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. Marvel yet.” 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.'”
Moreover, making Naftali a kosher-keeping Jew created a key point of intersection between him and Kamala, the halal-observant Muslim. “There was really obvious overlap between Jewish tradition and Muslim tradition here,” Wilson noted, “because the rules surrounding the ritual butchering of animals—what you can and can’t eat—are very similar.” And so, after some brainstorming with Wilson’s friend Menachem Luchins, the Orthodox Jewish owner of Long Island’s Escape Pod Comics, Kamala’s “kosher lunch buddy” was born:
Why did Wilson name-check the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kosher certifier? As it turns out, she—like a great number of American Muslims—is an avid consumer. “It’s one of our main go-to sources of meat at my house,” she told me. “I’ve got some in my freezer right now!”
“My husband and I keep a very strict form of zabiha [prescribed ritual slaughter for animals],” she explained. The Orthodox Union, with its strict adherence to the kosher rules of shechita for animal slaughter, is one of the few non-Muslim certification options that fulfills these halal requirements. “OU is obviously one of the stricter forms of kosher certification,” Wilson said, “and so it’s what we turn to on a regular basis because we don’t have a whole lot of halal butchers close to where we live—but we do live in a historically Jewish neighborhood, so there’s a lot of kosher.”
In fact, religious rules regarding permitted and forbidden foods have served as touchstones of the Ms. Marvel series since its inception. The very first frames of the inaugural issue featured the Muslim Khan savoring the smell of bacon, which she dubs “delicious infidel meat”:
“That really was kind of a symbolic stand-in for the temptations that you have to reckon with when you decide that religion is something important in your life,” explained Wilson. “It seemed to me like bacon was a perfect symbolic catch-all for everything: that sandwich smells so good, and you can extrapolate that to, ‘Oh, I’d totally love to have a vodka tonic, but I’m not going to,’ or to something like dating outside your religion, or whatever. Opening up with that theme of resisting temptation or grappling with it was a good way to set the tone for what kind of series this is going to be. It’s going to be about how you navigate these things as a teenager.”
More generally, Wilson said, she wanted Ms. Marvel to demonstrate that religion can be a catalyst for creativity, rather than an impediment to it. “Part of the reason I thought it was important to include people practicing their faith who were not just Muslim—because we have plenty of practicing Muslims in the series—was because religion as a whole, religion as an idea, is very much under debate in the 21st century,” she said. “To me, religion in general is part of the engine of the human imagination. But obviously to a lot of people, particularly people who might identify as more secular, religion is something that they see as inhibiting the imagination and inhibiting storytelling. There are good reasons for that, and I don’t want to quarrel with that point of view, but I thought it was important to show people practicing religion and the practices of faith as being something that could bolster the world of the imagination and bolster storytelling and bolster identity.”
“That’s why I think Naftali works so well,” she added. “There’s a scene coming up a couple issues from now in which he and Kamala appear”—here Wilson chuckles and holds herself back from revealing any spoilers—”in which having that connection to the collective imagination of the past, which I think is a role that religion fills, becomes vitally important. I just wanted that to be there. I just wanted to make that argument, because I think there’s a lot that we’re in danger of losing. Some of that is necessary because we’ve evolved as a society and as a human race. Our morality evolves, our sense of ethics evolves, and so we end up questioning a lot of what we took for granted in the past in terms of the rules about how people treat each other. I think a lot of that is good, but in the process I think we’re also losing something, and that’s what I wanted to prevent in the context of the series—prevent the loss of some of that collective wisdom.”