On December 20, the last day of Hanukkah, Jewish readers of the popular comic book superhero series Ms. Marvel got an unexpected present in its newest issue. Since 2015, the series has chronicled the escapades of teenager Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen who serves as a shape-shifting crimefighter by night. Notably, Khan is a Muslim—the first to headline a superhero franchise in the Marvel Universe—as is the writer behind her adventures, G. Willow Wilson.
But the latest installment of Khan’s story turned the spotlight to a different religious tradition:
How did this kippah-clad yeshiva student and his Orthodox Union (OU) certified sandwich end up in the Marvel Universe? And why did a Muslim author choose to introduce Jewish religion and practice into her comic book world? I asked Wilson, the award-winning writer behind the series, how it all came about. Her answers offered a poignant reflection on the role that religion can play in art—and what we lose when it is absent.
The inspiration for Naftali, Wilson told me, first took root after it was pointed out to her “that we did not have an acknowledged, openly Jewish character in Ms. Marvelyet.” To Wilson, this was “kind of a sin against art and against life, given the fact that it’s set in New Jersey, which has a huge Jewish population. The suburb that I grew up in as a kid in north central Jersey was probably one of the only majority Jewish places outside of Israel.”
The easy fix would have been to introduce a Jewish backstory for a preexisting character. But Wilson did not want Jewishness to be tacked-on to her universe; she wanted it to be central to its characters, just as Islam was central to hero Kamala Khan. “There are probably characters already in the series that we could kind of say were secular Jews or had some Jewish background, and just drop it in,” she said. “But I was like, ‘No, you know what, I think it would be more interesting to introduce a new character who is a practicing religious person to whom things like ritual law and prayer were openly and obviously important, for the simple reason that we don’t really get a whole lot of that in superhero comics.’”
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