Making A Superhero From Scratch: A Writer’s Origin Story
G. Willow Wilson’s origin story, in a matter of speaking, started in New Jersey on about 3 acres of land surrounded by old-growth woods, where her parents raised rabbits and chickens and grew corn, blackberries and sweet potatoes.
Wilson, 31, left New Jersey when she was 11, when her father’s job with AT&T sent their family to Boulder, Colo. When she started to write the story of the newest Marvel superhero, Kamala Khan, she returned to those Jersey roots. Kamala Khan, who has assumed the Ms. Marvel mantle, is Marvel's first Muslim superhero.
“New York City, Manhattan in particular, is the epicenter of the Marvel universe when it comes to superhero activity,” Wilson told me when we met at a homey café near her home in the Judkins Park neighborhood, in South Seattle. She lives there with her husband and two daughters, ages 1 and 3.
“Jersey City seemed like a perfect place for a junior superhero from an unusual background to start out,” Wilson said. “She’s the child of immigrant parents, growing up in a world that is at a slant to ours; because it is a place where super powers and intergalactic travel and all this stuff exists.”
Kamala Khan grows up looking across the Hudson River at Manhattan, where she sees people with capes flying around, Wilson said.
“When we think of the classic superhero origin story, we think of Clark Kent, the farm boy, or we think of Bruce Wayne, born into wealth,” she said. “We don’t think of the more complex background. You’re an American, but you’re a ‘third-culture kid,’ because your parents are immigrants.”
Secret Conversion: ‘I Couldn’t Wait Any Longer’
Wilson’s own identity as an American, one that started out seemingly simple, grew complex in adulthood.
From Colorado, Wilson moved to Boston for college. There, she studied Arabic and started to divine her own feelings on faith. She was considering converting to Islam when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers.
She banished thoughts of conversion, worried it would be deemed unpatriotic. But she remained drawn to the religion and in 2003, she moved to Egypt.
“I converted to Islam, pretty much secretly, as soon as I stepped off the plane,” she said. “In Islam, you don’t have to be baptized. You just have to make a declaration.”
She made that declaration the week of her 21st birthday, in her room in the middle of the day. “I couldn’t wait any longer,” she said.
Weeks later, she met an Egyptian teacher named Omar. Three weeks after that, they married. (In Egypt, this timeline would not seem so impulsive, Wilson said.)
She spent her 20s in Cairo, where she taught and wrote. She wrote “Cairo,” a graphic novel published by DC Comics, followed by “Air,” a series that ended in 2010. She has also written “Alif the Unseen,” a novel, and “The Butterfly Mosque,” a memoir.
Karen Berger, a former editor at DC Comics, called Wilson a rising star. “I think we’ve only started to see her personal voice,” she said.
“She always seems so together. She’s kind of kooky too,” Berger said. “Working with her as a writer, I was just impressed with her storytelling ability. She had written barely anything in comics, and she had this amazing ability to plot and structure.”
When I met with Wilson, she was warm, chatty and intimidatingly smart. She ate a hearty sandwich while I, embarrassingly in retrospect, devoured a BLT.
The Making Of Kamala Khan
It was on Wilson to decide Kamala’s background and her powers. Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel, appeared in 1968 as women’s liberation was underway. She was shiny and chesty with blonde hair; her powers involved flying through the air and punching things.
Now more women read comics, Wilson said, and “they want to see characters that are aspirational for them, rather than eye candy for guys.”
“When you’re making a superhero from scratch you have to think, ‘OK, in the pseudo-science that we have in this universe, how will those powers function?’” Wilson said. “How do they work? What are their limitations? Because of course, if you make them too powerful, there’s no story. If they’re omnipotent, they never get hurt, they have no enemies. So you have to think about what powers they do have, and what powers they don’t have.”
Kamala Khan’s arms bulk up – the better for fist fighting with – and her legs grow long for jumping. Wilson describes her as a “kind of a hipster” who might go thrift shopping or doodle in her school notebooks. Notably, she does not wear a head scarf.
“We made the decision not to put her in a head scarf because the majority of Muslim American girls don’t wear head scarves,” Wilson said.
‘We’re All Freaks Together’
Wilson spent the weekend at the 2014 Emerald City Comicon in downtown Seattle. She co-hosted a party at the Museum of Flight on the eve of the event and spoke on three panels, including one about race and gender in geek culture.
“What I love about comics is that we’re all freaks together,” she told me at the cafe. “I feel less weird at comics conventions than I do walking down the street in upper middle class neighborhoods, even though I’m from an upper middle class background.”
Most days are spent at her kitchen table. She wakes at 6 a.m. when she hears her youngest fussing. She then makes the family eggs and toast or Cream of Wheat. Her daughters go to daycare, and she sits down to write.
“I’m typically in my pajamas, there’s an unknown substance on the floor,” she said. “I may or may not be covered in child vomit. Someone is catching a cold or getting over one.”
In other words, no superpowers: just grit and focus.
“I don’t wait around for the muse to show up,” she said.
This story originally aired March 27, 2014.