Arts & Life
10:28 am
Mon January 27, 2014

New Muslim Ms. Marvel Doesn't Drink, Date Or Eat Bacon

Originally published on Mon January 27, 2014 6:24 pm

Marvel is introducing a new character: Kamala Khan. She's a 16-year-old Muslim public high school student in Jersey City. She's also the new Ms. Marvel, and the first Muslim superhero to star in her own mainstream comic book series. Author G. Willow Wilson spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about her new series.


Interview Highlights

On Kamala Khan's challenges to come

People can expect a lot of the fun, you know, action-adventure that characterizes most superhero books. She will be up against villains. She will be plying her superpowers in the name of good and struggling to sort of reconcile what it means to have these superpowers in reference to her own life. But because of her unique background, she'll also have the struggles that I think a lot of young American Muslim teens, particularly those of immigrant parents, face, which is trying to mesh that American identity with her inherited identity and create that third culture for herself.

Can she be a superhero with a curfew? Can she be a superhero who doesn't eat bacon? You know, a lot of it is this day-to-day stuff that we don't even think about as being significant. ... She does wear a mask. And that's kind of part of her dilemma is that she's not kind of an out superhero, because she doesn't want to bring that scrutiny on her family or her background.

On Kamala's family

Part of what we wanted to do with this series was show that there is a huge diversity of belief and practice within the American Muslim community, that it's not a monolith. And so you have Kamala, who's sort of on the more relaxed end of the spectrum, although she is observant in the fact that she doesn't drink alcohol or date — or you know we have her in the first issue, she's sort of looking longingly at this BLT sandwich that she's not going to eat. But she does have an older brother who is a bit more strict. He's very involved in his local mosque. He's very idealistic. He can be a bit tiresome at the dinner table about that kind of stuff. You know, but on the other hand, you've got her father who's a little bit more progressive and has high hopes for his daughter in terms of her career. You see these characters interacting, and it's underscored by love. You know, that you can have all these different opinions and it works as it does in any family.

On increasing diversity in comics

I think mostly people, since they are used to seeing things done a certain way, and they're used to associating a certain look with a certain character, they're afraid that they're somehow going to be marginalized, or that that history isn't important in some way. And I think to answer that — the point of all of this, the point of what is happening in the comics industry right now, where we are seeing a more diverse cast of characters, is to make as much room at the table for as many people as possible.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Marvel is introducing a new character, Kamala Khan. She is the 16-year-old Muslim-American girl taking over the role of Ms. Marvel. She is the first Muslim superhero to star in her own mainstream comic book series. G. Willow Wilson is the author behind the new series and she is with us now from member station KUOW in Seattle and the Marvel Universe. So thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on the new character.

G. WILLOW WILSON: Thank you so much, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So who is this new Ms. Marvel? What's her back story?

WILSON: So Kamala Khan is, in many ways, the typical public high school student living in Jersey City. She's kind of a geek girl, she writes fanfiction, she shops at consignment stores. She's also the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. And so she's very much like many second-generation children of immigrants - a child of two worlds. She grew up in the United States and so she's an American teenager, and yet at the same time she kind of struggles to honor and represent the culture of her parents.

MARTIN: Now you are Muslim yourself, but you are not born of the faith, right? And you are not an immigrant?

WILSON: Right. Yes.

MARTIN: You converted to Islam.

WILSON: I did, yes. I converted as a college student.

MARTIN: Was this something that you had longed to do - to find a way to incorporate your fate into your work as a graphic artist, as a comic book designer and things of that sort? Or was it a happy accident? I mean, how did this whole thing come about?

WILSON: I really wasn't sure that the world was kind of ready for a character like this. So when I got a call from Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker - the series editors at Marvel - saying, hey, we want to create, from scratch, a young teenager Muslim female superheroine and give her her own series, I was very surprised. And so having a character that felt authentic was something very important to us. And we spent a lot of time before we actually sat down to script the series working on background issues so that she felt like a real human being.

MARTIN: Before Kamala, readers saw Ms. Marvel as kind of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Carol Danvers. But Carol is still around right?

WILSON: With these legacy characters, what often happens is that the identity of the character will change according to the time that we're living in. And so you'll get one legacy title that, over the decades, is inhabited by many different characters. And in the case of Carol Danvers, the previous Ms. Martin, she has gone on to be renamed Captain Marvel and got a new costume and kind of a new job description, and is now a member of the Avengers, which people may be familiar with from the films. So she's still around, but her title change left the Ms. Marvel legacy kind of opened. And it seemed like a perfect title for a young, emerging superhero to take on.

MARTIN: What are going to be some of her challenges? Can you give us a little bit of a hint of what we can expect?

WILSON: People can expect a lot of the fun, you know, action-adventure that characterizes most superhero books. She will be up against villains. She will be plying her superpowers in the name of good. And struggling to sort of reconcile what it means to have these superpowers in reference to her own life. But then - because of her unique background - she'll also have the struggles that I think a lot of young American-Muslim teens - particularly those of immigrant parents - face, which is trying to mesh that American identity with her inherited identity and sort of create that third culture for herself.

MARTIN: What about some of those conflicts between the culture in which she lives as Kamala Khan and sometimes what's expected of superheroes? I mean, one of the things that anybody who's familiar at all with this genre, like, if you're familiar at all with, like, Batman or Spiderman, you know, sometimes they - you know, let use a cliche - they have to break some eggs, right, to make an omelet. So for her, what is the challenge?

WILSON: Can she be a superhero with a curfew? Can she be a superhero who doesn't eat bacon? You know, a lot of it is some of this day-to-day stuff that we don't really even think about as being significant, and yet when you layer on the particular dilemma of having these superpowers and trying to figure out on your own what you're meant to do with them - it takes on a new significance. She does wear a mask. And that's kind of part of her dilemma, is that she's not a - kind of an out superhero because she doesn't want to bring that scrutiny on her family or her background.

MARTIN: Well, she does have a brother and a best friend who are more observant than she is in some ways. And they do get on her case.

WILSON: Part of what we wanted to do with this series was show that there is a huge diversity of belief and practice within the American-Muslim community, that is, it's not a monolith. And so you have Kamala, who's sort of on the more relaxed end of the spectrum. Although, she is observant in the fact that she doesn't drink alcohol or date or - you know, we have her in the first issue, she's sort of looking longingly at this BLT sandwich that she's not going to eat.

But she does have an older brother who is a bit more strict. He's very involved in his local mosque, he's very idealistic. He can be a bit tiresome at the dinner table about that kind of stuff. You know, but, on the other hand, you've got her father who's a little bit more progressive and has high hopes for his daughter in terms of her career. You see these characters interacting and it's underscored by love. You know, that you can have all these different opinions and it works as it does in any family.

MARTIN: The series will be out next month, but do you expect her to be received with open arms? I mean, we have already seen that people aren't always excited to see people of different backgrounds taking on roles that they traditionally associate with people of a certain demographic. And I just wonder, you know, what's your strategy for addressing that or if you anticipate that or if you even heard any of that to this point?

WILSON: It's clear to me that this is a character whose time has really come, in the sense that people are, I think, interested in seeing a new story. And for a teenager to take on the mantle of Ms. Marvel is kind of a big thing. And I think to have her also be a Muslim-American, you know, it just adds another layer to that. And, you know, my hope is that really - people will be able to see the series as something that they can really connect to.

However, there are always going to be haters. You know, they exist. They're out there. But I think mostly people, since they are used to seeing things done a certain way and they're used to associating a certain look with a certain character, they're afraid that they're somehow going to be marginalized or that history isn't important in some way. And I think to answer that - the point of all of this, the point of what is happening in the comics' industry right now, where we are seeing a more diverse cast of characters, is to make as much room at the table for as many people as possible. It's not about marginalizing the classic characters.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - can you clarify one thing for me?

WILSON: Sure.

MARTIN: Kamala's name is spelled - and I know that this is a print series, so many people won't necessarily be saying her name - but it's K-A-M-A-L-A. And you pronounce Kamala.

WILSON: Kamala, yeah.

MARTIN: And - but a lot of people are used to seeing that pronounced Kamila. So what's the difference, if you don't mind telling us?

WILSON: Kamala and Kamila are two variations of the same root in Arabic, which means to perfect or to be perfected. And so Kamala means one who is perfected. And when we get into the series, we'll see why she was given that particular and somewhat unusual name by her parents.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we will look forward to that. That G. Willow Wilson, author of the new "Ms. Marvel" series, which is the first mainstream superhero comic to star a Muslim character. The series will be out from Marvel next month. And she joined us from Seattle, Washington. Willow, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thank you, Michel. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.