Marvel introducing first female Muslim-American superhero

(CBR) Marvel Comics once again has a “Ms. Marvel,” one a lot different from the past incarnation — and nearly every other mainstream superhero.

As first revealed on Tuesday, this Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, the 16-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants, a shape-shifter, a resident of Jersey City and a Muslim — making her one of very few Muslim characters at either Marvel or DC Comics, and already one of the most high-profile. Following an appearance in January’s “All-New Marvel NOW! Point One” one-shot, the character will star in a new “Ms. Marvel” ongoing series, debuting in February 2014 from the creative team of “Air” writer G. Willow Wilson and “Runaways” artist Adrian Alphona, who made a recent return to interior comics work on “Uncanny X-Force.”

The book is set to connect to the Marvel Universe as a whole as part of the upcoming “Inhumanity” storyline, where dormant superpowers are activated in numerous unaware Inhuman descendants due to the release of the Terrigen Bomb in last month’s “Infinity” #4. Like the real world, the Marvel Universe has devoted fans of Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel and current Captain Marvel — among them “polymorph” Kamala Khan, who’s inspired to take up the previous guise of her hero.

The series is already making news, and Wilson, who this past weekend won “Best Novel” at the World Fantasy Awards for her 2012 release “Alif the Unseen,” told Comic Book Resources, “The real challenge really has nothing to do with controversy as such, it has to do more with getting people excited about a book that’s a little bit different from what they usually see.”

The author, who documented her conversion to Islam in the memoir “The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam,” comes to the series with a distinct perspective. In an interview with CBR News, Wilson makes it clear that she’s not afraid of any controversy or criticism the book, which she calls “risky,” might receive.

CBR News: Willow, you’ve been concentrating on prose work, making “Ms. Marvel” your first comic book work of length since “Mystic” in 2011. Had you been keeping up with the world of comics in your time away from the medium?

G. Willow Wilson: Absolutely. I never stopped following all the gossip and all the stuff that’s going on in the industry; reading the books that people are recommending. It’s great to be able to get back into it, for sure.

I’ve been reading a bunch of the new series that have been coming out. I’ve been reading “Saga,” going kind of nuts over that. That’s one of my favorite books from recent years. I’m following all of the fascinating ups and downs of DC’s move to Burbank — it’s almost like a fraternity, you know? You’re out, but you’re never really out. You’re always sort of listening in on what’s going on.

Let’s start at the beginning with “Ms. Marvel” — how did it come about for you? Was it an idea that you pitched to Marvel, something they came to you with, or somewhere in between?

It was something they came to me with, which I was terribly flattered to be asked. I got a call from [Marvel editors] Steve Wacker and Sana Amanat over a year ago. It was extremely abstract at that point. They knew they wanted to have a young Muslim girl superhero, and that was kind of it. They said, “Do you think this is something that you’d be interested in tackling?” and I said “Heck yes!”

We started working on it, and we really spent a lot of time in development to make sure that we got to a character we were all excited about, and a story to tell that was really interesting. I think it really paid off, because we’re all very excited about how this series has shaped up. I think all the work that was put into it beforehand will show.

Was it always going to be under the “Ms. Marvel” title, or was it originally not even that developed?

It wasn’t even that developed. There was some relay about what direction to go. There were several Marvel events that were in production at that point, and there was some question as to whether we wanted to tie this character into any of those events. It started out very open-ended.

I think it was Sana’s idea, because we had been talking about the most recent other big, successful rebranding of a female character, that being “Captain Marvel,” and the very interesting fan culture that’s come up around that, and all the great work that Kelly Sue [DeConnick] has done with it. It was in the course of that conversation that Sana came up with the idea — “Wouldn’t it be interesting if this girl was a hardcore Captain Marvel fan? A Carol Corps person?” In that case, it would make sense for her as sort of a junior female superhero who really looks up to Captain Marvel, to take up the “Ms. Marvel” mantle.

The book ties-in to the forthcoming “Inhumanity” status quo, then, with multiple emerging new potential superheroes?

“Ms. Marvel” spins out of the upcoming “Inhumanity” status quo running through Marvel’s publishing line.

Yes. But the details of that, in terms of how the book will fit into the larger scheme, and what kind of potential crossover might be there, has not yet been fleshed out. There’s not a whole lot more detail than that at this point.

So the main character is a Captain Marvel fan — what else can you share at this point about her? She’s a shape-shifter, right?

Yes! She’s a polymorph. She can grow and shrink, both her whole body and specific limbs, and eventually she’ll be able to transform into different people and objects, as well. We wanted to give her a very physical, visual fun power set. I didn’t want to make her another sparkly, flirty kind of a character. I wanted her to look a little bit weird. We made her a true polymorph, in the tradition of Morph — god rest his soul.

A Muslim lead character on one level shouldn’t necessarily seem so rare or significant, but it really is, because there’s certainly not a lot of that in mainstream comic books — or North American pop culture fiction in general. How important is that aspect to you?

I thought it was cool that Marvel wanted to go out on that limb and take on such a risky character — to take on a character that had those elements to her background. Kamala is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, so she’s got this real tension between her very ordinary life as an American teenager, and also the expectations placed on her to be this very good, dutiful Muslim daughter by her loving but conservative parents.

For me, I was excited that they wanted to do a character like that, and take that risk, but at the same time I knew that we would have to get it exactly right. Whenever you do a character like this that is going to be somewhat controversial, but also could be interpreted to be just an act of tokenism, you really have to pay attention to detail and make sure that it’s a character and a story worth telling, and a character that stands alone in their own right. I was excited, but also nervous, because I knew there was going to be extra scrutiny placed on a character wish such a controversial starting point. I really thought it was my job to make this the best possible book, and to put into the character all of — not just the pathos, but the humor and the day-to-day quirkiness and drama that goes along with the very unique situation of being the child of immigrants, and balancing two worlds in one very young life. In a sense, there’s kind of a Miles Morales parallel, I think.

To me, it was a challenge. It was challenge that I was happy to take on. I’m one of these people who responds well to pressure. [Laughs] I thought this was a really great chance to do something truly new and different, and to show the universal aspects of a character with a very specific background.

Given the expectations of it being controversial, and use of the word “risky” — is it because a lot of people aren’t used to Muslim lead characters, or is there something more to it affecting your expectations?

I think it’s pretty much just a matter of overcoming that certain reluctance that people might feel to pick up a book that they think might not relate to them. It’s easy to think, “Oh, this character doesn’t have anything to say to me specifically,” because it’s a character from a very specific background. It’s overcoming that that’s the real challenge.

Occasionally, because of who I am and what I do, I get a certain amount of backlash from the usual suspects on the fringe of certain right-wing political groups. It’s never really been a real issue. For me, the real challenge really has nothing to do with controversy as such, it has to do more with getting people excited about a book that’s a little bit different from what they usually see. That I really see as my job. It’s up to me to overcome that, and make a book that people do get excited about, regardless of what they come into the store with.

We’ve touched on it a little bit , but the “Ms. Marvel” name, though it appears to be used in a very different context here — obviously it has a lot of history at Marvel Comics, but there’s also a sense that “Ms. Marvel” is outdated as a superhero name. What’s your approach to that, and to its relevance in this series?

Because Kamala is so young — she’s 16 — it makes sense for her to take on that particular mantle. In this day and age, if you were to do “Ms. Marvel” as a worldly adult superhero woman, it would come across as condescending. But for a teenage girl who really looks up to Captain Marvel, the former Ms. Marvel, it really does make sense, because it’s sort of her embodying a younger or earlier version of that particular character.

If we wanted to relaunch the book with an adult character in a skimpy costume, that would definitely be kind of a left turn and not a great way to go. [Laughs] Especially with all the work that Kelly Sue has done with “Captain Marvel” that people have responded to with such wonderful enthusiasm. It’s really this particular character that makes it work, because she is kind of a junior superhero, and a hardcore Captain Marvel fan. I think that’s what makes it work.

Since she is a polymorph, and you mentioned embodying a younger Ms. Marvel — is there a literal aspect to that?

I don’t want to give too much away, but certainly there’s a real potential when you’ve got a polymorph to externalize all of your inner thoughts and desires and demons and fears, and all that stuff. Without saying too much — yes. There is definitely a potential for that.

That could also be a controversial aspect.

Oh yeah. This is something we had a lot of discussions about, Sana and I, for that very reason. What’s going to be great about this book is that it tackles so many of the fears and insecurities of being a teenager, but adding on to that a layer of superhero powers that ordinary teenagers don’t get to experience. What if you had all of those ordinary teenager insecurities but you could act on them? What if you could become somebody else? What does that mean? What does that say about your own identity? That is definitely part of the particular inner conflict of this character.

The “Captain Marvel” series is relaunching in March, around the same time as this book debuts. Is there a pretty concrete coordination between these two books, at least on the onset?

There’s a loose correlation. You can expect a Captain Marvel cameo in “Ms. Marvel.” In terms of any sort of long-term overlap, I think that really depends on the direction those books go. I know that there are no plans right now to have Ms. Marvel show up in the new “Captain Marvel” relaunch, because I think Kelly Sue is taking the book in kind of a different direction. But there will definitely be at least one Captain Marvel cameo in “Ms. Marvel.”

By nature of shared universe characters, fair or not, whenever you introduce a new character — like this new Ms. Marvel — you need to have other characters people know show up. Can readers expect to see some other familiar faces in the book beyond Carol Danvers?

Yes, you can expect that. Not always in the way one would expect. But yes, there will be definitely other familiar characters that will show up in the book — in fact, in the very first issue, although, again, not quite in the familiar way.

I’m being so mysterious, I’m sorry. [Laughs] There’s a couple of really fun scenes in the first issue that I don’t want to blow.

Understandable, and with a polymorph lead character, there seems to be some interesting potential there.

All sorts of potential madness!

One thing you likely can talk about is the artist on the series, Adrian Alphona. How’s it been working with him thus far?

I feel like it’s sort of a mind-meld, because we really had exactly the same expectations, both stylistically and emotionally for the book. He put it the best, when he was doing character sketches — “This is an off-kilter girl with off-kilter powers.” I think that’s exactly right, and I think his particular style really just suits the book so well. I get excited every time I see stuff from him in my inbox.

I’ll get random e-mails from him, like — “Hey, I’m at Fashion Week in New York, doing all of this fashion editorial stuff, but I’ll be back at my desk tomorrow.” It’s so cool to be working with somebody who has that kind of flexibility, and who has that range. He just brings such a cool sensibility to the book.

I’m really excited to be back in the saddle with a title like this one. I was just looking over the script for the first issue the other day and getting freshly excited about it, because I think this is really something that could appeal to a very broad range of readers. It’s a classic superhero origin story, but with a twist that makes it really unique. I just hope people like it as much as we’ve enjoyed working on it.

And it’s your first Marvel Universe story at length, right?

Yeah! I did “Mystic,” which is not in the Marvel U. Other than that, it was “Girl Comics,” which was all standalone stuff. This is the first ongoing Marvel U title that I’ve ever done, so I promise that I’ve tried faithfully to live up to that standard. [Laughs]

“Ms. Marvel” #1 by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona arrives in Februrary 2014.