Samira Ahmed loved superheroes as a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs, especially Spiderman and Wonder Woman, but she did not see herself reflected in the comic book characters she admired.
“We didn’t have a lot of female superheroes and there were definitely no superheroes that looked like me,” Ahmed, a New York Times bestselling author, recently told WBEZ’s Reset.
Now Ahmed is helping to change what representation looks like in comic books. The young adult novelist is the author of Ms. Marvel: Beyond the Limit – a graphic novel that was published late last month.
The story centers on Kamala Khan, a young superhero in Jersey City who is Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own series. Khan, a teenage Pakistani American living in New Jersey, first appeared in the Marvel universe nearly a decade ago, but Ahmed is the first South Asian woman to write for the Ms. Marvel comic.
While writing for Ms. Marvel was on Ahmed’s “dream list” of jobs, it’s also a departure from the young adult and middle-grade novels she’s known for.
“It’s a completely different beast, so I really had to learn from scratch,” she said. “You have to write each panel and you have to describe everything that’s happening in the panel, including all of the expressions and the body language and the action and then you put the dialogue in.
“It’s a very different craft than writing a novel, but you still have to have an arc of a story and you still have to have character development and hopefully some funny, witty lines here and there, but you have to convey a lot with very few words.”
Much of the latest Ms. Marvel tale takes place in Khan’s hometown of Jersey City, but Ahmed also wanted to find ways to give a shoutout to her own hometown. At the beginning of the latest comic, Khan is visiting family in Chicago when an interdimensional explosion at her cousin’s physics lab calls the young superhero into action. Beyond the chance to slip some hometown pride into the story, Ahmed said one Chicago landmark in particular offers nice symmetry when writing about the multiverse.
“To me one of the coolest experiences in Chicago is when you walk under the Bean and you can see sort of infinity of yourself and that plays so well with the multiverse because there’s an infinity of yourself out there,” Ahmed said, noting the comic includes a few panels featuring the Bean.
At the center of the story is the courage that Khan displays. And while Ahmed is new to the world of comic book writing, Khan’s confidence is a continuation of the type of courageous girl characters found in Ahmed’s other novels like Internment and Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.
Only this time, young fans had big expectations.
Ahmed said she was walking through her neighborhood before the book came out when a young fan who recognized her called out to her, “hey, you’re going to be writing Ms. Marvel, right? You better not mess it up!”
It’s a lot of pressure, but Ahmed said it’s the best kind of pressure and that getting to bring elements of her own culture and religion to writing “this story of this beautiful character” has been “otherworldly.”
“It’s been really amazing to be able to take on the mantle of this beloved superhero,” she said.
She’s writing the type of tale she was looking for as a kid, but Ahmed said the story isn’t reserved for any specific audience.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is, Kamala is a superhero for everyone,” she said.