Superhero comics are built on amazing feats: flying, climbing walls, transforming into a giant green monster while somehow keeping your purple shorts on. But G. Willow Wilson has done something even Superman never bothered to do: create a female Muslim superhero and turn her into an overnight marketing sensation.
Wilson writes Ms. Marvel , a monthly Marvel Comics series that debuted in February, 2014. It stars Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old child of Pakistani immigrants living in Jersey City (well, the Marvel universe’s version of Jersey City, where Iron Man, Captain America, and the like battle bad guys just across the Hudson).
Kamala is a hero in the Peter Parker tradition: dweeby, self-doubting, unpopular. Like so many of today’s teen geeks, she spends her nights resenting her parents and writing fan fiction for online forums. A bizarre incident leaves Kamala with shapeshifting powers.
The first volume of Ms. Marvel won the Hugo Award for best graphic story in 2015. In 2016, Ms. Marvel won the Dragon Award for Best Comic Book and also won the “Prize for a Series” at the Angoulême International Comics Festival.
And yet, lost in all that clamor is the remarkable story of Wilson, the writer behind Kamala. Born in New Jersey herself, Wilson was a white kid with no religious upbringing, but converted to Islam during the height of the War on Terror.
She’s lived in Egypt, done foreign correspondence for the New York Times , penned a memoir, written an acclaimed novel, and labored in relative obscurity within the mainstream comics industry for years.
When asked how she ended up converting to Islam, Wilson said:
“I tried to be an atheist but I just wasn’t very good at it. I grew up without any particular religion. I had no idea, really, what Islam was. I knew maybe a handful of Muslims growing up, but I had no idea what it was all about.”
“So I was exposed to it sort of by accident by studying the Crusades in a history class, ironically. I read the Koran and it was a profoundly moving experience for me. I probably would’ve converted sometime in the fall of 2001, had not a … very particular world event occurred that caused me to rethink my entire attraction to the religion.”
“It took a couple of years of study after that before I was convinced that, in fact, what happened on 9/11 was not endorsed by Islam, that it was in fact criminal according to the religion.”
“At that point, I had an opportunity to move to Egypt [to teach English], which seemed like destiny at work. My only exposure to the religion had been through books, at that point. I had maybe $200 to my name. And it was 2003, the very beginning of the Iraq War.”
“I didn’t tell anybody I’ve converted to Islam. I kept it a secret for months. I just didn’t want to have that conversation. But once I sat down and thought of it, it was like, There’s no way I can get through 30 days a year of no eating or drinking without people noticing.”
In her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque , Wilson wrote that, in Islam, “the things that are most precious, most perfect and most holy are always hidden: the Kaaba, the faces of prophets and angels, a woman’s body, Heaven.”
In addition to Ms. Marvel, Wilson is the author of numerous other comic series and graphic novels, including Cairo, Air, and Mystic, the nonfiction book The Butterfly Mosque, and the novel Alif the Unseen. Wilson has also been a contributor to The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the National Post.