G. Willow Wilson is a comic book writer who's made waves writing the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Comics universe to get their own book, teen girl Ms. Marvel. Now she's tackling almost all of Marvel's major female characters in "A-Force."
Creating the all-female Avengers
Wilson says the idea came from an editor she'd been working with, Daniel Ketchum.
"Ms. Marvel and [female hero] Captain Marvel, who was kind of her predecessor in the Marvel universe, were really changing a lot of industry math in terms of what could sell, and so Daniel thought maybe it is time for an all-female Avengers book."
The idea of an all-female Avengers, along with permission to reach across the Marvel universe and bring together characters who hadn't necessarily interacted before, were the mission for Wilson.
"I was also told you can create a new character to helm the series, she can be whatever, and it was great. You're so, so rarely given carte blanche like that [from Marvel or DC]," Wilson says. "So to have that kind of freedom, narrative and creative freedom, to create this team was really fantastic."
That brand new character is named Singularity, who Wilson and the comic's other creators wanted to set up as the book's linchpin holding the team together.
"When I was given this mandate to create a new female character to head up this series, I immediately thought, 'Let's not do another Amazon, let's not do another 5-foot-10, strong, blonde classic 'Female Character' — all caps. Let's do something different.' Rather than making this something that could potentially be gimmicky, let's use this as an opportunity to talk about gender, and about humanness."
Wilson describes Singularity as a "cosmic event" that develops self-awareness.
"Her only exposure to humanity is through us, through human beings, so it's through learning about our world that she learns about things like gender, love, relationships, friendships, community," Wilson says. "And to me, that was what made the potential of this character so interesting, is that we could talk about these very abstract concepts that we tend to take for granted in our day to day lives in a very new and fresh way."
Feminist criticism from the New Yorker
Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor and author, strongly criticized "A-Force" in a recent New Yorker piece. Lepore wrote that the comic wasn't feminist because the characters "all look like porn stars." Wilson responded in her own piece.
"What Professor Lepore was talking about was a particular cover, one of several that is coming out for the first issue of 'A-Force,' in which we see a whole slew of characters — really, the majority of A- and B- and C-list female characters in the Marvel universe — all posed in a very classic superheroes assemble type of arrangement. I think for an outsider, someone who doesn't regularly read comics, to see this, your response might well be, 'What am I looking at? What is this? Who are these people?'"
Lepore wrote about the comics without much familiarity with modern comic books.
"Where I think I and a lot of other comic book readers took issue with her critique of that cover was that, if you've read comics, if you're familiar with the backstory of a lot of these women, a lot of what we had chosen for that cover was very symbolic. We posed them like male heroes, arms crossed, flying off the page, and that is a huge departure from what we typically see of female characters portrayed in this universe."
"A-Force" presents these characters without as much of the overt sexuality that female characters are often presented with in comics, according to Wilson.
"[Female characters'] backs are often arched, they're wearing teeny, teeny, teeny bikinis, they're posed in these sort of fetishistic, acrobatic ways. And this is not to say necessarily that sexuality on the page is something terrible, but they were clearly geared toward a certain audience, and that audience was not female."
Wilson says the challenge is taking female characters with all their back stories and baggage from decades of storytelling, then reimagine them and make them fresh.
"I think that's where maybe Dr. Lepore and I disagree. She suggested that it's hopeless, that comics are just kind of trashy, and that there's really no point in reading them or dealing with them in any kind of serious way, whereas I think for those of us who grew up reading comics, rehabilitating these characters, bringing them into the 21st century — because these are beloved figures — is something very important."
Progress is being made, Wilson says.
"Some people are frustrated because it has been incremental, but I think we have done so much in such a relatively short period of time, that I'm very hopeful for the future. And I'm hopeful that Professor Lepore will find a comic book that she does like reading."
How moving to the Middle East inspired her work
Comic books sparked her imagination first, but Wilson is also a novelist. She moved to Cairo, which ended up being a huge inspiration for her later work in both prose and comics, before later moving to Seattle.
"The script for what would eventually become my first graphic novel, 'Cairo,' sort of came to me in kind of a bolt of lightning within 24 hours of having moved to that city. Just a jumble of characters and narratives and interesting things that I was seeing and experiencing for the first time. And I saw it as panels on a page."
Wilson wrote the 2012 novel "Alif the Unseen." She says that writing a novel differs greatly from writing comics, but that the format a story belongs in is usually obvious to her early on.
"In prose, you have a lot more room for digression, for very meaty kinds of dialogues. In graphic novels, you're writing haiku-length dialogue. Your job is to be efficient, to get out of the way of the art."
She says that her work has been hugely influenced by her travels.
"I mean, I don't want to compare myself to somebody like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, but I feel like, for some writers, going to a certain city, a certain place, is what kickstarts your imaginative process," Wilson says. "Where I was living there, and it really just felt to me as though suddenly there were stories just begging to be told and to come out in a way that I really had not experienced before."
That revelation also mirrors her own religious conversion — Wilson converted to Islam and is a practicing Muslim.
"I think there is a connection. I'm still not entirely sure how and what. I think that finally coming to terms with the landscape of my own mind, what I believed in, what I wanted to do, who I was, who I was going to be as an adult, really played a big role in the kinds of stories that I wanted to tell. And obviously, being in the Middle East and being exposed to this entirely different culture, and wrestling with questions of belief played a huge, huge role in that."
That influence continues to play itself out in Wilson's work.
"I find myself even now, 10, 11 years after the fact, returning to that point in time in the stories that I tell. I tend to deal with characters who are sort of at that same point of wrestling with 'who am I going to be as an adult, what do I believe, how am I defining myself in the context of my culture, and my peer groups, my family?' So a lot of my characters tend to be 17, 18, 19, 21, in that kind of age range, and I think that there's something to be said for, as a storyteller, going back to that point in your own life, and you're sort of trying to work through something in your own mind that was triggered at that point in time."
Creating Marvel's first Muslim lead character, the teen Ms. Marvel
The most notable of those characters is Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan. The character came out of a pitch from two editors at Marvel: Steve Wacker and Sana Amanat, who went on to be the editor of "Ms. Marvel."
"[They] said 'Hey, we want to create a new female American Muslim superheroine from scratch and put her on her own book.' And my first thought is, 'You guys are crazy. That's insane. We'll have to hire an intern just to open the hate mail.' So I was stunned."
Wilson was just coming off writing her novel, and had also just had a baby.
"And to be cold-called by these two editors, and pitched this project that was very daring, that broke a lot of the established rules of the industry — new characters don't sell, minority characters don't sell, female characters don't sell — was really amazing and astonishing to me. And I thought, 'I can't say no. How often do you get offered an opportunity like this?'"
That pitch was a sign of change in the industry, Wilson says.
"For a request like that to come from the top down at one of the Big Two [Marvel or DC] was really astonishing. I mean that never happens, really never happens."
The torrent of hate mail never came, but Wilson says there was some amidst the huge amount of media attention the book got early on, including a piece in the New York Times, a segment on "The Colbert Report" and a joke from Conan O'Brien.
"I did get some hate tweets on Twitter from certain elements of the extreme right wing, for whom this was part of the socialist, gay, jihadi attack on American values or whatever, but it was surprisingly muted. I was expecting much, much more than we actually got. I think because the audience is changing. That's the major thing, that's the major factor in the success of this book."
Wilson says she's heard stories about "Ms. Marvel" bringing women, including Muslim women, into comic shops.
"The real point of a story like 'Ms. Marvel' is to expand the audience, is to get more people to the table, more people involved in the conversation. And it's great to me that a lot of people who came on board, either out of curiosity or because they'd seen something in the news and picked up 'Ms. Marvel,' that became a gateway comic for them, and now they're reading 'Lumberjanes," and they're reading 'Captain Marvel,' and they're reading 'Thor,' and they're reading all kinds of things."
Giving a new character her powers
One of the most challenging parts of creating Ms. Marvel, Wilson says, was choosing the right set of powers for the character.
"Creating a power set for a brand new superhero has to be, creatively speaking, one of the most difficult things I've ever done, for the simple reason that you, number one, have to think about limits. If you make a character infinitely powerful, there's no story. They can just conquer the world. That's sort of the Superman problem. On the other hand, if you make them too weak, then it's not interesting because there's not enough to show on the page. Striking that balance, where it's the right power set, with the right limitations, for that character, is not easy at all."
Wilson says that it was also important to choose the right powers to create a metaphor for the character.
"If you're a telepath, if you're a shapeshifter, if you can shoot bolts of lightning from your fingertips, all of these things play very differently in the development of a character. I wanted to stay away from a lot of tropes that tend to be sort of bundled into power sets typically given to women. They're typically not given these very physical power sets. You see a lot of telepathy, a lot of floating, a lot of sparkly things. I didn't want her to float, or to sparkle, or to be able to read minds. I wanted her to have a very physical power set that was interesting to look at on the page that would put her in the same league as, say, the Hulk in terms of somebody being physically strong, and also physically not ordinary looking. It couldn't be something that was too pretty, and so we sort of stumbled upon this what we now call 'embiggening.'"
Wilson says she cribbed the fake word from "The Simpsons," which she thought was perfect for the geekiness of her main character, being exactly the kind of word she'd use to describe her size-changing powers.
Women in comics
While women often face discrimination in comics — creator Janelle Asselin told the Frame last month about how women often have to reinforce their right to be in comics in a way that men aren't, with whether they even read comics being challenged — Wilson says she has largely avoided that.
"I have been very lucky in that I have been consistently sheltered and nurtured in the comic book industry. First by two very wonderful female editors at DC Comics," Wilson says, including both the more indie-minded Karen Berger and, on the superhero side of things, Joan Hilty. "Under them, as I was sort of learning the ropes of the industry and taking on my first projects, I was really kind of insulated from a lot of that. And so I got very lucky in that sense, and then once I made the jump and started working at Marvel, I had some books under my belt, some of them had done pretty well and been nominated for Eisner awards, and so I got to circumvent a lot of the very real bullying and harassment and kind of othering that many, many women in the comics industry have faced."
Wilson says she's the exception, though — that her experience is almost entirely luck. She also notes that both of the female editors who brought her in are gone now.
"If I was trying to break in five years ago as opposed to 10 years ago, I might not have been able to do it. Because I don't know that the status quo would have necessarily worked in my favor. It was really because I was protected by female editors that I was able to escape that spin cycle of working on quote-unquote "girl comics" and being ghettoized in that way."
There's hope for the future of women in comics and in other media for two reasons, Wilson says.
"Number one, we're getting more and more women on the creative side of the industry as screenwriters, as comic book artists, as comic book writers — but also on the editorial side. It's really the decision-makers who are really the gatekeepers, so having more women in positions of power within the industry who have final say in hiring, final say in which books get greenlit, in which movies get greenlit, is very, very important, and we're finally starting to see more of that. And I would be remiss if I didn't also say that there are many, many, many men within the industry who are incredibly supportive, who realize that there is a problem and who are using their considerable influence to help right the ship."
Collaboration between men and women in the industry is making it possible for women to get ahead, Wilson says.
"What I think is positive about what we've seen in the last couple of years, is that we are making that pie bigger. It's not about women getting a bigger slice of the pie and men getting less pie, it's about making more pie. It's about making more comics that more people can read and enjoy."
As a parent, Wilson also shared with us the superpower that she'd like to see in her children: resiliency.
"It's so tough, as all parents know, to know how to equip your kids to live in a century where there's going to be a lot of change in the way that we get our food, in climate, in the political landscape, so if I could equip them with anything, it would be with resilience. They would have kind of super toughness to get through whatever it is that life is going to throw at them that I can't necessarily predict."
"A-Force" is in stores Wednesday and comes out monthly going forward, and Wilson also writes the monthly "Ms. Marvel."
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Ms. Marvel as Marvel's first Muslim hero; she's the first high-profile Muslim hero and the first to lead her own book, but there have been other Muslim heroes in Marvel Comics before. KPCC regrets the error.