'Can You Make Sure There's Nothing Un-Islamic In Our Oriental Shlock-Fest?' – G. Willow Wilson In The Bleeding Cool Interview
By Spencer Ellsworth
It's Women in Comics Month this may, so it's a particular honor to welcome G. Willow Wilson to Bleeding Cool. G. Willow Wilson has been writing comics for Vertigo, Marvel and DC since 2008, and is the author of the novel Alif the Unseen, from Grove Press, 2012. She's recently become a geek household name with the new incarnation of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, a young, scrappy Marvel hero, who is notable for being a prominent Pakistani-American, practicing Muslim hero. She was kind enough to answer questions both deep and… not-so-deep following her appearance at NorWesCon 2014.
BC: Ms. Marvel has sold out! Everywhere! How does that feel?
GWW: Pretty awesome, I have to tell you. It was completely unexpected. The fan response to Kamala has been incredible…I've met so many great people thanks to this book, and that alone makes the whole enterprise worth it.
BC: Kamala is a character who draws many of her morals from her own religious experience. This is a particularly interesting choice in a superhero world, where religion is rarely touched on when a superhero justifies their actions—"with great power comes great responsibility" fits the same moral continuum as the quote from the Qur'an in Ms. Marvel #2, but isn't explicitly religious. Why do you think most superhero comics have avoided religion?
GWW: I don't think they've avoided religion so much as folded it in discreetly. Obviously Superman owed quite a bit to the story of Moses when he was first created–by two Jewish artists–and then when he was handed off to writers who were culturally if not explicitly Christian, he mysteriously took on Christlike elements.
We didn't invent the social contract in the 20th century. It's been around, in some form or another, as long as there has been a thing called mankind, and religion has been mixed up in it for pretty much the whole time. You can find some implicit or explicit variation of "With great power comes great responsibility" in the Talmud, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Quran, and probably just about every other text out there that addresses human ethics. It was not hard to make that parallel.
BC: In that vein, does Kamala's moral code drive her in any different directions than Spider-Man's might, because it is explicitly religious?
GWW: I don't think so. Ethically, religions are kind of a wash. Don't cheat, don't lie, don't steal, look out for those who are less fortunate–there's a lot of agreement there across doctrinal lines. Not absolute agreement, but a lot of agreement. The big differences are largely theological and eschatological. I think that's why superheroes resonate across cultural and religious boundaries…they are expressions of our ethical selves, not our sectarian selves. So there is a lot of overlap between Kamala's concept of right and wrong and Spider-Man's. They have much more in common than not.
BC: Can you give us a hint of what the next couple years of Kamala's life might look like?
GWW: She's got a lot on her plate! As you will see in these next issues, we start teasing a super villain, and that's going to keep her occupied with bigger and bigger things. She'll have more contact with the wider Marvel U. And then there's her alternately hilarious and tension-filled private life…family, school, growing up.
BC: Really, that last question was a thinly veiled request for her to join the Young Avengers.
GWW: I would be into that, though not for a little while yet.
BC: You wrote Air, which spent a lot of time on "in-between" places—a floating hangar, a country wiped off the map, and even the visions of the main character. Why this interest in liminal places?
GWW: That's where I live. Liminal space is home to me. I dream in mashups. My sleeping brain makes these floating cities that are part Cairo, part Isfahan, part Boston, part Seattle…I have this deep abiding need to create a space where the very very disparate parts of my life can peacefully coexist. I lack the natural fear of human difference that keeps most people sane, so I seek out ideas and places and people that are radically unlike one another and unlike myself. It makes for great art, but it's pretty exhausting.
BC: In Alif the Unseen, you didn't shy away from censorship, sexism, racism and brutality in theocratic states. In the current climate of Islamophobia in the USA, it must be fraught to write about these issues, when many people falsely conflate them with religion. What sort of blowback have you encountered based on your work?
GWW: Welllll to be fair, Alif is not set in a theocratic state. Autocratic yes, but not theocratic. The Islamists are this largely abstract background menace that the state uses to justify its brutality, much like the former Mubarak regime in Egypt, where I was living when the idea for the book first came to me. Though with regard to your larger point, this amazing thing happened when I was pregnant with my first child–during which time I was writing Alif–and intensified when I turned thirty: I stopped giving a shit about conflation. I am not interested in babysitting people anymore.
I knew what kind of art I wanted to make and I trusted that there were people out there who would like it. Muslims, non-Muslims, westerners, easterners, atheists, freaks, geeks, true believers. I stopped worrying about catering to any one particular group. I just wanted to reach the people who were not yet cynical. And it worked. And that was magic. There's always blowback–there are ultraconservative Muslims who object to some of the more profane aspects of my work, and there are ultraconservative right wingers who are convinced I am part of some Illuminati socialist Muslim jihad on America. They more or less cancel each other out.
BC: At NorWesCon, you spoke about how you are sometimes asked to "vet" other people's stories which feature Muslim characters, particularly Muslim women. Can you speak a little bit to that?
GWW: Lawdy. If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked to check something and "make sure it didn't contain something accidentally offensive to Muslims," I'd be…well, not rich, but I'd have a lot of dollars. When people say that, what they want me to do is make sure the headscarves look right and the beards look right, which is all very superficial stuff. That's never the problem. The problem is that the people with the very correct beards and headscarves are selling their daughters into slavery and speaking in tongues and lolling about in harems. It's like "can you make sure there is nothing un-Islamic in our orientalist shlock-fest?" Well, sure. The problem is not that your orientalist shlock-fest is un-Islamic. The problem is that it sucks.
BC: At NorWesCon, you also spoke a bit about orientalism and Habibi, and the way that comic exoticized the Middle East without really grounding itself. Do you have any general words of advice for Western writers seeking to dig into Middle Eastern and Muslim issues?
GWW: Other people felt more strongly about Habibi than I did, actually. I was ambivalent. I like Craig Thompson's work, and I think I can see what he was trying to do with Habibi–it's just that he made a hash of it. Generally speaking, if your goal is to "unpack stereotypes" or some such thing, and you have not directly experienced those stereotypes yourself, what you almost inevitably end up doing is regurgitating the same garbage in a slightly fancier fashion. Because you're working from a fundamentally flawed information set–you know what the stereotypes are, but you don't know what the reality is. You have to guess. And you may end up guessing wrong.
BC: Let's ask some questions that aren't so philosophical. Which comics are on your can't-miss list?
GWW: Right now? Saga, Pretty Deadly, She Hulk, Silver Surfer, Hawkeye, and I pretty much have Peter Milligan's old Vertigo run of Shade: The Changing Man on continuous rotation. I have to read it in floppies; it was never collected into trades. People who know me are sick of hearing me talk about it.
BC: Superman or Thor? And who would win in a fight?
GWW: You know, 5 years ago I would have said Superman, but in the film version, they've made Thor so OP that I think Supes would be in serious trouble.
BC: How do you kill Wolverine?
GWW: Infect him with some kind of auto-immune disease that causes his body to reject the adamantium skeleton. Hasn't this been tried before in some random continuity or other? If not, I'm amazed no one's thought of it.
BC: Whose stretchy hand is more effective: Kamala's or Mr. Fantastic's?
GWW: I would pay to watch them arm wrestle. As of Issue 4 of Ms. Marvel, I have to say Mr. Fantastic would probably win, but give her until roughly issue 7, and it would be Kamala. No contest.
Spencer Ellsworth has written about comics for Bleeding Cool since 2013, and all over the Internet since 2007. He has also published short fiction in many venues, including the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and maintains a blog and bibliography at spencerellsworth.com and twitters @spencimus