A Marvel in Her Own Right, G. Willow Wilson – She Changed Comics

March 26, 2019
By

G. Willow Wilson

gwillowwilsonSince her 2007 graphic novel Cairo, G. Willow Wilson has sought to represent the Islam that she knows, which is very different from the version presented in much of American culture. With the critical and popular success of Ms. Marvel in 2014, Wilson has helped to redefine who can be a superhero and reshape societal perceptions of Muslim American women’s experiences.

Gwendolyn Willow Wilson was born in 1982 in Long Branch, New Jersey. By the age of 17 she was a freelance music critic for the Boston-based magazine Weekly Dig. A hard-partying pink-haired teenager and the daughter of atheists, she surprised even herself by converting to Islam while attending Boston University. After graduation in 2003, she took a year-long job teaching history at an English-language high school in Cairo, Egypt.

Although she felt an instant connection to Cairo–“I’d never had such an intense, immediate relationship with a place before,” she said in an interview with Sara Elgobashy of the Middle East news site Elan–Wilson also experienced a certain amount of culture shock. In her 2010 memoir, for instance, she recalled how she and her roommate survived on scant provisions simply because they were mystified by the process of buying food in the chaotic marketplace. She adjusted better after striking up a friendship with Omar Haggag, the Egyptian physics teacher who would later become her husband.

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Living in Cairo cemented Wilson’s conviction that she had made the right choice in converting to Islam. She contributed both journalism and introspective pieces about her personal and spiritual journey to periodicals including Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Magazine. After moving back to the U.S. with her husband she wrote her first graphic novel Cairo, which incorporates mythological elements to tell the story of the city she loves. The book was published by DC in 2007 with art by M.K. Perker. It was chosen as a Top Ten Graphic Novel for Teens by the Young Adult Library Services Association, and School Library Journal named it one of the year’s Best Adult Books for High School Students.

In 2008 Wilson and Perker again collaborated to create the Vertigo series Air, about an acrophobic flight attendant caught up in paranormal events and post-9/11 fears of terrorism. Despite critical acclaim and a 2009 Eisner nomination for Best New Series, Air was cancelled in 2010 due to lack of sales. That same year, Wilson took a slight detour from comics with her non-graphic memoir The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam. That book, she told Elgobashy, was in part a reaction to the anti-Muslim sentiment that she was surprised to see growing rather than decreasing over the years; she hoped instead to highlight “the quiet, wonderful, human sides of Muslim experience [that] are overlooked in the media.” In 2012 she tackled yet another genre with the urban fantasy novel Alif the Unseen, and was rewarded the next year with the World Fantasy Award.

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In 2014 Wilson was hired to write the revolutionary new Ms. Marvel, in which the title formerly held by Carol Danvers was taken up by Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American Muslim teenager from New Jersey. Although Kamala is the first Muslim superhero to headline a Marvel series, Wilson’s writing and the art by Adrian Alphona show her to be eminently relatable, posting fanfiction online and sneaking out of the house to attend a party against her parents’ wishes. While learning to control her shapeshifting powers to battle supervillains, she also battles societal stereotypes of what Muslim women can do. The series met an enthusiastic response from fans hungering for more diverse characters and storylines, and received a 2015 Eisner nomination for Best New Series. Wilson was also nominated separately as Best Writer. Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal won a 2015 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, and the entire run won the Series Prize at the 2016 Angoulême International Comics Festival.

Although Wilson and Ms. Marvel have also received a predictable measure of Islamophobic backlash from online trolls, she told Michael Paulson of the New York Times that “there’s no way to say anything intelligent about those things, because the entire conversation is based on nonsense.” What she can do to represent the richness and diversity of the Muslim American experience, she says, is “keep on telling different stories.”

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She Changed Comics

CBLDF Presents: She Changed Comics is the definitive history of the women who changed free expression in comics, with profiles of more than 60 groundbreaking female professionals and interviews with the women who are changing today’s medium, including Raina TelgemeierNoelle Stevenson, G. Willow Wilson, and more! She Changed Comics also examines the plights of women imprisoned and threatened for making comics and explores the work of women whose work is being banned here in the United States. A must for readers of all ages, students, and educators.

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