Talking to G. Willow Wilson - Air, Vixen and More
Talking to G. Willow Wilson
G. Willow Wilson has an impressive resume behind her before coming to comics, but she’s not just another writer looking for a vanity project. A longtime comic fan, Wilson’s debut Vertigo graphic novel, Cairo, has led to an ongoing original series, Air, with Vertigo, as well as a venture into superheroes with Vixen: Return of the Lion.Wilson’s biography is impressive—born in New Jersey, educated at Boston University, where she studied history and Arabic and converted to Islam. After graduation, she moved to Egypt, where she wrote for Cairo Magazine. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine, and now in your local comic shop. Air takes all of Wilson’s life experience and synthesizes it into a story about travel in the age of terrorism, and about identity and nationality, starring Blythe , one of the few real female leads in comics.
She took some time to chat with Newsarama about Air, Vixen, and even Comic Book Tattoo. Newsarama: I just got off a plane on Monday, so I can deeply relate to Blythe's fear—no matter how many times I fly, I never quite believe that the plane will actually take off, or land safely. From reading your blog, I noticed that you mentioned both strabismus and synaesthesia, and I wondered how those relate to working in a very visual medium like comics. G. Willow Wilson: They help, believe it or not. My synesthesia is mostly gone--it was a much bigger factor when I was a kid. But having no depth perception is a bonus when you're trying to lay out flat images and describe them to an artist--flat is all I see. To me a staircase looks like a series of dark and light horizontal stripes, which is exactly how you'd draw a staircase. So I know how the image is going to look on the page. Whether the synesthesia was tied to my strabismus in some way, I don't know. They both have to do with perception and they both originate in the brain, so it's possible. My skull is an interesting place. NRAMA: How does Air relate to your own journey between countries, your life outside of the U.S.? GWW: It echoes the sense of dislocation I feel most of the time. Air is very placeless--it's set in many different countries and much of the story is about going places rather than being places. Air is about travelers, and I'm a chronic traveler. So as surreal as the series is, I feel like it very much relates to how I live. NRAMA: As an American Muslim convert, you've probably been on both sides of the suspicion, and being fairly young, you've probably mostly defined that identity in a post-9/11 world. Being a white woman, you can pass—you can de-Islamify, while [series artist] MK Perker notes that his ethnicity keeps him on the suspicious side. GWW: It's a weird situation to be in. It took me a long time to square with the fact that none of my experiences are typical--I'm not a typical American but I'm also not a typical Muslim. That sounds kind of chic and anti-establishment but really it's scary...I used to pine for a little bit of normalcy. NRAMA: Can you expand on this a little? GWW: I think I'm an atypical Muslim because while many of my practices are orthodox--I don't drink liquor or eat pork or gamble, I pray, I fast during Ramadan, I married absurdly young, I wear modest clothing--many of my ideas are not. I believe in free speech, even if that speech is critical of figures I consider holy. (I don't support hate speech though--can't stomach it.) I think you should be able to explore dangerous ideas in art. I like a lot of art that is incompatible with orthodox ideals. I like a lot of people who are incompatible with orthodox ideals. And I'm unapologetic about those things. NRAMA: Reading on your blog about identity vs. affinity, it makes me think about the story in Air—the man who is taken for a terrorist because of his looks, not his religion. He plays with identity, but cannot escape his appearance, which is coded 'suspicious' under the current political climate. Is this a major theme in this comic? GWW: I'd forgotten all about that essay. Yes, identity is a huge factor in this book, particularly with that character. It ties into the theme of placelessness--the idea that if you're taken out of your native geography you forget who you are very, very quickly. Which is not always a bad thing, by the way. Sometimes you have to lose everything to figure out what's really important. NRAMA: Regarding identity, of course we have to mention that you're one of a very few female Vertigo creators and fewer still female writers in the business. And I believe you mentioned elsewhere that Air is the first Vertigo ongoing series to be driven by a female lead character. There are always the standard questions about being a woman in the biz--do you get pigeonholed, etc. But I wouldn't have immediately guessed that Cairo was written by a woman. I guess I would just like your thoughts on it, whatever you'd like to share. GWW: In print, I get mistaken for a man all the time. I can't tell you how often I get letters or read comments online about my work--usually the political stuff--saying things like "the author belies his age when he says blah blah" or "Mr. Wilson does a fine job (or a terrible job) explaining blah blah.” I like plot and I like analysis and I like a really well-crafted opinion, and for whatever reason, those are things that people most often associate with male writers. It's funny, because in person I'm actually the last of the unabashed domestic goddesses. But getting back to Air--it was Karen Berger who was really enthusiastic about doing a story with a female lead. Not a supporting character, not a sidekick, not an ingénue, not a love interest, but The Main Character. Of course, as soon as I mentioned this in an interview, there was a flurry of indignation from fans, who started listing every female character in the Vertigo universe...all of whom were supporting characters, sidekicks, ingénues, or love interests. Which is not to say that they were not memorable or interesting--I mean, Death started an entire subculture. I used to dress up like her in high school. Nevertheless, the series was called Sandman. So there you have it. NRAMA: You mentioned wanting to complicate people's ideas of politics and religion—you seem to do this just by your very existence. GWW: Sadly that's true. Which means I inevitably end up frightening or offending people even when I'm trying to be conciliatory and build common ground. NRAMA: You're a journalist and you wrote about a journalist in Cairo, but how does journalism relate specifically to this story? GWW: I haven't done any hard journalism since I've been back in the US, specifically so that I could be free to write about my own opinions. (There are journalists who do both these days, but I don't think it's ethical.) So journalism as such doesn't relate much to this story, but things I learned in journalism certainly do. NRAMA: Any specifics you'd like to share? GWW: I guess the most valuable thing I learned in journalism is that you always need to have integrity, even when you're writing fiction. If you tell a story that gives a false or misleading impression about a real person or group of people, you're accountable for that, just as you would be if you were writing a nonfictional story. Fiction is not a license to lie. NRAMA: I read about you getting investigated under the Patriot Act…how much does that play into this story? GWW: Well the paranoia it inspired fueled certain elements of the story, that's for sure. But ultimately the system worked--I didn't do anything wrong, so nothing happened. That's the upshot. It didn't destroy my faith in democracy. NRAMA: I've studied maps recently, and read about how different maps are in different countries, how borders change depending on who's drawing them, who's in power--how does this relate to the idea of a country that is on no maps? GWW: You are going to love this series. I've always been fascinated by the power that maps have as symbols. Air takes that to the next level--what if maps were so powerful that by wiping a country off the map you could physically wipe it off the face of the earth? What if the symbols are what is ultimately real? NRAMA: You blogged about Air being "portable"—I assume that some of that reaction came from it being an ongoing series as much as the nature of the story itself. Did the nature of the story make you want to write it as an ongoing comic rather than a graphic novel or a prose novel? How different does it feel working on an ongoing series? GWW: I actually wrote about a chapter of Air in prose before I realized it had to be a comic book and stopped. Writing it as an ongoing has been a lot of fun--there's so much more space. Also a lot more room for error, which is the scary part. Once you've written an issue, it's locked in--if you've made a mistake in characterization or saddled yourself with an impossible plot point, you're stuck with it. NRAMA: On Vixen: Return of the Lion, can you tell me more about how that came about and some information on the series? GWW: Dan DiDio wanted to do a DCU story set in Africa that didn't involve armed, talking gorillas. It seemed like a worthy goal. Vixen's gotten a much higher profile in recent years because of her involvement with the Justice League, so it made sense to really get into her character and explore things from her perspective. That's what Return of the Lion is about. When I did the Outsiders one-shot a year ago I discovered I really liked writing superheroes, so I was happy to be asked to do a Vixen mini. I'm really excited about the way it's shaped up. NRAMA: How different is it writing creator-owned works from writing a well-known character like Vixen? GWW: Very different. With established characters come continuity issues, which are a headache to work around. But you have to be flexible, as a writer--sometimes it's more about problem-solving than it is about storytelling. You just have to roll with it. NRAMA: I've seen some people commenting recently on some panels in JLA where Vixen was portrayed as a white woman. I'm interested in your take on this, and on how race plays into your take on the character. GWW: The concept of race doesn't really exist in Africa the same way it does here, except where it's been imported by European colonialism. Skin color is a big factor, but in a very different way. It has more to do with status and ethnic rivalry than anything else. The idea that race is half scientific and half divine--that God marked our genes and made some inherently superior to others--is very western. It was born out of an attempt to justify slavery scientifically. So I don't get into it in Return of the Lion--everyone in the story is African. The tensions are different. Vixen is coming home after many years away in the US, so she's half insider, half outsider. That's the tension. But she's definitely a dark-skinned African woman, at least in this miniseries. NRAMA: You're already getting a reputation as a political writer. How does that relate to Vixen? Is this lighter fare, or is that a misconception about superhero books? GWW: In superhero books I think the author's responsibility is twofold: the first and most important responsibility is to entertain. People read these things as a way of escaping their everyday lives. So hammering them with the nightly news is a waste of their time and yours. But you also have to be truthful and honest, which means that if you set a story in Africa, it has to be about Africa. Not about New Jersey with palm trees. You have to resist the impulse to make easy assumptions about your subject matter, because you are passing those assumptions on to your readers. You have to take the time and do the research. You are not just answerable to your readers--you are also answerable to your story. NRAMA: Anything you'd like to share about Comic Book Tattoo? The process of writing from a song that someone else wrote? GWW: I love Tori. Most comics fans get into Tori because of the Neil Gaiman connection; I got into Neil Gaiman because of the Tori connection. I had actually been dying to do a comic based on a Tori album for ages, so when Rantz Hoseley got in touch with me about CBT, it was seriously like a sign from on high. I had a great time. Air #1 arrived i comic shops this week, Vixen: Return of the Lion #1 hits in October.