in part, that’s because I changed some of my online behavior, mostly to sort of shield readers whom I’ve noticed have always gotten the brunt of it. You know, there’s a certain backlash against me but at the end of the day, the average troll is kind of afraid to harass me—for good reason, because I’m pretty well resourced but the average reader is not. And I noticed at the beginning, if I got into it with a troll, it would inevitably cascade into the timeline of fans and readers who would either try to jump in and defend the book or try to speak rationally with this person or people who were not interested in having a rational conversation. And that really disturbed me.
I did not want that blowback to cause major distress to readers and in that vein, that did change how I behave online. I don’t shy away from talking about important issues, but I know what key terms the trolls might be searching and I avoid those terms. I talk about things in a different way that won’t pop up in their little searches. I have rules for myself about the way that I engage those kinds of trolls, and that’s worked well. It’s worked out through trial and error. It’s not a huge part of my life but there is sort of a protocol I’ve had to adopt for that to be true.
In a way it sucks that you’ve had to adapt the way you exist online at all, whereas trolls continue to do what they like.
It really does suck. I mean, I am myself, I’m never shy about what it is that I think or believe, but the way that I express it has definitely changed since all of the new stuff started. But on the other hand, this is not news to me. I mean, I came into comics at a time when I had no support whatsoever. It was sort of considered extraordinarily weird, borderline nonsensical for someone like me to be in comics at all, by people on both sides of the political spectrum. So I’m used to having to maintain a sort of—to not have any expectations about support and kind of do my own thing. (Laughs) So it’s not new. It’s not new for me.