I don’t remember when exactly I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.
— Edward Said
WILLOW WILSON uses comics and graphic novels to create new and engaging narratives about Muslim women — challenging negative stereotypes around their culture. Wilson, currently known for her role in developing the new Ms. Marvel series in which the superhero is a Muslim-American girl, overturns the prevailing Western stereotype that Muslim women need saving. She is a Muslim as well, having converted shortly after her 2003 move to Cairo to teach English, where she met and married a Muslim man, as recounted in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque (2010). She’s also an American, raised in a non-religious household, and later studied history and Arabic at Boston University. A self-proclaimed comic-geek, Wilson combined her experience as a reporter with the world of fantasy and fiction to yield an impressive and provocative body of work.
Her first comic Air (2008) portrayed an acrophobic American flight attendant, Blythe, whose plane is hijacked by terrorists. Although Air did not sell successfully, its innovative spin on themes of xenophobia and the West’s ambivalent relationship to the Islamic world caused a sensation among readers. Prior to Air, Wilson had published Cairo (2007), a graphic novel set in the Egyptian capital with stories tied to ancient Egyptian history, myths, and religion (with illustrations by M. K. Perker). In keeping with the genre, the protagonists confront evil, but with a crucial difference: Wilson uses her characters to bring out the larger themes of the conflict between Islam and Western ideas of individuality. Her heroes are strong individuals who are empowered rather than repressed by their faith and culture. Wilson used the city of Cairo as a locus to explore modern-day Muslim societies tied to ancient civilization, but still modern in their own distinct way.
In 2012, she took a break from comics and graphic novels with the publication of a more traditional work of fiction, Alif the Unseen. Published in the wake of the Arab Spring, the novel (shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize) focused primarily on the use of technology as a vehicle for political protest in authoritarian regimes. Wilson claimed her novel was “born of rage” toward the American mainstream media underestimating the increasing use of technology in the developing world, especially the Middle East, as a sign that social and political change was afoot and perhaps possible. In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak’s regime had arrested “hacktivists” deemed threats to the state. The events that lead to Mubarak’s ousting in 2011 were, as Wilson said, evidence of “a seething new epidemic of social change” that featured savvy young Arabs organizing in response to government extremism via social media.
Alif, the main protagonist of Unseen, is a hacker residing in an unnamed Middle Eastern security state. The most interesting characters in Alif the Unseen are mainly women, and they do not fall into the trope of the submissive passive Muslim woman. Like the women who participated in the Arab Spring, protesting side-by-side with men, Wilson’s female characters are also considered equals to their male counterparts, although less visibly so behind veils in a police state.
The first female character to whom readers are introduced is Intisar, an aristocrat who spurns Alif’s affections, which propels him into his underground work. Although some of Alif the Unseen’s female characters do not wear a veil, such as Alif’s mother, other characters such as Dina do. Wilson presents a variety of female Muslim characters, whose choice to wear the veil is their own. The veiled women appear to take pride in their hijab and even enjoy the power the veil gives them to remain out of sight.
The title is symbolic of the jinn or what is referred to as “hiddenness” (think of genie) in Arabic. In Unseen, the jinn, also refers to the world of computer hackers — the defiant “hacktivists” whose means of political protest hinge on their ability to remain invisible and untraceable. The theme works on all levels, and Wilson uses the symbolic jinn to also explore the other unseen: women in Muslim society.
Like the characters she creates and depicts, Wilson’s own experiences as a Muslim-American woman are complex and diverse. She has the advantage of approaching her subject from two sides: as an American who studied Arabic and history with a focus on the Islamic world, and as a Muslim convert who married a Muslim man. From these vantages, she is able to see both how a culture perceives itself and how it is perceived from the outside — and to point out how these perceptions can be damaging and also dangerous. As a writer, she seems to move seamlessly between reporting and creating fictional narratives that transcend real-life issues, and upending stereotypes toward Islamic culture while presenting alternative realities.
Her latest creation is the new Ms. Marvel character, Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American girl from Jersey City, New Jersey, home to one of the largest Pakistani communities in the US. Wilson, along with the rest of the Marvel team, has created Kamala as a legitimate and non-stereotypical representation of teenage Muslim girls in American society that will appeal to comic-book readers and possibly reach new audiences curious about an unconventional character and storyline. Kamala Khan is not the first child of Islam to grace comic book pages, nor is she the first female Muslim comic-book character. She is, however, the first Muslim-American comic book character to carry the Marvel title.
When Marvel publicly announced the character in November 2013, critics were interested to see if a comic-book hero could create a clearer picture of what it means to be a young American Muslim girl without falling into stereotypes or caricatures, and whether the new character would even sell. Ms. Marvel was the publisher’s number one seller in 2014, which series editor Sana Amanat claimed came as a huge surprise.
Kamala, the product of Disney-owned Marvel, managed to be more than a gimmick. She’s a pulpy comic book character who desires to belong and be accepted, strong and independent, but still tied to her faith.
In Volume 1: No Normal, readers see Kamala grappling with her identity. She feels misunderstood by both her family and society, and lost in teenage angst. She’s helpless and confused about her place in the world, which is a common theme in the superhero genre — yet she remains high-spirited and determined, eager for change, which she believes will allow her to become, or at least appear and possibly feel as if she is, part of the dominant culture. Wilson depicts Kamala’s anguish as one not exclusive to Muslims or the Pakistani community, but arising from the typical pressures facing any American teenager: peer pressure, rebelling against one’s parents, etc. Islam is only one aspect of Kamala’s identity.
In the first issue, Kamala sneaks out to a high school party. A classmate, Zoe, the quintessential high school queen bee, is surprised to see Kamala and says, “I thought you weren’t allowed to hang out with us heathens on the weekends! I thought you were, like, locked up!” The scene may appear clichéd — girl wanders into an all-American high school party and feels out of place. So what does she do to show up her peers? She awkwardly drinks what everyone else is drinking, which she believes (or is told) is orange juice, when in fact it’s orange juice mixed with vodka. Unaccustomed to the taste, Kamala spits out her drink, which makes her feel embarrassed, and leaves the scene. Dazed by her emotional confusion, Kamala falls into a dreamlike state, waking up to find a group of superheroes hovering above her sitting on a cloud. She sees the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, her idol, with her knee-high boots and blond wavy hair and says, “I want to be you.” Danvers seems amused, but understandingly sees Kamala’s pain and says, “All right, kid. As fate would have it, you’re about to get the kind of total reboot most people only dream about. But […] [i]t is not going to turn out the way you think.”
Soon the superheroes disappear into the mist, and Kamala, now fully awake, finds herself in skintight superhero gear replete with thigh-high boots and blond hair. Believing that she is still wildly drunk, she trudges back to the party, only to slowly realize that something magical is happening as she experiences an ability to change shape. She has been given powers of polymorphism (shape-shifting), which she executes with the word, “embiggen”— which means “to grow.” As she plays with her new powers, shrinking to the size of an insect only to discover a hideous cockroach, she sees Zoe and her boyfriend, Josh, on the pier arguing. Zoe suddenly falls off the dock while her drunken boyfriend watches helplessly. Kamala takes action, increasing her hand’s size so that she can reach into the water and save Zoe. It’s an act rife with symbolism, replete with the religious themes of helping and saving one’s neighbor even if he or she is an enemy.
But the joy of triumph quickly dissipates. No one knows who or what she is, and they are all put off by her oversized hand. She runs from the group again, surprised by what has happened, but unsure of how she feels about her “new identity.” She wishes that her hand would shrink, her hair would go back to black, and she would have some decent clothes. She feels exposed with all the new attention, but also like a hero, visible and important. Unsure of what to do with this new persona, she says “embiggen,” her hand shrinks, and she quickly runs home.
The first two issues of Ms. Marvel incorporate these themes of xenophobia and chauvinism and combine them with teenage angst; they also affirm positive aspects of Islam, with Kamala’s power to accomplish good. There is nothing preachy about the comic’s tone, and it is most effective when it explores the life of a young Muslim-American girl as she figures out who she is and where she belongs. Wilson mingles the unexpected with clichés in order to explore the complex set of realities that surround young Muslim women, from going to a convenience store and sniffing bacon, a forbidden food for Muslims, to resenting her rigidly conservative brother, to dealing with the typical anxieties and social pressures of any American teenager. Wilson does this to bring to life a character who is multifaceted, complex, and real in relation to the times and social environment in which she lives and struggles, and to question what it means to be “normal” in American society post-9/11.
Like the majority of Wilson’s female characters, Kamala also challenges commonly held ideas of cultural normalcy. Her actions, encounters, and relationship to the Islamic faith openly question the stereotypes that surround Muslim Americans, especially Muslim-American women. The hijab plays a pivotal and recurring role in Wilson’s work. Wilson, who wears the hijab, knows that it is often seen as a negative aspect of Islamic culture. In an interview in January 2014, she discussed how the veil often implies subjugation and women’s lack of freedom and how she wants readers to consider that there is freedom of choice. She illustrates this idea through the depiction of Kamala and her best friend, Kiki, a Turkish-American girl who wears a veil, but otherwise is not very different from Kamala, who does not. Neither choice is seen as intrinsically wrong.
Even her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, which initially began as a travelogue about her time in the Middle East, became a platform for Wilson to discuss the Muslim faith both as a convert and an American. Her journalistic skills are evident in the personal tale’s balanced portrayal of her experience as a white woman in a foreign “exotic land.” Although it’s a memoir, Wilson used it as an opportunity to argue that Islam is a benevolent religion, and this benevolence extends to its female followers.
In the book Graven Images (2010), a critical history of religion and comics, Wilson recalled a reader’s question:
A reader once asked me if I think knowledge is a human process. Though discussions about comics are often engaging and intelligent, I was surprised to get such an explicitly academic question. Like all pop culture, comics deal primarily in Zeitgeist: the images of here, the philosophy of now.
She went on to discuss the work of other comic authors she admired, such as Neil Gaiman and Peter Milligan, and their idea of the zeitgeist:
[They] focus on those symbols and philosophical insights that occur over and over in human history, seemingly independent of culture, time, and geography. In the worlds they create, these symbols live lives unhinged from the meanings humanity ascribes to them; they are drawn not from our imaginations, but from the supernatural architecture that supports reality […] Sacred knowledge is not generated by human attempts to understand the world; rather, knowledge itself generates that understanding.
The new Ms. Marvel is the latest image of the here and now. Kamala is Wilson’s embodiment of the zeitgeist, or Wilson’s idea of it. She is her avatar.
In the same month of Marvel’s announcement of the new Ms. Marvel came the publication of Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, by Columbia professor of anthropology Lila Abu-Lughod. Through years of ethnographic research, she presents detailed stories of ordinary Muslim women around the globe, from Afghanistan to Egypt, and shows that the problem of gender inequality is not inherent to Islamic faith and culture. Nor are issues of poverty and authoritarianism unique to the Islamic world. The Western vocabulary of oppression, choice, and freedom is — according to Abu-Lughod — too blunt to describe these women’s lives.
Although Wilson takes a different route toward addressing these grievances, she is arguing for the same change as Abu-Lughod. Both authors want us to resist presumptions that Muslim women need saving simply because they are Muslim and female. Wilson’s work and her characters, in pulpy form, embody this refusal since they are not waiting to be saved, but are doing the saving. They may strike at oppression — but they never strike at their Muslim culture.
Molly Hannon is a freelance writer, who has written for The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Paris Review, The Daily Beast, among others.