Meet the Dearborn native behind some of the most diverse characters in the comic universe
By Patrick Dunn
Saladin Ahmed says Marvel comics were “the thing that really taught me to read.” He delighted in classic characters like the X-Men and Daredevil, but as an Arab American boy growing up in Dearborn, one of his favorite characters was T’Challa, also known as the Black Panther.
“He was this very kind of B-class superhero in the Marvel universe, not because of how cool he was, but because of how much attention he got,” Ahmed says. “But for me, he was this guy who was more like the shade of my grandfather and he had a quote-unquote ‘weird’ name. There weren’t other heroes like that.”
Today, Black Panther is an international household name, and in recent years, a more diverse cast of characters have joined him in moving up from the “B-class” ranks at Marvel Comics. Ahmed, 44, who still lives in Metro Detroit, has played a pivotal role in writing several of them.
Since 2017, he’s written characters including Miles Morales, a Black man who takes up the mantle of Spider-Man; and Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani American superhero. Ahmed also recently created Marvel’s first Arab American superhero, a character named Amulet, who hails from Dearborn.
Ahmed’s journey from reading comics to writing them was not a straight line. He lost interest in comics while in high school and went on to complete a BA in American studies at the University of Michigan, an MFA in poetry at Brooklyn College and an MA in English from Rutgers University. He focused his own early creative endeavors on poetry and began making a name for himself in the fantasy genre. His 2012 novel “Throne of the Crescent Moon” was a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo Awards, which recognize science-fiction works.
In 2016, Marvel Comics editor Wil Moss (who also recruited Ta-Nehisi Coates, known for his nonfiction writing on racial issues, to write Black Panther comics) approached Ahmed about writing for the company.
The character Moss wanted Ahmed to write, Black Bolt, was unlike characters Ahmed would later write for Marvel, a white man. But Ahmed says he appreciated feeling “like I was not being pigeonholed,” and the resulting comics strongly reflect his politics. Ahmed’s “Black Bolt,” which debuted in 2017, finds the title character wrongfully incarcerated and surrounded by a supporting cast of second-string Marvel villains. As written by Ahmed, though, they’re a surprisingly sympathetic gang of antiheroes who often steal the show from the ostensible protagonist.
“To me, that’s who I am,” Ahmed says. “It’s who I come from: the people who aren’t the square-jawed, standing-tall, white, male, broad-shouldered center of attention. I’m always interested in the people who are on the sides of these stories, who are the villains in these stories, who didn’t get all the breaks that the heroes seem to get.”
Ahmed describes those instincts as being deeply rooted in his upbringing and his own identity. His father is Ismael Ahmed, co-founder of Dearborn’s Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The elder Ahmed not only strongly encouraged his son’s interest in writing, but encouraged him to be proud of being an Arab American.
Ahmed, who identifies as Muslim, says that he’s enjoyed the opportunity to write Ms. Marvel, a Muslim character “who has belief and wrangles with God,” and who was co-created by a Muslim writer, G. Willow Wilson. Both Ms. Marvel and Morales’ Spider-Man were introduced less than a decade ago, making them young by the standards of superhero comics, where most popular characters have been consistently in print for at least 50 years. But Ahmed says he feels a greater responsibility to the newer, more diverse characters.
“I think a lot more about what Miles means to people than I do about what Black Bolt means to people,” he says. “There’s just more weight there.”
Ahmed has now contributed multiple characters of his own to Marvel’s sprawling fictional universe, including Starling, a Black female superhero from Detroit, whom Ahmed introduced in “Miles Morales: Spider-Man.” He says he enjoys introducing characters from his own stomping grounds to the world of Marvel, where “everyone is from New York or Atlantis or another planet.” But he says Amulet has drawn the biggest and most positive response — not just from Arab Americans, but also Dearborn residents and “big guys, because he’s kind of chunky.”
“[Amulet’s debut] happened right before the pandemic, so it was like the last big happy thing for me,” Ahmed adds.
In just three years, Ahmed has become a star in the comics industry, catapulting off the success of “Black Bolt,” which earned him another Hugo nomination and comics’ top honor, an Eisner award. He now juggles multiple projects at Marvel with occasional stories for DC Comics. In July, he and West Bloomfield-based artist Dave Acosta also raised over $100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign for a creator-owned graphic novel titled “Dragon,” a tale of a Muslim warrior and a Catholic nun who team up to fight Dracula. “Dragon” will be Ahmed’s second creator-owned comic (meaning he retains the rights), following 2018’s “Abbott,” a Detroit-set supernatural crime tale.
Acosta describes Ahmed as an “incredibly trusting” collaborator. “It’s funny, because Saladin was a novelist, where you’re the creator and you do everything,” he says. “Some comic writers carry that idea over into comics … but when you do comics it’s more like a screenplay to a movie. The writer writes it and then passes it on to a collaborator, and then the end result is a mix of the two minds. Saladin, thankfully, understands this implicitly.”
Ahmed, who has 10-year-old twins, seems to relish all of the medium’s quirks. He says he responds well to the rigor of producing monthly stories for Marvel on top of his other projects. “Monthly comics are delightfully modular,” he says. “It’s a different thing from a novel, which to me feels like a monstrous beast.”
Ahmed admits that he has a tendency to “flit around” creatively. He’s written for Apple TV+’s “Foundation,” whose production is currently on hold due to COVID-19, and other television projects he’s not authorized to discuss. He says there are “still a couple of novels in me, probably, but they’re going to take some years to come out.” In the meantime, he’s sticking with the medium on which he cut his teeth.
“I could not be more thrilled to be writing in universes I could have only dreamed of and also to be having my own projects in front of people,” he says. “There’s a momentum that I wouldn’t want to mess with.”