EW's Best of 2015: How G. Willow Wilson built an all-female Avengers
It’s not easy to introduce a new superhero to the storied Marvel Universe, much less get them to a similar status as Captain America, Spider-Man, and the rest. But that’s just what writer G. Willow Wilson accomplished last year when she created a new Ms. Marvel alongside artist Adrain Alphona.
Alias Kamala Khan, this new teenaged crime-fighter was mainstream comics’ first Muslim superhero, but there was nothing exotic about her. Kamala’s Pakistani family – all of whom have different ideas about religion and culture – was portrayed just as lovingly as Peter Parker’s Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Thanks to vibrant characterization and compelling storytelling, Kamala immediately became a critical and commercial hit. Rounding into year two, Wilson and the rest of the Ms. Marvel creative team steered Kamala straight into her first crossover event. This is a major test for any new Marvel superhero, but Kamala not only survived Secret Wars, she ended up on the Avengers.
Speaking of Avengers, Wilson also spent this year introducing the world to A-Force, the first all-female Avengers team. A-Force rose out of the ashes of Secret Wars to inaugurate a new era of female superheroes, even as Wilson’s writing proved women Avengers suffered as much infighting as their male counterparts.
After Ms. Marvel’s successful launch last year, Wilson was approached by Avengers editor Daniel Ketchum about creating an all-female Avengers team. Wilson made sure to go beyond simply throwing every female Marvel superhero into a pot, making sure to include some personal favorites like the X-Men’s disco-powered Dazzler and Nico Minoru of the Runaways.
Like this year’s Ms. Marvel stories, A-Force started out knee-deep in Secret Wars. The story began in the alternate reality of Battleworld, a mash-up planet where the Marvel superheroes were hurled in between their universe’s destruction and recreation. Battleworld was divided into different principalities; A-Force came out of Arcadia, a city designed to resemble an Amazonian feminist paradise. But Wilson used Arcadia and the team itself to interrogate the very notion of feminine/masculine difference.
“I think the most interesting thing is not about how it changes but how it doesn’t change,” Wilson says. “I think any time you have a super team, whether it’s all men or all women or both, what you have are people with very unique strengths that aren’t always totally compatible. You see that in the way Tony Stark and Captain America butt heads in the Avengers. What’s cool about a book like this is we can show there’s not some essential gender difference that would make an all-female team completely different from all male team.
“You have the same combination of people vying for leadership, people having very different ideas about what direction it should take, and also about the uses of power. I think that’s a huge theme in superhero books across the board: When you have this massive power, how do you use it responsibly? When do you intervene? Those are the big questions. What I think is cool about doing it with an all-female team is seeing women in those positions, making those decisions. They are often as uniquely flawed and various as they would be if it were two men butting heads.”
A-Force stands as part of a greater trend of vibrant female characters in 2015, which saw Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa take the spotlight in Mad Max: Fury Road and Daisy Ridley’s Rey prove women could fight with lightsabers as well as any male Jedi in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
“I think all these pop cultural media often reflect conversations we’re having in the real world at that moment in time. I think one of the big conversations we’re having as a culture is we thought we’d solved sexism and racism, and we’re realizing more and more that we haven’t,” Wilson says. “There are still questions and some lingering issues that are really coming to the fore, politically and socially, and our pop culture reflects that. So to me it fits into this larger narrative and these sometimes fraught arguments we’re having now as a culture about women, and about politics.”
Secret Wars is over now, but A-Force remains. Starting in issue 5, Wilson will step away from primary writing duties to focus on an undisclosed primary project while co-write Kelly Thompson takes over. Wilson says the series will continue to wrestle with questions raised by the end of Secret Wars.
“The first arc will see the return of a popular character from that Secret Wars arc, that people are very excited about. It’s kind of about sorting out, ‘What does this team mean in the 616 universe, outside of Battleworld?'” Wilson says. “Bringing that all together and sorting out these personalities in the face of this giant threat they have to face is going to be the primary challenge out of the gate. It’s exciting for me to be a part of this and see what energy and ideas come out of it going forward as Katie Kubert, the editor, and Kelly take it into the future.”
Aside from introducing A-Force, Wilson also took her celebrated Ms. Marvel comic into year two. As the Secret Wars dust cleared and an “All-New, All-Different” Marvel emerged, geeky Kamala Khan found herself fighting alongside her idols on the Avengers.
“I think that first year is really a testing ground for any new series. Who is the audience, are they gonna stick around, are you really hitting the high notes when it comes to storytelling?” Wilson says. “To have done that, to come back strong, is really very exciting. The first year was about her getting to know her powers, her deciding who she was going to be as a superhero. Now, going into the second year she’s got that confidence, she’s on the Avengers, she all of a sudden has access to training and resources she didn’t have before. But that’s its own challenge.”
The first issue of the new Ms. Marvel series found Kamala overwhelmed with joy at fighting alongside superheroes she used to write fan fiction about. However, it quickly became clear that juggling the pressures of the Avenger life with high school and family could easily get overwhelming. Kamala’s pressure to juggle her various responsibilities was relatable for many millennials. Wilson saw it as her responsibility to stick up for the young generation.
“I have younger friends who are in this pinch where they feel they’ve been counted out before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. They’ve inherited a lot of debt — not just student debt but environmental debt, political debt. They really feel squeezed,” Wilson says. “It was very important to me to give Kamala a recognizable voice — not just of a young person from any time and place, but a young person that is very grounded in the reality that young people face living in America in 2015. I’m in a position to advocate for these younger people at a time when not a lot of people are. That was something very important to me to do with this series.”
Once Kamala’s mind began to clear, she realized a nefarious corporation was trafficking on her superheroic image. Ms. Marvel the comic got very popular very fast, and within its pages Ms. Marvel the character had to deal with the challenges of influence.
“The kinds of things that we are talking about Kamala in the real world are the kinds of things she’s experiencing in the superhero world,” Wilson says. “You’re only the underdog as long as you’re on the bottom. When you’re on the top, all of a sudden expectations change, the game changes, people think differently about you, there’s more criticism. That’s as true in real life as it is in story, so we wanted to bring that out.”
This is only the latest manifestation of Kamala Khan’s impact on the world outside comic books. Earlier this year, someone started covering Islamophobic bus ads in San Francisco with graffiti images of the new Ms. Marvel. “Diversity” is now so ever-present in cultural discussions, it can be easy to forget the concept’s tangible meaning. Just recently a poll found that a terrifying number of American voters in favor of bombing Agrabah, the fictional Arabian country from Disney’s animated Aladdin. Fantasies, in other words, matter.
“We’re living in a very fictionalized time in terms of the way we tend to see the world in general and the Muslim world in particular. The line between fiction and reality has become very dangerously blurred,” Wilson says. “The upshot of that is the stories we tell about ourselves as a culture about who we are and what the rest of the world is are very important. When people think about the moments in their lives that formed who they were and their opinions, no one talks about a segment on CNN. They talk about Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter. These are the stories, especially now when we’re starting to crowdsource belief systems, these are the things that really matter. If I can in some small way add something constructive to that dialogue, make people think again about black-and-white ideas they may have had, then that’s great.”
One of the effects of Kamala’s popularity and power is that she will inevitably grow behind Wilson at some point. It’s already started, and not just in Marvel comics, where Kamala’s presence on the Avengers mean she’s currently showing up in books written by other authors. There’s also the thousands of Tumblr fans, plus those daring street artists, who have taken Kamala into their own lives and into the world, behind Wilson’s words. Wilson not only accepts this, she says it’s the entire point.
“Writing a superhero story is very different from, say, writing a novel,” Wilson says. “When you’re writing a novel or any kind of creator-owned art, you get very possessive. You don’t want other people to tread on your territory. When you’re writing a superhero, the goal I think for everybody is for the character to outlive you or your influence on that story. You want them to become part of the common vocabulary. It’s really lovely to see other people pick up the baton and run with it, and apply Kamala’s thinking and symbolism to the real world.”
Both series went beyond token representation. Ms. Marvel’s editorial team is mostly American Muslims like Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, with additional feedback from Wilson’s Pakistani friends. A-Force is helmed by Wilson, Thompson, and editor Katie Kubert. According to Wilson, these diverse creative teams help imbibe the books with authenticity.
“The hope is when you get some core story that comes from a place of authenticity, that changes the way people think about those characters or that group of people,” Wilson says. “And then someday another writer from another totally different background, whether it’s men writing women characters or non-Muslim writers writing Muslim characters, can take on that character with a better sense of what it would be like to be that character in the real world. To me it’s like setting the stage, and it’s cool to be on these teams where we have these shared experiences and we can collaborate about what the best way to bring those experiences into the book are.”