Novelist Saladin Ahmed just started writing mainstream comics last year, but he’s already made one unforgettable series. Black Bolt, with artist Christian Ward, turned the titular superhero-king on his head by locking him away in a psychedelic space prison and challenging all his beliefs about ruling and punishment. Now, for his next trick, Ahmed is resurrecting Marvel’s Exiles franchise alongside artist Javier Rodriguez. This superhero team is known for its time-hopping adventures across parallel realities of the Marvel Universe, and Ahmed has wrangled up quite a diverse team to continue that tradition. Longtime Exiles stalwart Blink leads the team, but joining her are a cartoon version of Wolverine from the X-Babies universe; Khan, a grizzled older version of Ms. Marvel; Iron Lad (a.k.a. a teenaged Kang the Conqueror) from before his Young Avengers adventures; and a version of Valkyrie heavily influenced by Tessa Thompson’s beloved on-screen version in Thor: Ragnarok.
EW caught up with Ahmed to break down each member of the team. Check that out below, along with an exclusive preview of Exiles #1, which hits stores April 11.
As played by Jamie Chung, the teleporting mutant Blink has recently become a star on Fox’s X-Men series The Gifted. But Ahmed promises a slightly different version here, one that pays tribute to Blink’s comic roots while also exploring new territory.
“Those who are familiar with the character through the TV show will be seeing a pretty different character,” Ahmed tells EW. “This is the Blink from the comic story line Age of Apocalypse, an archetypal post-apocalyptic X-Men story line. She’s been a fan favorite from the time she first appeared in that story line in the ’90s. Initially I think people just latched onto her because of her design, all that neon pink. There’s something about the coloring and the pointy ears and her elfin looks. Javier and I have updated her look, made it a little more punk rock, but the basic design is killer. A series of writers really put her into interesting/compelling situations. She was raised by Sabretooth, actually, so not a typical family history. Lots of writers, including the folks who did previous runs on Exiles, have done some really dynamic stuff with her as a time-hopper and superhero. I’m interested in honoring that work but also want to dig into her as a person, especially her early life and how that affects her. Where do people come from? What’s their cultural background? What was their family life like? I think all that stuff informs the rest of our lives. So I think I’ll be digging into corners with Blink that haven’t really been explored yet.”
Tessa Thompson’s performance as Valkyrie was one of the standout elements of last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, even though she differed from past versions of the character. Exiles’ dimension-hopping concept, however, has allowed Ahmed and Rodriguez to finally introduce a similar version of Valkyrie to Marvel comics. Though she’s not quite the same as the MCU character, fans of Thompson and Ragnarok should have plenty of reasons to rejoice.
“I think for a lot of people, Tessa Thompson was the breakout performance in Thor: Ragnarok. That was a delightful movie, and her swagger was part of what made it that way,” Ahmed says. “Now, to get deep-nerd, the Marvel Cinematic Universe does have its own designation as an alternate reality. This is not technically Valkyrie from that reality, and she’s got some differences. The Asgard she comes from apparently doesn’t have a Thor or a Heimdall; she’s known as the Lone Defender of Asgard. She’s from a slightly different Asgard, she’s a slightly different character, but in her design and body language she’s meant to embody what Tessa did. She’s not a big woman, but she has this embodiment of going toe-to-toe with Chris Hemsworth or Hulk, as if she was as big as they are. So we made her look as big as she acted. She’s a bit different from Tessa’s character in that the tragic backstory is not there in the same way, so we see a younger, more mirthful warrior here. I think readers are really gonna fall in love with her.”
Wolverine of the X-Babies
Even in an age of violent, grimdark superheroes, Wolverine remains probably the grimmest and most violent of all (see: Logan). But Exiles’ version is a chibi cartoon version of the character, from the Muppet Babies-style X-Babies universe.
“There’s perhaps the slightest bit of trolling involved with Wolverine. Certain fans who demand a grim and serious superhero are a bit outraged at the appearance of this character,” Ahmed says. “The real Wolverine is a character I’ve lived with and loved for 30-some years. These characters we love, we can sort of poke fun at them. Wolverine’s unrelenting grim toughness is kind of perfectly inverted by having this character with literal cartoon hearts popping off him as he explains how great friends are. It’s a lot of fun to write this character. On the other hand, it’s important to me with a superhero book to think about these themes in serious ways. So he’s also gonna be a springboard for thinking about violence and what’s scary in the world. He comes from this completely innocent world where the worst thing that happens is someone steals pies. He’s gonna be confronted with much darker stuff. How he rolls with that is gonna be an emotional story that I think is relevant to people who aren’t cartoons.”
Kamala Khan, a.k.a Ms. Marvel, is the single greatest Marvel creation of the last few years. As written by G. Willow Wilson, Kamala is an eager young hero who fights for the safety of her Jersey City hometown while also confronting problems any young millennial can relate to: Tricky work/life balance, gentrification in her neighborhood, relating to her parents, and so on. Exiles presents a much darker version of the character, one who hails from a dystopian future and has lost some of her younger self’s luster.
“Khan is essentially Kamala Khan after about 30 years or so spent in a reality where there’s been constant three-way war between humans, Inhumans, and mutants,” Ahmed says. “The Marvel event IvX threatened some conflict between Inhumans and mutants that could have spilled over globally, and the idea here is, what if that didn’t get peacefully resolved? What if it devolved into a global factional war? Kamala is a person who, even as young Ms. Marvel, is very much about her place: Jersey City, the people around her, and a loving protection of that. What we see in Khan is a bitter soldier who’s seen that faith and that hope betrayed. On the one hand, Khan is kind of a pastiche tribute; it’s not an accident that she looks like Cable or Bishop. She’s got pouches and a big gun! She is this grim ‘grrr I’m from the future’ ’90s character. But squaring that with her heritage as Ms. Marvel was really important to me. I love Willow’s book to death. It was important to me to not just make this ‘haha Ms. Marvel has a gun.’ There’s a journey there that she’ll go through. We’ll find out about the journey that brought her to this haggard place, and then we’ll see if there’s a way out of that for her.”
He hasn’t been seen in a while, but Iron Lad was one of the original stars of Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers run. Fans of that book will know he’s actually a younger version of Kang the Conqueror, one who rejected his future self’s villainous ways and traveled to the present, where he assembled a team of young superheroes to fight for justice. Exiles pulls out the character just before his Young Avengers adventures.
“This is a book about reality-hopping, so a character who is a pre-Kang is absolutely at home in a book like this,” Ahmed says. “This incarnation of Nate is essentially before anything that happens in Young Avengers. The idea here is that we meet him just after he’s rejected Kang. The story of Iron Lad is, Kang goes back to his bullied self as a kid and snatches him out of the timeline and offers to make him a warlord, his heir/predecessor, but he rejects that and becomes a hero. In this timeline he rejects Kang, but in a bit of a darker direction. He doesn’t want to become a conqueror, but he wants to go get revenge on the bullies who have hurt him. He hasn’t gone through what readers have seen Iron Lad of the Young Avengers go through. He’s basically a hurt, angry kid in power armor. A brilliant, hurt, angry kid in power armor. He’s the super-brain of the team. He’s gonna have to contend with what having this ability to cause harm means, and how you use that.”