Past and future Ms. Marvel creators look back on Kamala Khan's journey so far
On Friday, EW broke the news that Ms. Marvel had reached the end of an era. Ever since Kamala Khan was first introduced as a young Muslim superhero in 2014, the Ms. Marvel comic has been written by G. Willow Wilson, who co-created the character alongside artist Adrian Alphona and editors Stephen Wacker and Sana Amanat. That will change next March, when Wilson takes her leave from the character in time for writer Saladin Ahmed and artist Minkyu Jung to launch a new ongoing comic, The Magnificent Ms. Marvel.
To celebrate this changing of the guard, EW spoke with Wilson, Amanat, and Ahmed about the five-year history of Kamala Khan — where she's been, and where she might be going. Check that out below.
In the beginning
The seed of what would become Ms. Marvel was born out of conversations between Marvel editors Wacker and Amanat back in 2012. As they discussed Amanat's upbringing as a Muslim American, they realized there should be a character in the Marvel pantheon who could speak to those experiences. Since there wasn't one, they would have to create her themselves, and they reached out to Wilson for help. Adrian Alphona was soon brought on board as an artist to shape the look of the character.
Amanat, whose office at Marvel today is filled with memorabilia from the early days of Ms. Marvel (including a copy of the New York Times story with the original series announcement), acknowledges her personal connection to the character. The very first page of Ms. Marvel #1 shows Kamala looking longingly at a BLT sandwich that she's forbidden from eating — an experience drawn directly from Amanat's own life. But she says the other collaborators poured pieces of themselves in as well, which crafted Kamala into a character that all kinds of readers could relate to.
"A lot of people will come up to me and be like, 'Oh my god, I, too, felt like a complete loser for not trying bacon before in my life and felt like I was missing out on something huge.' It's definitely a metaphor for all the different ways in which we felt like outcasts," Amanat tells EW. "That was a mark of, 'Hey, you don't belong here because you can't do this thing.' My life was delineated in terms of what categories I didn't really belong in. I didn't realize I had to create categories of my own and be empowered by that. We're creating a character who's a South Asian Muslim girl, so you can't help but reflect on your own life. It was a form of therapy, if you will, in the creative process, which was really interesting and also painful at times, but important."
She continues, "When we were trying to figure out the hook for the character, Stephen Wacker came to me saying, 'You should insert a lot of yourself in this, because it's a character for all the young Sana's of the world. But also what is the thing that is the universal hook of the character? It's not going to be that she's Muslim or South Asian, it's gotta be something else.' That helped us get to a point where we realized it was fundamentally a story about identity, and that's a story everyone can connect to. As much as I was putting a lot of myself into it, Willow was putting a lot of herself into it, and Adrian was putting himself in it. Everyone came from their own point of view, and it culminated in this character who is so specific to a certain cultural/religious experience, but at the same time is so representative of this larger struggle we all have, trying to figure out what spaces we fit in."
Amanat maintains that Kamala's creation was a collaborative effort, but Wilson does credit her with coming up with the idea for the now-iconic cover image to Ms. Marvel #1, in which a young girl wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the classic Ms. Marvel symbol (originally worn by Carol Danvers, who has since been promoted to Captain Marvel) alongside a scarf, notebooks, and various accouterments of the modern teenager. Although the outfit has never been worn by Kamala on the page, Wilson says the image was nevertheless important in shaping reader expectations for the character.
"With first issue covers, you really want to stack up the symbolism as high as you can. This cover was kind of an homage to the equally iconic Supergirl cover that had Supergirl in a T-shirt with the S-logo on it and carrying a skateboard. People were like, 'Wow, this is a really different take on superheroes!' when it first came out," Wilson says. "Similarly, with a cover like that, you're not looking to tell someone, 'Okay, this is the final draft of the character' — you want to pique their interest. The best way to do that is to tie that character to a legacy with which they are already familiar, in this case the Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel legacy. She's wearing a bracelet with her name on it in Arabic. She's got the trappings of a high school kid, she's carrying around notebooks and textbooks, it's giving you a snapshot of who this character is before you even open up the book. It's really difficult to pull off a first cover like that, that captures people's interests and has that kind of longevity. I have to hand it to Sana, it was her idea to pull from that Supergirl cover for inspiration and really make it something that would power this series."
Unusually for a superhero, Kamala's origin story does not involve a family tragedy. Her father, mother, and brother Aamir are all introduced alongside Kamala without incident. Rather than dying Uncle Ben-style, they have grown and developed with Kamala over the years; Aamir, in particular, has gone from being a devout shut-in to a husband and father. Per Amanat, "We needed some big events to happen in her life, but didn't need to sacrifice anyone. Her family is such a big part of her identity."
Another big part of Kamala's identity is her hometown, Jersey City. Wilson and Amanat both hail from New Jersey themselves, which made the choice obvious, but it also worked well as an explanation of Ms. Marvel's relationship to other Marvel superheroes, most of whom are based in New York City.
"Given that the epicenter of the Marvel Universe has always been New York City, it made sense for this new, up-and-coming, originally-second-string superhero to start out just across the river in New Jersey, which has always been considered the less cool, less interesting, less exciting, less glamorous place to be," Wilson says. "Coming from New Jersey ourselves, Sana and I really knew what that felt like, and were familiar with the particular, weird charm of New Jersey. We knew location was going to be as big a factor in this series as character was, because the environment you start in as a superhero becomes your calling card. Just like Miles Morales in Brooklyn and Peter Parker in Queens, we knew that where Kamala was growing up would have a huge impact on the kinds of stories we were going to tell. Jersey City was perfect because it is so close, yet so far, from New York City."
To embiggen or not to embiggen
Every superhero is, of course, defined by their superpowers, and Kamala's are pretty unique. As an Inhuman, Kamala's abilities were granted by an encounter with the Terrigen Mists, which activated a latent super-gene inside her and turned her into a shapeshifter. Kamala has the power to increase or decrease in size, shifting either her whole body at once or just one part at a time (for when she wants to hit someone with an extra-large punch or kick). The character's delightful term for increasing her size is "embiggen," a word she has now popularized so much that it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary earlier this year.
"Creating Kamala's powerset was hands down the most difficult part of the character creation process," Wilson says now. "We spent months going back and forth about what her powerset should be, how it should function, how it should look on the page. It was really tough. I knew from the beginning I didn't want her to have sparkly, hand wave-y, floaty, pretty powers. There were plenty of those! I really wanted her to have something kinetic, a bit weirder-looking, something that was really fun to look at, something that communicated well on the page. I also wanted something that would tie into being a teenager. Not all of us have superpowers but we all remember being 16 and feeling out of place in our bodies. Having different limbs growing at different rates, it's a struggle we can all relate to, and having a powerset that spoke so clearly to that part of life, that part of growing up, was really appealing to me. It meant we could tell a story that worked on several different levels."
It's not just Kamala's powers, but also her adventures, that really tie into the experience of modern young people. As a young superhero, Kamala has had to learn how to balance saving the world and being on the Avengers with school, friends, and family responsibilities — in the same way many real-life young people have to balance school or work with extracurricular activities, internship, and gig-economy freelancing jobs.
"We were really trying to tell a superhero story that would feel like an average high school kid getting overloaded, trying to balance friendships and school and family expectations and also I'm on the Avengers," Wilson says. "A lot of people have mentioned that Kamala, unlike other prominent superheroes, doesn't have a rogues' gallery. There's not really a Joker in the Ms. Marvel universe. That's because going in, it was important to tell a young adult story in which, as for all of us, your number one enemy is usually yourself. It's because you've bitten off more than you can chew, or you're trying to navigate a world that is much bigger than you are, or you're making mistakes and have to go back and correct them. To be able to pull that off in the context of a superhero story was one of the real highlights of my professional career thus far."
As for Ahmed, he says that coming up with new uses for Kamala's powers is one of the things he's most looking forward to about writing her.
"Folks who have read Exiles know that I've had the post-apocalyptic version of Kamala use her polymorphing powers in ways that Kamala herself hasn't done in the main timeline," Ahmed says. "So I've been thinking about that as a powerset and what weird fun stuff you could do with it."
How to change the world
Ms. Marvel has blossomed as a young Muslim superhero at a time of continuing prejudice and Islamophobia in American society. Even in 2018, many Muslim characters and characters of Middle Eastern descent in pop culture are still reduced to stereotypes like "terrorist." Kamala, with her relatable heroism and her fully-formed supporting cast of family members and friends, has offered a powerful contrast to that trend.
"I don't think it's overstating things to say that she's been a beacon in the few years she's been around — to other creators who have been struggling to get out a normal human vision of Muslim characters, and for fans who have been dying for that," Ahmed says. "There's a reason that whenever I go to a convention I see insane amounts of people dressed as Kamala. There's a reason people have been connecting with her. She really has been a breath of fresh air."
Kamala's positive influence on those around her has been represented within Ms. Marvel itself. A recent story line found Kamala absent from the comic for four whole issues. In her absence, her friends stepped up, wearing their own homemade Ms. Marvel costumes and trying to carry on her example of fighting for justice while she was gone.
A similar effect has occasionally spilled over into the real world. Back in 2015, when a hate group paid for Islamophobic bus ads in San Francisco, some enterprising people started covering up the ads with pictures of Ms. Marvel.
"It's pretty incredible. She's part of the pop culture subconscious of America now, in a lot of ways. The biggest marker of success is that people understand what her iconography means and what she stands for," Amanat says. "I'm hopeful that people will continue to focus on her as a powerful character who is constantly trying to bring people together and do good, and along the way realize that she's Muslim, and South Asian, and a strong woman. I think that will start dispelling a lot of fears people might associate with a particular face. I think that's the test of time. That's the best way to combat Islamophobia. Once people confront someone from something they're afraid of, it becomes a real thing. If you can't meet Muslim, maybe you can read about one. I do believe she's had the ability to combat those negative stereotypes in a way that's also sweet and endearing and funny. She's not trying to educate people, she's just asking them to come along for the ride."