Indie Comics Spotlight: Saladin Ahmed on creating change with poetry, comics and breakfast cereal

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Jun 7, 2018, 10:49 PM EDT (Updated)

Saladin Ahmed is a Muslim-American, award-winning prose, poetry, and science fiction writer whose impressive work on Marvel’s Black Bolt (2016-2018) quietly thrust him into the superhero spotlight. He went on to write his own indie title, Abbott (BOOM!), a paranormal thriller comic led by an investigative reporter in '70s Detroit. Marvel’s Exiles came next, featuring a Bahamian Blink, a Tessa Thompson designed Valkyrie, and a Baby Wolverine all traveling through time trying to save the multiverse. He even dipped his toe into the Star Wars universe with his prequel book, Canto Bight (Star Wars): Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

But what put Ahmed on many maps was when he called out Kelloggs on twitter last year for making the only janitor on the Corn Pops cereal box the brown one. (Which led to the company actually changing the art on the boxes).

For this week's Indie Comics Spotlight, I spoke to Ahmed about poetry, art, comics, diversity, and fandom.


Artist: Christian Ward

Where are you from originally?

I come from Dearborn, Michigan, which is a kind of right across the street from Detroit, and is kind of the big Arab enclave in Michigan and really kind of one of the big ones in the country. My dad though was a big reader, kind of very mostly self-educated, and was a big science fiction/fantasy reader and comics reader actually. I was always kind of that nerd that was always buried in a book, and so I always wanted to tell stories. The first stuff that I actually wrote seriously was actually poetry. I used to do the whole spoken word thing in the nineties and do the performance stuff.

Are there videos somewhere with you with an ironic hat on?

Dear God, probably. Yeah, I did a lot of poetry stuff. And then I started to do page poetry and eventually decided to study that formally. So I moved to New York, to get my MFA in poetry. I was just publishing little poems and little journals here and there, like you do. The stuff I was writing were these weird little experimental poems with this little group of friends in New York. Then I stopped doing that and went to graduate school and started studying literature. I really thought that's what I was going to do, and then I kind of burned out on that when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation and I started writing a novel instead. It ended up being a fantasy novel because that's kind of what I always wanted to read. I mean, to take it back it was like comics and Dungeons and Dragons that taught me how to read.

I see you were raised properly.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is my novel and it's a kind of epic fantasy novel. When it came out, it was described as that as a “Lord of the Rings meets The Arab Spring”. I don't know how accurate that is, but, because 2012 was when it first was published, that Lord of the Rings was like the epic fantasy that everybody knew. It's essentially an epic fantasy set in a kind of mythical version of the Middle East, instead of a mythical version of Europe. And the characters were Middle Eastern and African and Asian rather than European and Vikings. It's still very much like a kind of Dungeons and Dragons fantasy novel too. So it's kind of, you know, bringing all those parts of me together, and it did pretty well. It wasn't a mega bestseller or anything, but it sold. Okay. And more to the point, it got a lot of attention, got really nice reviews. George R.R. Martin read it and said nice things about it. And it got nominated for the Hugo Award and won a Locus Award.

So how did you get from the Hugo Awards to Marvel?

Well after that I froze up and couldn't write a second book. The second book is still not done, but in the meantime, Marvel came to me... and I think, because of the science fiction and fantasy edge of the Inhumans as characters, they came to me with this idea to do a Black Bolt book.

He'd never had a solo book in his 50-plus years of existence as a character. And I'd been having some conversations with Sanaa Amanat (Ms. Marvel) one of the editors there. And she and I sort of had a conversation that was like, “It'd be cool for you to do something here. I'm not sure what yet though.” It was pretty vague, but then Will Moss came to me, he's the editor on Black Bolt, and told me that he was looking for someone to work on this project. I had this weird idea for a book about prison that was supposed to be from the point of view of a supervillain who gets locked up and speaks to some of my lefty political kind of ideological stuff. So I presented that idea and asked if there was a way we can bring that story to [Black Bolt]. And it just worked beautifully with what they wanted to do with Black Bolt, and it just worked out.

You managed to make him a whole character, managed to get him to speak. Too bad you couldn’t write for the series.

No comment.

Was Black Bolt really your first comic?

It was, yeah.

So when did you decide to do Abbott, and how did that come about?

Well, as soon as I started writing Black Bolt, I kind of tapped back into the kind of creativity that I'd been out of touch with for a few years in terms of really writing like I had back in the day when I had first started writing fiction. Just pouring out stuff, and so I was just burning in this mode to write new stuff and I'd wanted to write a sort of paranormal investigator book forever, you know what I mean?

The folks at BOOM! studios had come to me awhile back even before Marvel had, and asked if I ever thought about writing for comics? And again, nothing kind of sparked yet, but then I was like, "Okay, I have this independent project that I want to do that's not a superhero project." There's a particular editor there, Eric Harburn, who is from Michigan as well, and so he was kind of interested in some of these stories also, so I reached out to him, and again, we just kinda hit it off right away and I could tell that was a good home for the story almost instantly.


Artist: Taj Tenfold

How did you develop Elana’s character?

I grew up way back in the day with like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and then X-Files and all those kinds of stories with these characters who kind of dig into the occult. That's the hidden truth all around us. But they're always these white guys, right? It's the Mulder type in particular that I'm interested in. The type that's has the insight. Anyway, as I do in most of what I try and write, I try to put other kinds of people in the center. I also had been wanting to write something about Detroit for a very long time. So all of these things started to kind of come together for me. I also watched a lot of trash procedurals. So, I was also on like a really bad late season of Criminal Minds. But Aisha Tyler was on, and she’s in this sharp suit and running things, so all these kinds of things kind of filled my head and the character of Elana Abbott started to come to me.

I knew it was going to be set in Detroit. I knew the character should be black because that's who would live there. It's weird how much stuff ostensibly set in Detroit either A: Just doesn't look like the city, and is just like somebody’s idea of New York; and B: is always weirdly centered on white people, which is also not representative of that city.

Is that why you decided to make Elena a black woman?

I thought a lot about why the character we think of, when we look at the archetype of the paranormal investigator, the person who doggedly goes after the truth is so often a masculine one in stories. That shouldn't be. I think that challenges and obstacles are always interesting for characters. We have a character who's in a kind of professional line of work in the seventies who's dealing not only with racism, but also sexism, and kind of how much we're thinking about this stuff all over again now in terms of like hostile workplaces for women and unequal pay. And we’re finally starting to have some of those conversations that people were having 40 years ago, that still didn't get solved.

Even though it’s a period piece, so much of what she goes through still rings true. I also see why she drinks.

It's funny because I'm not, I'm not a drinker, but I write these characters. I try to honor who they would be. You always feel this trepidation, telling somebody else's stories and you always know you're going to mess up part of it. (And possibly get dragged on social.) It has happened to me before on Twitter, and you have to listen and have an open mind and not let it shut you down completely. You need to be open [to fans] and say, "Hey, I'm listening".

What is it like writing for “the other”? In other words, writing for someone whose gender, race, or background you don't share?

I've taught writing a fair amount and one thing I try to remind students is that we're always writing “the other.” George R.R. Martin has been a bit of a mentor here and there. And it's fascinating to me because no one ever says to him, “You know, why are you writing about, you know, Medieval times?” He grew up in the projects in New Jersey in the forties, you know what I'm saying? He didn't grow up rowing long boats, but somehow we think of Game of Thrones as his natural inheritance as a white writer.

Most people would argue that it’s a part of his history.

But it's not, so it's interesting to me what stories we think belong to who in the first place, but there are stories that are definitely closer to ours and further away from ours. And for me, when I'm telling this story of somebody who’s experience is pretty far from mine, I think childhood is a place that I often go to for a way in. What made this person who they are? We all start out in different places in the world, but to some degree, even though we come into very different realities, there's this moment where we're all this vulnerable kid, right? We become whoever we are because of what's around us. I always think about what was that path for this person, even if it's a powerful person or an oppressive character. How did they get there? That's one way to do it.


Artist: Martin Simmonds

How did you put your team together for this? Did you choose your artists for Abbott or did BOOM! ?

No, no, Boom did. We went through a process. I was pretty certain I was going to need a Detroit artist to do it. I didn't think anybody would be able to capture that. But I was, I was astonished with Sami Kivelä (Beautiful Canvas) who's from Finland of all places! He’s just this consummate professional who really just did his research and found out what Detroit looked and felt like. Everybody from Detroit who reads this book is like, “Oh yeah, that looks like Detroit looked in the seventies.” Sami and Jason Ward, who's the colorist, are just phenomenal. So, I mean, I'm really happy with that team.

How do you write your scripts for them? Do you get very descriptive or is it a give and take when they send you like thumbnails?

So when I started out, I didn't know that you could do anything less than spell out everything. Because I was coming at it as a prose writer where your words are the only thing that the reader has. And so my first Black Bolt scripts are super detailed and I learned as I went that you can back off a little bit and trust the artist to kind of know things like panel breakdown. Sometimes I'm still pretty detailed and especially with Abbott, because it’s creator owned, I kind of have maybe a firmer hand in terms of that stuff, but a lot of that was still Sami.

I think the thing that's made me excited to work in comics is the collaboration. You don't feel like you're all alone the way you do when you're writing a novel. And so there are places where I might just burn out and be like, "There's a fight scene here, I know that this needs to happen and that needs to happen and this needs to happen." You can kind of lay it out how you want, and then if people need more detail, we go back and forth, you know? But it's cool. It's a genuine collaboration, the storytelling.

Since you're a relative newcomer to comics, what do you think of comic book fandom?

Well, the indie stuff is, you know, it's obviously a much smaller audience that comes to a creator owned book. And for the most part, it's people who want to be reading it who are coming there with enthusiasm, that's just been wonderful. The Marvel stuff is 90 percent wonderful. I would maybe even say 95 percent wonderful. The vast majority of people who reach out to me, I mean, it's a little different for me because I was already on Twitter a lot. I already have like yahoos coming at me, and that that was happening before this. So it wasn't like suddenly these people discover me. It was like they already hated me. But [with comics] you do get a new kind of focus. I also wrote Canto Bight (Star Wars): Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a book related to The Last Jedi movie, and the Star Wars scrutiny is another level.

Yes, this week alone we’ve seen the dark side of the Star Wars fandom.

Oh, God yes. But again, in both cases and even more so with Marvel, people mostly were just really cool. I mean, I always feel like when I talk about the horrible people, I need to stress that they're really a small number of people, but it can be like a drop of poison in a pool of clear water. It could still screw it all up. I'm 42, but there's a generation younger than me in their twenties that's very diverse. It's very active online, that's pushing back against all that kind of negativity. I've felt embraced by them and I want to write stories for those folks. If there's like this small little cadre of backwards people, who don’t like my stuff, they're really never going to like my stuff anyway.

Because you’re out here changing Star Wars, comics, and their breakfast cereal.

It's so wild. Because every once in a while one of these people pops up like he's mad right-wing people that like, just heard about the cereal thing and they get mad at me on Twitter, like real mad because they just found out about it.

At one point you were writing, Abbott, Exiles, and Quicksilver at the same time. How did you keep all of the characters straight?  

At any given time I'm writing like two or three books at once, and I've somehow managed to kind of mostly keep the voices separate. I'm a writer who likes tropes and archetypes, so somebody who's reading all my stuff will probably see some things repeated here and there. But it's more my writing style than not being able to keep the world separate, but it's still a challenge.


Do you have a Muslim superhero in there somewhere in development?

There's a big Ms. Marvel special coming out that I'm writing a little mini story for, and that was really fun to write. I feel like she's kind of Marvel’s iconic superhero. There's a creator owned book that I am toying around with that the main characters is Muslim American and it's another kind of weird historical monsters thing, but right now it's a question of juggling all of this and when that one's going to get actually written.

What would you say to your younger self that was just quitting school to start writing his novel?

I think I'd probably tell him not to go into debt for grad school and to just be more confident. It took me until my thirties to really kind of put myself out there, as a writer. I mean in a real professional way and I think that if I had a certain kind of competence earlier I would've done that earlier. But you know, things happen when they're supposed to.

Exiles cover

Artist: David Marquez

What advice do you have to other young writers out there who want to write comics for a living?


I would say the big thing is to read a lot and not just to read comic books, but to read history, read all sorts of different things so that you have stuff to draw on, to do different things. And especially if you're young enough where you've got some kind of mobility. Not everybody does. I didn't always when I was young. But if you do and you're able to kind of be around different kinds of people, live different places or you know, just have different experiences. Read different things so that you have this well to draw on. And professionally in terms of breaking in. I mean, it's a weird time. I feel like any advice I give now is going to be out of date in a week.

But my universal advice would be to complete things. Don't just talk about your ideas, but actually write things and have things that you can show people that you've actually written instead of just talking about them. Respect people’s time. Don't try and use people. Don't be fake with people. And maybe don't be a jackass. All of that will work for you no matter what.

Saladin Ahmed’s full Black Bolt Vol. 1 and 2 are out now, Quicksilver and the final issue of Abbott is out now, and Ms. Marvel #31 will be available on June 27.