Actual title should be – Why I Stalk G. Willow Wilson – but I thought that might just be a bit, um, off-putting.
Warning – I am not, nor do I pretend to be, an actual writer or reporter in any sort of professional sense. I wish I would have recorded the panel with Wilson so that I could more accurately recount her words – my apologies in advance if I misconstrue anything. This is just a blog by a fan.
I am not a person who idly engages in worship of false idols – what we call celebrities. I’ve never wanted to go backstage to meet the band or stand in line to get an autograph from someone who would never remember me. However, I have come to make an exception for my favorite author, G. Willow Wilson. (Although to admit, it would also be wonderful to meet my other favorite author, Stephen King. I would love to have a conversation with him as his books have had an impact on my life and my imagination.) But, as a teacher and parent, I have been profoundly moved by Wilson, her body of work, her intellect, her capacity to care deeply about the world, and the positive impact she has had both on my students and my own children.
As a teacher, I know the importance of choosing reading materials and even decorations for the classroom – our students need to see themselves in these resources and in our personal heroes. I love how comics have grown so much more diverse in the choice of characters – a female Thor and Wolverine, Africian-American Captain America, Afro-Latino Spider-Man, overweight Faith, gay Iceman, lesbian Batgirl, etc. We often discuss these changes in my classroom and what it means for our society. However, what truly makes Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American, Muslim, teenager from New Jersey) stand out is, simply, G Willow Wilson and the passion for hope and change that she wants to see in the world.
I showed the following Ted Talk to my students to lead us into a discussion of the celebration of diversity and the power of hope. Before I write more, I would suggest you take a look – Wilson speaks directly to the generation of my students and my children. (A Superhero for Generation Why). As a class, we looked at several panels from the Ms. Marvel comics and I asked them to reflect – are the experiences of Kamala Khan atypical as a Pakastani/Muslim/Jersey teenager? Or – can you relate to her journey and hurdles in her life?
After the students discussed with each other, we then had a full class discussion. Turns out, we all related to being the outsider, the minority, the person with the “weird” family traditions (I wear a kilt to school), with having strict parents, etc. For a short presentation, this turned into a powerful conversation with my students and brought us all closer together. Following the discussion, I then had them watch Wilson’s Ted Talk. Her lesson is not lost on my students, or me.
I love that Wilson’s message was to my students – that she has hope for their generation and their inclusiveness. I have been teaching for 15 years and I share her opinion – the things we talk about in class today would never have happened when I was in high school (early 90s). Yet, my students really don’t think it odd or surprising when a character or historical figure is gay, Muslim, etc — it has ceased to be a wrinkle in the narrative. This is because, despite what some would have us believe, that we are growing as a nation and family and we share so much together. Our differences are not that, well, different. My students remarked that they felt Wilson was indeed speaking directly to them. We agreed with Wilson’s sentiment – that Khan’s character was no longer about being Muslim – but an American teenager with whom we can all relate. (This also lead us into a discussion about Miles Morales being Spider-Man, as, in a recent issue, he remarked that he just wanted to be Spider-Man, not the BLACK Spider-Man). After all the horrific events of this summer (2016), I will begin my school-year with this lesson and message as we discuss. As a well-read historian, it is difficult to not lose hope as we see the same mistakes and cruelty repeated over generations – but I have hope. Hope.
As a fan of the comic and of Wilson, my actually seeing her speak in person and meeting with her just solidified my opinions all the more. I was given the offer to be on a panel about using comics in education at the San Diego Comic Con in July 2016. My wonderful wife only had one response – go for it. (I will blog more about my experiences later). I had a lot of reservations about the trip (cost, dragging my three kids and wife literally across the country, cost, presenting at the nerd Super Bowl, cost, etc), but it was a bucket-list item that I could not turn down. As I began to go through all the blogs, websites, apps, etc for the Comic Con, I was simply lost in the all the possibilities of what to do. I whittled down my list to two must-have items – meet Wilson and Congressman John Lewis (I am teaching his graphic novel, March – read it!). People have thought this short list odd – but I am not here for the toys, exclusives, and huge Marel/DC panels. I am here for the authors and artists – the comics – I think people can forget this in the zoo that is the San Diego Comic Con. So far, I am half-way there and excited to go back and see Mr. Lewis. In much the same way, I hold both Wilson and Lewis in the same regard – two people who struggle against the tide and never cease in their efforts to “be the change” that they want to see in the world.
Below are some of my thoughts after sitting in on Wilson’s panel and my short meeting with her.
I had read that getting into a panel room could be tough – that some people stood in line for hours or sat in the same room for the entire day just to see the one they had chosen. I have three kids involved in my planning, so I knew spending endless hours in lines would not be fair. This being the case, my wonderful wife kicked me out of the convention floor at 10:15 and told me to sit in Wilson’s panel room for the panel before hers in the hope of having a seat. My wife had my kids (ages 6, 8, and 10), ALONE, for over two hours as she was thinking only of me and my hope to meet Wilson. When I sat in the room for the panel before Wilson’s, I asked a neighbor (the people here are so kind!) who was speaking – he told me it was none other than Peter David – so it was now a win-win! (I will write more on his panel in another blog). I sat through his panel for an hour, thinking initially only of what I might say to Wilson should I have the chance to meet her. However, David soon entranced me with his stories of the business (again – more about this later). About 15 minutes before Peter David was finished, many people started coming in, trying to find seats for Wilson’s panel. How did we know? The Ms. Marvel costumes were a dead give-away!
Then, the worst news – I overheard the organizer saying that they could not find Wilson. Following David’s panel, she stalled the audience for a bit, until, Wilson arrived. Right away, my perception of her changed. This was not the amazingly polished woman I had seen in the Ted Talk and other interviews – no, she was a person. A human being. She was flustered. She was nervous. She apologized to us for getting a little lost in the maze of Comic Con. (We all laughed as we certainly knew the confusion through our own experiences). She began to tell us what she was going to do during the panel – she did not have a fancy PowerPoint or talking points – she was simply going to talk to us. Wilson’s nervousness showed through as she had a panel friend (I am so sorry – I forget his name) to sort of interview her and to lessen her nerves a bit. She talked about having had so much coffee and being nervous – I will feel the same way during my panel as well. As she and her panel buddy began to talk, something happened – Wilson became THE G. Willow Wilson as she spoke to her history and experiences that she has some wonderfully brought into Ms. Marvel. She still spoke directly to us – she was a person bringing us into her life – but her nervousness slid away.
Wilson spoked to being raised an atheist before hearing the call to her faith. She travelled throughout the Middle East and recounted experiences with religious leaders and the events of this time. Her time there saw the beginning of the Arab Spring and events that would later result in Mubarak being removed from power. Wilson saw these events years before they actually happened and tried to have people listen to her. She has a published memoir on her experiences – the Butterfly Mosque – something I have just ordered.
She then spoke of how Marvel approached her to write a new character who was Muslim – of course, would later be Kamal Khan. Amazingly, Wilson initially turned down the offer – she thought that the idea was almost crazy as so much hate mail would be generated. She told the audience about receiving hate mail before from her writings – I can only imagine. I really felt for her. Here was an intelligent and creative person being offered a dream job and she has to really consider it because of the hatred that is often present in our country by those who are afraid of what they do not know. Luckily for all of us, Wilson changed her mind and forged ahead – though with this fear in the back of her mind as the first issue went to press. Wilson even mentioned the word depression a few times – although the topic was quickly changed. But – the story obviously turns out well. She used the words “life-affirming moment” to describe her elation at how well the title was received. Yes, hurtful comments were made, but the overwhelming majority of people love Ms. Marvel and this author. I will be relating this to my students as well – here is an AMERICAN woman, who happens to be Muslim, writing amazing stories. The same is true of Kamala Khan – yes she is Muslim, but this is an aside in the goings-on of the comic. (Although, if you read the comic, it is great to see the Islamic influences in words and customs – an enriching experience for “just” a comic book).
The other item that struck me was when she mentioned writing this book with the Boston Marathon bombing in the background. I think Ms. Marvel was exactly what was needed to help bridge the divide and misunderstandings.
After speaking about her background, Wilson then honored us by reading a chapter of her as yet unpublished book (The Bird King). I was entranced as I listened to her tell a story of Spain during the Reconquista by the Catholic rulers. As a history teacher of World History, US History, and European History, I am well aware of the Western bias that is often present in the teaching of history. Wow – this book will be an amazing addition to my classroom and I cannot wait to read it! With her nervousness now completely gone – Wilson’s voice captivated the audience – she is an amazing speaker. I do not like podcasts or audiobooks as my attention wanders. But – should Wilson release an audio recording of her reading this book – I will certainly buy and listen to it.
All was going great and I, admittedly, looked down at my notebook to again practice what I would say when called upon to ask a question at the end of the reading. This was a sure thing – something meant to happen. God had preordained this meeting, right? Too many things had to have happened for me to be sitting in this room for it not to happen. But as Wilson finished her reading, the clock worked against her. These panels only last for about 45-50 minutes and there were only about 5 minutes left! Wilson stated that she would only be able to answer two questions. My hand was raised high – I was seated in an aisle seat, clearly able to be seen. This was it – this was going to be my moment to tell Wilson how much I respect her and of the impact she has had on my students. Her panel buddy called on someone near the front row. Ok – God is just playing me here and upped the drama. The hand of fate (both literal and figurative) swept over the crowd of raised hands, came near me, but then called on the person sitting directly across from me for the final question. (And it was a GOOD question – asking about the lack of black female writers in comics – and Wilson answered it with caring and motivation to change this unfortunate circumstance). And then – that was it! Everyone clapped – the panel was over. She was getting up to leave – I was going crazy in my head – no, no, no – this can’t be! I just wanted to share with everyone in the room how awesome Wilson is (of course, that’s why they were there, but still). Then, unbelievably, the panel asked for the cosplayers to come and take a picture with Wilson. Here I was, dressed like a TMNT because my son chose our “costumes” for the day – he was Michelangelo and I was Leonardo. But there was a GENUIS in the audience – a man dressed as Ms. Marvel! He was going to meet Wilson – I should have thought of that! Ugh. Everyone began to shuffle out of the room – I needed to re-center myself. After all, I had not even expected to get a seat in the panel. I had been given the opportunity of a life-time and I still had to present my own panel, etc. I calmed down. OK – I texted my wife (who was thankfully still with all three kids and somehow happy!) that I’d be leaving soon and that the panel was awesome. But then – I thought – screw that! I am usually a keep to myself sort of person and not pushy in any way – but I decided that I would hang out in the corridor where the cosplay group was taking their picture and see if I could just get in a word or two. So I did.
I began to get an idea of what it must be like to go through Comic Con as a celebrity – people began to cluster around her. Some people walking by stopped to look simply because, as I overheard several state – “I don’t know who she is, but she must be famous…” The group began to close in on her – I took a step back. Wow – I would totally be feeling claustrophobic and even fearful in her shoes. After the picture, people began to ask for autographs – Wilson looked stressed – but I was now one person away and still held my ground. Then her handler (advisor? Helper?) told people that Wilson would be signing autographs and so she would not be signing anymore. (Oh great – I heard about the autographs – you need to stand in long lines – I had already taken over two hours away from my family, and my wife would soon need reinforcements.) With that, people began to walk away and Wilson was speaking to her adviser as they walked away. I did something that I have never done before -I was pushy. I walked up to them and interrupted (I feel guilty even as I write this!) – but I just had to speak with her. I sheepishly put away the Ms. Marvel hardback collection volume 1 that I had wanted her to sign. It is a well-loved book in my classroom – it has my post-it notes and annotations for the panels we use for discussions. But – I was just here to say thank you, not to be rude and to shove a book in her face. As I interrupted, Wilson looked at me, and I began to say something lame in my nervousness – something like – I just wanted to thank you… Or something like that. Then – Willow looked at me with a bit of recognition and asked if she knew me? Was I on Twitter? I was Tim…. The super teacher…. Right? (Not a direct quote, but her words were right along those lines). I was completely flummoxed – yes, yes I am. Thank you. Thank you again for the inspiration you have given my students, I managed to stammer out. She said that it was nice to meet me in person. (This all took place as we walked down the hall and I could not get out the words I wanted in those few moments). Then the moment was over – Wilson walked down the hall and I could not believe what had just happened. (Although – now I wonder – does she know me beause I sort of “stalk” her on Twitter? Wilson was kind enough to retweet and comment on the lesson plan from my classroom – a tweet that I have very geekily printed out and is now proudly hanging in my classroom – my students were thrilled!!!! She called me a super teacher – that’s because of my nerdy Superman style profile picture on Twitter. I am laughing as I write this – I can’t imagine what was going through her head as she was being rushed to her next appointment and here I was being pushy and stammering some incoherent words her way). At any rate – I had met Wilson, shook her hand, and told her what I had travelled an entire continent to say (well, sort of!). I was elated.
When I finally navigated the convention floor and reached my family – I summed up my entire experience to my wife with a heartfelt thank you. I was told many stories of what had happened from my children – they too had met some favorite authors and artists. We decided to leave and get something to eat. On the way out, I happened to pass by the autograph information kiosk – I decided to check to see if Wilson was still signing autographs. I was told that she was just around the corner, and no, there was no cost. I ran back to my wife and kids, who were all exhausted, and in an excited voice, told them that I would be right back. My wife just told me to go and to text later. I honestly turned the corner and saw Wilson, sitting at a table, with only one other visitor at that time. I could not believe my luck. As I approached the table, her advisor was once again running her through her schedule and other details – I still can’t imaging how stressful all this must be for the professionals. Wilson was kind enough to sign my beloved classroom book and to not all security on me. We spoke for a few minutes and I left to find my family. But my oldest daughter was disappointed that she did not get to meet this author of whom I have often spoken – so we trooped over as a family to see Wilson once again. I asked if it would be weird to ask for a family picture and Wilson just smiled and said it was not problem. We took our picture (again, so nice to not have security called on me) and I left in absolute amazement. This is a moment that I cannot wait to share with my students as I again teach this lesson plan based on Ms. Marvel.
I strongly believe that an entire biography needs to be written about this amazing woman and her experiences – but, for now, I will continue to read and share anything that she writes. I would love to have G Willow Wilson come to my class and share her experiences with my students – but in a very real sense, she already has. I also want to see Kamal Khan in the movies and in action figures – more representation is needed here as well. I do have a large poster of Khan in my classroom, the picture with Wilson will be placed next to it in a frame.
Not bad for just a comic, huh? Comics are societal artifacts and are powerful and engaging teaching tools.
Thank you, Willow for sharing yourself with your fans and giving so much of your time to us. Know that it is appreciated. You have inspired me and my students, and we have inspired others through you. Your words and ideas are meaningful because you are, simply, human.
I will be updating my lesson and sending out another link in the near future, but here is the PowerPoint that I used as a staring off point last year – https://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/05/04/ms-marvel/
Some reading links –
Do yourself a favor – go and buy Ms Marvel from your local comic book store. There are also now multiple volumes collecting the original titles – these hardbacks are great for the classroom and will up over time.
http://gwillowwilson.com/books – this is Wilson’s website – you can also sign up for a monthly newsletter.