The world of mainstream comic books is both immense and cloistered. A multi-billion dollar industry with influence across pop culture, it’s dictated by the operatic machinations of decades-old monthly publications featuring a panoply of characters. So in early December, when Marvel Comics announced they’d signed G. Willow Wilson to an exclusive writing contract, the news was celebrated in nerd circles and overlooked everywhere else. But make no mistake: Wilson’s deepening ties to one of comics’ two major players is a big deal—for Wilson specifically and for culture in general.
Wilson, the 32-year-old New Jersey-born, Seattle-based writer, has two published books and a half-decade of comics writing to her credit. Her 2010 memoir The Butterfly Mosque dealt with her travels through Egypt and subsequent conversion to Islam; 2013’s techno-mystical adventure Alif the Unseen was a New York Times best seller and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
After penning a few one-offs and series for second-tier Marvel characters over the last year, Wilson took over Ms. Marvel, writing the titular character as a brash teenage Muslim girl in Jersey City with elastic limbs and a VW-size dog. In the past year, sales of Ms. Marvel have soared; the digital version now outsells print—an unprecedented upset in comics. Wilson’s breakout success with Ms. Marvel led to her new contract.
“It’s like being given the keys to the Ferrari,” Wilson says. “It means they trust you enough to work on the bigger properties and be closely involved in planning major story arcs. So it’s a great privilege, especially for someone like me who’s been reading X-men since she was a kid.”
The first issue of her four-part X-Men series, “The Burning World,” comes out this month. It begins at a fictionalized version of Burning Man and takes a few key characters into a sinkhole inspired by the one that opened in Siberia earlier this year.
“I love to take fantasy elements and tether them into the real world in a way that allows us to understand the meaning of actual events around us,” Wilson says. “Growing up, that’s what the best genre fiction did.”
Along with her work on Ms. Marvel and other Marvel titles she can’t divulge, Wilson is “knee-deep” into writing her next novel. One of the prominent characters of Alif will make an appearance, she says—a prose version of the kind of crossover common to comic books. And like Ms. Marvel, it will feature a young female lead.
“There’s a sea change in the broader culture,” Wilson says, “not just in comics but in film and literature. 2011—the year my daughter was born—was the first year in which more nonwhite babies were born than white babies. The Millennials are coming into adulthood and they’re the most diverse age cohort we’ve seen in American history. And that shows. These are people with incomes that want to see their stories on screens, in pages of books and comics. We’re having a broader conversation about representation in pop culture and what that means.”