"Miles Morales: Spider-Man" author Saladin Ahmed: "Politics are central to the story for me"

Salon talks to the Hugo Award-winning novelist and "Magnificent Ms. Marvel" author about Detroit, Spidey and more

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 26, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

"Miles Morales Vol. 1: Straight Out Of Brooklyn" by Saladin Ahmed (Marvel)
"Miles Morales Vol. 1: Straight Out Of Brooklyn" by Saladin Ahmed (Marvel)

Marvel Comic's Spider-Man is an iconic character. He is power fantasy for children: a high school-aged teenager is given superpowers through the bite of a radioactive spider. But this same young person also suffers a tragic loss which he, because of his immaturity, was unable to prevent. Through this trauma Spider-Man learns to live by the mantra, "with great power comes great responsibility".

Spider-Man has amazing strength, enhanced senses, agility and reflexes, as well as great speed, but he is a still a young person trying to figure out life, work, and relationships while struggling to pay the rent.  Spider-Man is usually denied any glamour or glory for his many good works.

Spider-Man is an "every man" — "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" — who most people can relate to but few would actually be able to live up to his standards of good and righteous behavior.

As shown in the multitude of comic books and other stories  since the character's debut in 1962 (and the premise of the recent blockbuster film "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"), because Spider-Man is an archetype of sorts, he can be a white guy named Peter Parker from Queens, a black Latino from Brooklyn named Miles Morales — or even a young woman named Gwen Stacy.

I recently spoke with Saladin Ahmed about the appeal of Miles Morales being Spider-Man. In addition to "Miles Morales: Spider-Man," Saladin Ahmed is the writer of the-going Marvel Comics' series "Magnificent Ms. Marvel."

Ahmed has also earned numerous awards and distinctions such as the prestigious Eisner Award for "Black Bolt," which won Best New Series in 2018. Ahmed's fantasy novel “Throne of The Crescent Moon” won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

In this conversation Ahmed shares his thoughts on what is it like to write such a beloved character such as Spider-Man. How do we explain the character's near-universal appeal? As an Arab-American and a Muslim, how does Ahmed navigate the pressures of "representation" and "diversity" in his work on "Spider-Man," "Ms. Marvel" and other projects? And why does Miles Morales resonate as a character with so many people — while  also enraging a core group of other, more "traditional" Spider-Man fans?

Ahmed also reflects on how growing up in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan influenced his art and life, the racial politics of Detroit and his crime detective fantasy graphic novel  "Abbott," and the struggles and successes of being a professional writer who comes from a working class background

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What was the moment when you realized that you could have a career writing comic books? You have had many other successes with your poetry and your novels. But did writing Spider-Man, for example, feel different?

It probably looks that way from the other side but it's come in such increments. The success of the last couple years has come as the result of the body of work I have built over many years. Seeing my work reviewed in the New York Times or my fantasy writing showing up in a Dungeons and Dragons book were those moments that were very special. And seeing your name alongside that of these iconic characters which we grew up with and that everyone knows is hard to describe. Seeing my name on a giant Miles Morales "Spider-Man" poster at San Diego Comic Con was an amazing moment where I had to just stop and go, "This is my life right now. It's wild!"

What were the dues you paid to arrive at this point?

A lot of time not making money or alternatively not making much money. I always hesitate to lecture younger writers because everybody's life is so different. When we look at the reality of how do you make a career working in comic books and graphic novels it depends on a lot of different things. Where did you go to school? What did you grow up reading? Do these tropes come to you naturally, or are they something you will have to learn? Do you know how to talk in a room full of people who are not like you — or may believe things about people like you that are not true?  Do you know how to talk to those people? These are the trials you go through along the way.

I'm in my forties at this point. I have internalized much of this. People who are in their twenties are asking me these questions on Twitter and much of it seems obvious to me. If you are an artist go draw. If you are a writer go write. So many people reach out to me on social media telling me they have an idea for a story. My advice is don't tell me about it, go out there and get to work.

Writing is a very perilous way of earning a living. There are many people, some of them New York Times bestselling authors, who have never had another big book. They are now destitute. Have you had to confront that anxiety? If you are not born into money the stakes are very high.

That is a reality which is often not talked about enough. You can read all of these writing guides you want but they are generally written for people who have family money. That is the secret about this business and life that is never said out loud. Or that advice to go intern at a publisher. Who has the ability to do that and who doesn't? That comes down to money and family resources.

Writing advice should always take the real world into account — and the economic realities are part of it. It's hard because we don't come to this because of money, but at the same time we have to make a living doing it. I come from union people who value their labor. My ideas are making other people money. And if that's the case I need to be able to make a fair living.

How did you orient yourself to being creative for a living?

It has been a long process and I've been very fortunate. I don't kid myself that it is somehow only about talent or hard work. Lots of people have both those things and don't make it. A lot of success is luck. But in addition to my hard work and what I like to think is some talent, for me, the collaborative aspect is part of how I've been able to make this my professional life.

When I was working on my second novel  — which is still not done — I basically had a nervous breakdown because I was not making a living writing fiction. I wasn't making enough month-to-month. I was isolated in the writing of the book. A novel is a thing where you're there alone with it for a year or two years, or more in a room hacking away.

When Marvel came to me and said, "Hey, do you want to write Black Bolt?" of course I said yes. Marvel Comics? Absolutely. I started working on "Black Bolt" and and I took to the form very naturally. I found the collaborative back and forth and the monthly schedule to be a moment when I felt like this is what is means to have a job writing which puts a roof over your head. I love the monthly schedule and the intense world of comics.

What was the moment like when you were offered that first real opportunity to write comic books for a living? How did you "break into" the business as they say?

It was my fiction writing. One of the unseen forces of comics publishers are the editors. Will Moss who is an editor at Marvel is doing a lot of kind of really quirky stuff there. He's got "Squirrel Girl," he edited Tom King's "Vision," he is the one who brought [Ta-Nehisi] Coates in to write "Black Panther." Marvel was looking to bring back "The Inhumans," and "Black Bolt" in particular. Moss came to me because he is keyed in on the fantasy genre.

It was instant chemistry all around with Christian Ward. Christian is the artist on "Black Bolt" and he really helped me learn how to shape my writing for comic books. I grew up reading Marvel Comics so it just all synced up perfectly.

In terms of your own creative and intellectual biography, what are your major influences? What made you?

As with a lot of people writing comics, I was a geeky kid who read too much and stayed indoors a lot. I had fantasy and science fiction influences. Mostly Marvel but some DC too. A lot of superhero comics, horror comics and the like. But I grew up in an immigrant enclave in Dearborn, Michigan. That had a profound effect on me. The language that I heard around me, the smells of the food, hearing the Muslim call to prayer every day. Those are things that not every American grows up with. The fabric of stories such as the "Arabian Nights," the Quran, was a huge part of my cultural DNA.

But I was also very fortunate because my father was a self-taught member of the counterculture. He was very attuned to the culture of Detroit, and all the different kinds of cool weirdness and radical ideas that were flourishing at the time. I am a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was still this waning influence of 1960s and early 1970s hanging over the culture of Detroit. My dad had friends who were Black Panthers. He had people in his social circle who were into punk rock at the time when it was emerging.  My dad really taught me to learn from different kinds of people. I definitely bring that to my writing.

I started to emerge as a writer by first sharing my work on the Detroit poetry scene. I was actually a slam poet for awhile. That community was overwhelmingly black, and people were very welcoming to me, and open to a different kind of voice there. I learned a lot aesthetically from older black poets who were still out on the scene. This was the early 1990s. I was into a lot of hip-hop as well. All those influences come together for me.

I then spent years formally studying English literature in graduate school.

America is a "multiracial" society. There is no American popular culture without black and brown folks. That is a self-evident fact. Why is that basic observation still so terrifying — and often enraging — for so many people?

Well, we like to say that people just don't like what's different. But it is never just about that. The real reason is that negative reaction is connected to systems of power. If you start telling stories where the focus is on people other than those who are always at the center of the conventional mainstream narrative then questions about society and power and opportunity have to be asked. There are many people who benefit from not asking those questions.

Given your background do you feel a sense of special obligation when you sit down to write "Spider-Man" or "Ms. Marvel" for example?

Politics are central to the story for me. If I want to understand a character I need to know how they grew up. I want to know what they expected out of life. I want to know whether they achieved that. You don't know those things unless you as a writer know the social and political landscape. That's the reality that we're writing about. This is central to writing a good story and believable compelling characters.

When you take on an iconic character with the legacy of Spider-Man for example, how do you respect the character's history while also telling your own story?

That's the beauty of superhero comics from a DC or Marvel because there are many versions of the same character. But then you as a writer have to look at the core of this iconic character and focus on what made them so appealing to so many people. What do I think about when I react to those core values? What questions have I always had about these archetypes? But in doing that always keeping in mind what always spoke to you personally about the character you are writing. It is always a balancing act.

I've read Marvel comics for decades. I have deep, complex thoughts about a lot of these characters, and what they mean, and how to tell stories about them. There are certainly projects where folks have come to me both in comics and TV and film where I do not have any particular connection to the characters and their legacy. I had to pass on those.

Where does the maturity to say "no" come from?

It's absolutely because I am lucky to have a surplus of work. It is absolutely because of that fact. I would not be that mature if I was desperate for work. I'd say to myself, "I can figure this character out." It's a fortunate consequence of having put in those dues that I mostly get to pick what I want to work on these days.

Why does Spider-Man still resonate so many years after the character was first created? And why specifically does Miles Morales resonate so much?

Since I was a small kid, Spidey has always resonated for me. He's always been the most regular person superhero in a world of gods and aliens and people with perfect moral compasses. In a world of unstoppable killing machines Spider-Man is the regular guy who basically stumbled into these powers and he then has to figure out how to do right by them and the world. That is very compelling to me. Peter Parker has always been a kind of working class Marvel hero. Miles too is a 21st century embodiment of that fact. He's that Spidey brought into our moment. He looks a little different. He has a different last name. He is from a different borough. He has a different style. All that feels like a necessary update but Miles still retains a pure core of goodness which has spoken to people for decades.

What are some of the core rules you have for your version of Miles Morales as Spider-Man?

His decency. There are characters I've written such as Black Bolt who might cross lines in the service of what they think is right. Miles is the opposite. He is basically a really sweet decent guy at the core of his being. Yes, he is cool and fun and people like him. But Miles Morales' real core is his decency.

These are dark and challenging and painful times here in America and around the world. There is so much cruelty in the world right now, in the United States especially. What is the role of the superhero at present?

Superheroes are a modern myth in a way that would not have been comprehensible to me as a child. The prominence that they've taken on culturally is not something I could have imagined. When I was a kid, the idea that anybody would know who Iron Man was, let alone Black Panther, is not something I could have believed possible. I loved Black Panther when I was a kid but nobody else really knew who Black Panther was. To have little old ladies going to the movies in church groups to see Black Panther is really stunning to me.

Superheroes are now a vital genre right now and a very powerful way for talking about the state of the world.

In addition to "Spider-Man" you have also written a much different type of story with "Abbott." Where did "Abbott" come from?

On the one hand, it had a very clear and short genesis in that I was thinking a lot about a paranormal investigator type of character. I was specifically watching lots of "Kolchak" and I was also thinking a great deal about journalism. It's always been a peeve of mine that cops and FBI agents are so often the heroes and that we rarely have characters such as journalists at the center of the story.

A lot of this was brewing together. I was also watching a lot of Aisha Tyler on the TV show "Criminal Minds." What if we had a Kolchak starring Aisha Tyler? I started to think about Detroit, my city. "Kolchak" is in Chicago which was atypical for a television series at the time. And then I started thinking about my city and what would it mean to make Detroit a character in the story. I'm the type of writer who once I start planting those seeds things start to crystallize and then explode. I then start cranking a story out.

When I went to tell that story I knew I wanted it to be a period piece. I wanted it to just be about the 1970s. I spent a lot of time in a Detroit that was very culturally vibrant — and that really was most people's problem, in that it was a black city. There was poverty. There were social problems. And there were also a lot of black people doing for themselves in a way that upset people. To me, to tell the story of Detroit in the 1970s and to put anybody else at the center would have been irresponsible. And not just been politically irresponsible, but the result would have also been the wrong story — and perhaps even more importantly, it would have been a bad story.

Do you feel a special type of obligation or burden given your ethnic and racial background and your very unique position in having earned the opportunity to write Spider-Man and other comics for such a large audience at Marvel and elsewhere?

It's an ongoing process. And to me it's always a balance. The answer likely also depends on which day you ask me the question. There are days where I don't care and don't want to deal with it. I'm tired. Just focused on myself. There are other days where I'm agonizing over whether one line in a script will give a reader the wrong idea about a topic or a person or a community. I generally feel that we have responsibility as writers to the world around us, but that's also just an extension of my belief that human beings have a responsibility to the world around us more generally.

I try to meet my responsibilities without taking myself too seriously I suppose and without getting paralyzed by such decision-making because that is not helpful for anybody.

We talked about obligations and responsibilities. Are you privileged to write for a living?

On the one hand, I feel I am extraordinarily privileged. I know a lot of people who are struggling a lot harder than I am, and who are doing things they hate and barely making it even doing that. I feel blessed that I am able to do what I do. This also involves labor. I never want to underestimate that reality because my livelihood depends on valuing my labor properly. It's a balance between feeling very lucky and recognizing and valuing your own hard work.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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