The New York Times bestselling author talks about what it’s like to be the first South Asian Muslim woman to pen Ms. Marvel and how the beloved character fits her ‘Revolutionary Girl’ theme
If you don’t know who Kamala Khan is you probably should. Because she’s going to be the next big superhero in the Marvel cultural zeitgeist. Like Miles Morales and Kate Bishop, Kamala’s story is exactly the kind of chronicle that thrives in this new generation. A fun and youthful superhero, who’s happily excited to be here, and a role model for young Muslim girls.
In many ways, Kamala is a revolutionary girl. A recurring theme young adult author Samira Ahmed uses in her works describing her Islamic YA protagonists; who are often Muslim teens who struggle against the world despite all odds to make a profound and long-lasting cultural impact of sorts.
Ms. Marvel: Beyond the Limit continues that line of storytelling. Though it is also a fun semi-multiverse Kamala adventure, filled with warm colors, funny story beats, and one surprising Bollywood Bonanza you’ll have to see to believe. We asked Samira Ahmed about what it was like to take on the responsibility of writing Ms. Marvel and more. Our full chat is in the podcast, but below, is an abridged transcription.
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You’re the first South Asian woman to pen Ms. Marvel. How does it feel to have written such an iconic role model for Muslim youths as your first character?
“The first South Asian Muslim woman, Preeti Chhibber, has actually written one of the younger-aged graphic novels for Ms. Marvel and I just wanna make sure to give her props! That said, it is really an honor to write this incredible character who’s become iconic in such a short period of time.
I think the first time I saw issue one, Willow’s first, I saw that image of Kamala there and was blown away. Here’s a Pakistani Muslim superhero! I couldn’t even imagine as a kid.
The first time I saw that issue at my local comic book store, I kind of had that goosebumpy reaction when you’re seeing something for the first time. Little did I know then that I’d become a writer on it. But even now, I still have that goosebumpy reaction!
‘Wait, I’m Writing Ms. Marvel? This is Incredible!’
Kamala means so much to people, including me and my family, it’s really just a privilege to be a part of her story and to bring this extension of her story into the world.”
In the past, you’ve written a lot about Islamaphobia in your Young Adult author career. Can you talk about how your previous works influenced your take on Kamala?
“I think a lot of my YA focuses on a few different themes. One of the themes I often write about is how young people are often confronted with something that really changes their world in unexpected ways, and that can break their childhood in unexpected ways.
In all my YA novels I have this throughline of stories about the revolutionary girl. That’s very much how I look at my YA stories when I’m having these young women address issues of Islamophobia.
That definitely speaks with my work with Ms. Marvel, she’s definitely a revolutionary girl. The young women I’m writing are characters who are finding their voice. Girls who are like all the other girls. Not perfect but trying really hard. Finding themselves having to stand up for what’s right in difficult situations. They’re forced into positions where they have to find courage because of forces acting upon them. At the same time, they’re regular teens. They have crushes. They have zits before the dance. They butt heads with their parents. All those things to me, Kamala also embodies.”
We’re in the midst of a pandemic still. And now, more than ever, are we ever reliant on the strength and resilience of our everyday teachers. Can you talk about your experience teaching and how it influenced the voice of your young adult characters?
“Well, I was very fortunate to have been a high school English teacher and when I’m writing these teen characters, the voices of my former students are so much in my mind. I’m writing a superhero now, but I’ve seen so many acts of heroism from regular kids in my life.
This is why I feel like it’s such a privilege to write for young people because I think they’re so incredibly smart and curious and they find these pockets of bravery when they need to. I love that so much.
I wish we didn’t put them into the position where they were forced to find their courage, but I see, time and again, young people make the tough choices and be good. Sometimes it’s not easy to stand up for the right thing or to find your voice or to find the courage just to be who you are. And all those things I’ve witnessed as a teacher come to bear in my work. Certainly in Ms. Marvel, but also with her friends.
One of the things I love about how Willow and Saladin developed Ms. Marvel’s world is her family and friends are really important parts of her life. They’ve fully realized characters, not just two-dimensional throwaways or tropes. Nakia is a character I really enjoy writing about because she really tells it to Kamala straight. Kamala is not perfect, just because she’s a superhero doesn’t mean she doesn’t make mistakes though. And sometimes you need characters like Nakia who’s like… ‘you really might wanna think about that again, my friend!’
You know, Kamala draws strength from her friends and family. They’re her rocks but also, they’re with her in the fight and stand up with her. I love being able to write those parts of the story because I hope and wish that every young person can have people like that in their lives. People who love them and can stand with them and I hope the young people who are reading it can be that for someone else.”
Could you talk a little about the Bollywood influence in these first two issues and what it was like doing this type of comic?
“I think people are getting hints from the cover, some kind of multiverse element, so I wanted to combine two things I love. The multiverse plus the 80s and 90s golden age of Bollywood, which are the movies Kamala’s parents would be watching. I just love having that little cultural piece and there’s such vibrancy and vitality to Bollywood.
Triona just brought it with the colors, and Andres, it’s gorgeous. It was really fun to have that piece in there but it’s also just a nod to Kamala’s culture and the culture of all the kids who share similar backgrounds who are reading it. I love that there’s a bit of intrigue around it too, which is fun, and it was fun to design this Bollywood costume with Andres for her.”
“Also, a tiny detail in the comic, when her parents watch the Bollywood movie on TV, I got to use a Bollywood sound effect. Which was really fun because those can vary by culture. ‘Da Shoom! Da Shoom!’ which is this shooting sound effect that’s this very Bollywood and not necessarily one you normally see. It was fun to do that and that sound fx appears in the Eternals movie! So it was fun just synchronicity. But it’s fun putting pieces to that because Kamala’s culture is important to her. She’s a character who has fun too.”
I love that. A lot of people compare Kamala to Spider-Man in that she’s this genuine teenager with some serious fandoms. Is there anything, in particular, that you fan over regarding Marvel?
“I love that Kamala writes fan fiction and of course, is a big fan of the person who becomes her mentor. I do think of Kamala as a parallel to a lot of early spidey. She’s really a young adult superhero. One of the first, young women who’s really a YA superhero with all that encompasses. Her world encompasses all that teenager dom. That I really love about Spidey, plus spidey has the quips.”
So does Kamala though! You even throw a joke in this one!
“Yes, I did! I got the windy city in the beginning. I love those quips. You’ll be able to see the quips and see how much there is of a spidey influence in this run. I also love how Spidey jokes while fighting the bad guys. It’s such a genuine teenagery fun moment and I love it when Kamala does that too.”
Speaking of… is the Kamala-tingle Spidey-sense, basically?
“I don’t want to say too much of a spoiler but you will see it again in later issues. I’m also right now enjoying the Hawkeye: Kate Bishop. The action is great and that’s a fun story. I also just picked up Avengers Forever, because again I’m a multiverse fan. I really love multiverse stories.”
You’re doing a wonderful job with it. I’m loving everything about this so far. Besides Marvel’s Avengers (the game), I haven’t read too much into Kamala until about two weeks ago, when I read every single run of Willow’s, Saladin’s, and now yours.
“That’s actually a fun way to do it. You can see the little bits of the variation of how Willow and Sana made it how it progressed and changed and how Saladin changed it. That’s what’s cool and fun about this character.”
Now, are you a full-script or gist of it kind of writer?
“I do the full script but it’s a collaborative process. Before Ms. Marvel, I didn’t know how people wrote comics. I heard a little bit about the Marvel method, though they’re not many people use it anymore. It was interesting to learn the process and I love the collaborative piece. Obviously, it’s a learning curve for anyone starting in comics, but it was great because my editors Lauren and Caitlin gave me the 101.
I really studied that original run. Willow, who’s an amazing writer, her Kamala starts with a bang like you immediately know her voice, and it was very important to me to try and capture that. Kamala is a superhero who gets in tough situations but she has a bit of that wit and sarcasm. She’s very much that Gen-Z Zeitgeist behind it.
I think with this character, we’re so lucky all three writers are Muslims from different cultural backgrounds; nevertheless, we share these common threads of culture and practice. I know that Willow and Saladin also talked to people who are Pakistani who could share elements of that and obviously, Sana Amanat was important and brought her piece to Kamala too.
For me, I’m Indian, and I was born in India, but during Partition, half of my family moved to Pakistan. I also asked my family and friends, because I wanted to be sure Pakistani individuals would be watching Bollywood movies because there are also, like, Pakistani dramas. It’s cool to bring that to it. I feel like it’s this collaborative process as my miniseries is in conversation with what Willow and Saladin have done.”
You end issue 2 on a bit of a doppelganger cliffhanger. Could you give share more about what’s to come?
“That word doppelganger will appear in more issues to come so if you like the doppelganger element you’ll be happy with the rest of the series!”
What’s a big difference between writing YA on your own versus collaborating on a comic?
“So writing a novel is just me by myself until I have a whole novel written. It’s a slower solitary process. I like the congeniality that collaboration brings into the comic world. It’s fun to meet the comic fans. There’s a cross-over between YA and Ms. Marvel fans, but it’s fun because Ms. Marvel fans are of a broader age range.
There’s a school and bookstore in my neighborhood and so a lot of people in town know that I’m a writer. Once, a couple of fifth graders stopped me and asked, ‘Hey you’re, Samira. I read your book. My mother said you’re gonna write Ms. Marvel right?’ and another asked, ‘You’re the Ms. Marvel person right? I hope it’s gonna be good!’
I really loved that interaction because they obviously felt strongly about it. That’s the thing, I really want it to be good, as there’s just such a passion comics readers have for Kamala. It’s really fun to go and see that level of energy on comic book day. There’s a lot of people there and everyone’s excited about this issue they’ve been waiting for and that’s been really a joy to see. It’s just such a fun intro to the world of comics.”
Don’t you feel a weight of responsibility for that though?
“Definitely. Especially writing this character. Kamala is the only Pakistani Muslim Superhero. There isn’t any other one. That’s a hefty burden on Kamala’s shoulders. It’s the same thing that happens for writers who come from marginalized backgrounds. It’s like the expectations of everyone from those intersectionalities are kind of holding that weight.
At the same time, no single character can represent a billion-plus south Asians or a billion-plus Muslims. She’s just an individual and her own character. But I want to do right by her because she’s an amazing character who means so much to so many people, including me. So I’m just doing my best as I feel the responsibility to every kid who loves Kamala, like the ones who stopped me in my neighborhood. I want to do the best I can for them.”
Is there anything, in particular, you want audiences to take away from reading your run on Ms. Marvel?
“I think if we look at Kamala’s storylines, a theme you can take away from her as a character is that anyone can be a hero. You don’t have to have superpowers to be a hero. I think that’s something that resonates throughout her run. Because of how important friends and family are to her, and even when things aren’t going exactly, she tries to do the right thing. I think we can all find ways to be heroes.”