Interview: From Humble Beginnings to Web-Slinging Adventures, Saladin Ahmed Breaks Down His Journey to Comics

It's safe to say that Saladin Ahmed, writer of Marvel's Black Bolt, Exiles, and the new Spider-Man: Miles Morales series, took a path less traveled in his road to the world of comics. Even though it was the superheroic medium that helped teach him to read in the first place, Ahmed made a name for himself writing poetry and fantasy novels.

It wasn't until the past couple of years that Ahmed made his foray into comic books, but he's certainly made a splash with his first few titles for Marvel. Black Bolt was a critical darling, Exiles quickly became a fan-favorite pull, and the first issue of Spider-Man sold out almost immediately. How did a kid from Michigan grow up to become one of Marvel's hottest rising stars? That's what we at ComicBook.com set out to discover.

In the second part of our interview with Ahmed, the writer lets us in on how he grew up, his early years writing, and his eventual offer from Marvel Comics. You can check out the first part of the interview here.

saladin ahmed spider-man

ComicBook.com: Tell us a little bit about your background growing up in Detroit. You were brought up Muslim, correct?

Saladin Ahmed: Sort of. I was raised in a Muslim community. My dad, himself, was pretty secular, pretty skeptical actually. So, I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, which is -- it's kind of two things. It's Henry Ford's hometown, factory town. And so, it's the headquarters of Ford. And then also, it's not the biggest in terms of numbers, but it's the most concentrated group of Arab Americans in the country. So, I grew up right in the center of that, in this community that was mostly, at that point, ex-factory workers, because the jobs were already drying up, in an Arab community, where most people were either immigrants or the kids of immigrants.

My story was a little different because my dad was born here and my mom was white, so I had a different set of influences. Some of the struggles that people were going through with their immigrant parents, my dad had already gone through with his dad. And he was a bloomer, a kind of working class hippie. He was sort of working the factory when I was a small kid, and went on to kind of do community organizing stuff, alongside my great-grandmother, actually. And the two of them became very big figures in the Arab community. They had a storefront with other people that did things like legal clinics, food drives, stuff like that. And that's the community I grew up in, was this kind of working class, mostly Arab American, but mixed community with my dad sort of being interested in exposing me to a much weirder, wider variety of things. So, punk rock concerts, and he had friends who were Black Panthers. And so, I grew up in one way a very weirdly American background, and in one way, a very kind of ethnically isolated place.

How did that background influence your decision to want to write? I mean, it sounds like you had influences from all different places where you grew up.

Yeah. I mean, I was not a sporty kid. I was a very bookish kind of kid, even though there wasn't a lot of that around me. My father, in particular, was a kind of self-educated reader. And so, he had things like Lord of the Rings and Dune and comics on the shelves. And so, I got that from him and from a few people here and there who were readers and schools where I was at, but there was a teacher here and there. But yeah, and naturally when I started to do that stuff, I guess it reflected some of the stuff that was around me.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you started more with poetry and novels before moving into comics more recently.

Yeah, that's right. So, in my 20s, mostly I was publishing poetry and I was living in New York and kind of working in little cool artist collectives and doing performances and stuff like that, but not necessarily... I wasn't making my living as a writer. I was in graduate school or teaching or temping or doing whatever. And I was kind of exploring this little, very obscure corner of literature.

​And then I, through a kind of series of different events, I decided to finally start working on a fantasy novel, which I'd kind of grown up reading. And so, I wrote Throne of the Crescent Moon. I wrote some short stories before that, kind of starting to explore fantasy/science-fiction as a market, as a publishing industry and just see what was out there, what people were writing now; now being 10 years ago or whatever.

But because I'd been reading a lot of literary fiction and poetry and stuff like that, I hadn't been in touch with genre fiction in some years. So, I kind of got reacquainted with that stuff and just started blazing ahead, writing. And I was really fortunate that a kind of combination of, I think, hard work and talent, but also luck and being in the right place in the right time and stuff. I got short stories published pretty quickly. They got awards that got people interested in me writing a novel, which then was published pretty quickly and also got a fair amount of attention. And that was Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is a sort of high fantasy, sword and sorcery novel, but with a sort of Islamic and Arab influence, rather than the sort of pseudo European influence. So, its influence is sort of the Islamic Golden Ages, rather than the sort of Middle English sort of Renaissance stuff.

And then from that, the next big thing where people saw your name was Star Wars, with the Canto Bight book.

I guess so. It depends which people, I guess, because at the same time, I was publishing stuff in Slate and essays in New York Times. So, it really depends on what part of the spectrum you're on. But in the nerdier side of things, definitely publishing the Star Wars story. People are gonna notice you that didn't notice you before. Although, I was working on Black Bolt probably about the same time.

And yeah [for Star Wars] I only wrote a short story, but that's one of the first storytelling worlds I ever came to, so I wouldn't mind revisiting it sometime soon. I have a good relationship with the folks over there, it just hasn't happened.

And then that kind of brings us to your break into comics. Were you approached for Black Bolt, or you were just like, "I think I wanna do this"? How did that come about?

No, I was approached. And the sort of missing link here is that, after my first novel had a fair amount of success, I, for a lot of personal reasons, things going on in my life, but also the kind of sophomore slump stuff, I had basically a nervous breakdown and still haven't written a second novel. And I was sort of stuck and not writing much at all for a couple years. And it was at that point, when I was mostly just publishing short stories here and there, little things, articles, and Marvel came to me and said, "Hey, we wanna give Black Bolt his own book. Do you wanna [give it a try]?" I was like, "Sure, yeah. It's Marvel, of course I wanna do this."

​I'd never written comics before, but I'd been reading them my whole life. So, I feel like intuitively I knew how that storytelling worked. And I spent years learning how to tell stories in things like fiction and even poetry. And so, there was a lot of preparation there. If you just looked from one direction and saw me suddenly coming into comics and getting these gigs and things like that, it would look like overnight. But it very much wasn't. It was sort of bringing all these other lessons I've learned from other things to this, right? And my lifetime of reading comics.

Was there any comics in particular from childhood and from growing up that you look to as what truly hooked you on the medium?

Yeah. I mean, not just the medium. Just the written word, in general. Like a lot of working class kids in my generation, I didn't start out with the popular Internet. It was TV, books, and comics. And comics, for a lot of kids from my kind of class and age background, that was how we learned to read. And it was Marvel, especially. I had my DC phase, but it was mostly Marvel stuff. That, and Dungeons and Dragons manuals were really what taught me how to read, and how to write. And so, coming to Marvel after kind of spending a decade doing other kinds of writing and stuff like that, really felt like coming full circle. It felt very natural.

And with your very first book they give you, you get the opportunity to work with Christian Ward, probably one of the best working artists around right now.

Yeah, Christian is not only just brilliantly talented, he's not just skilled, but he's a true artist and a true storyteller. And he knows how storytelling works visually; he's a genius basically. And I had no precedent for this. Every artist I've worked with, I've been thrilled with really, just in different ways. But Christian and I, we had a real particular kind of bond. And he helped mentor me, basically. The form was new to me, and there were things I had to learn, and Black Bolt would not have turned out as well as it would have without Christian contributing and co-creating it, but also him teaching me. I'm always thankful for that.

What was that like for you, going from a solo writing career to such a collaborative medium?

It was kind of life-saving actually. Other than just life circumstances, a big part of what was crushing me with writing fiction was the solitary nature of it. And comics are, unless you're a writer/artist, comics are so collaborative. And it really was like a lifeline to be working [together]. And the monthly nature of comics too, rather than a novel, where you spend a couple years just basically locked in a room with a manuscript. With the monthly demanding pace of pumping out stuff for deadlines, it's done or it's done, period. Whether it's done or not, it's done.

And so, that was actually quite liberating. It was ideal [for me]. Working on a monthly comic with Will Moss, I have to shout out to, who's the editor on Black Bolt, and done a lot of really important stuff at Marvel, like bringing on Ta-Nehisi [Coates] and Squirrel Girl, Vision. He's been behind a lot of bolder stuff that Marvel's been doing, and I basically came to comics with the perfect team around me, and I'm very lucky in that.

And it shows. The first couple comics you've put out have already been pretty big hits, in terms of both critical reception and how it's gone over with the general public. I mean, people seem to really, really dig Black Bolt, and Exiles in particular. Which, if you want to talk about bold stuff, that's a very, very bold, ambitious book.

Yeah, that book's been a blast to work. It's really just, "what do I wanna throw in the blender this month?" And Marvel's mostly been really open to it, so it's been really fun.

What was your goal with that book when you signed on?

Well, one of the kind of hindrances when you're working in Big Two superhero comics is continuity. And any project that lets you liberate yourself from continuity and ask, "what if Peggy Carter had become Captain America?" I was a massive fan of the What If comics back in the day when I was a kid, and this has been my chance to kind of do that, and it's been a blast.

Is there any one of these characters in particular that's been your favorite to write?

I think Valkyrie is, mostly because I like writing absurd Thor comics prose. She was inspired somewhat by Tessa Thompson in [Thor: Ragnarok], but she's also sort of this tribute to those over the top, '80s, Walter Simonson characters. And yeah, so she's got a soft spot.

You mentioned working with the Big Two, and so far in comics, almost everything you've done has been for Marvel, the exception of course being Abbott, which was completely your creation. What brought that to life?

It's kind of a big stew of some of the things I was talking about earlier, in terms of my background. I'm from Dearborn, Michigan, but I also grew up in Detroit. And it's just a very amazing city, culturally, and with an amazing history all its own. I'm a writer who works in tropes. I mean, I wear that on my sleeve. I have lots of archetypes that are familiar to people, and I like taking those pieces and kind of customizing them and then doing different things with them. And one of the kind of really familiar genre tropes that I've always loved is the sort of paranormal investigator, the person who's sort of doggedly after the truth. And I think that that type of figure, Fox Mulder, Kolchack: The Night Stalker from the '70s TV show, those types of characters really speak to what we need in our own times, in particular. I think they've always been fun for me, but I also think there's something there in terms of the way that the truth is sort of more and more obscured these days.

I wanted to kind of tell a story that brought some of those elements together, and because I'm me, there will always be a sort of element of the fantastic or the horror fiction to it. And so, you get to throw some blood magic in there. I've also been thinking about journalism a lot, I think, as a kind of version of that truth telling and that exploration. So, all of those things kind of ended up going together in the pot.

I was watching reruns, a lot of Kolchack: The Night Stalker. I watch a lot of old man rerun TV. And so, I was watching this show that's about this reporter in the 1970s hunting monsters, and I just started to think about how elements of that spoke to our own age. What that would look like if we were to tell a story like that today, who would be at the center of it and things like that? And it all kind of just started gestating, and Abbott is what popped out of all that.

You've been a really big force in telling diverse stories in comics and it's seemed, at least so far, to have overwhelmingly positive reactions.

Well, that's because you're not looking at my Twitter feed. Or the YouTube videos about me. [laughs] But no, I mean, for me, it's very much an intentional thing. I think it's important just on about 800 different levels for us to have stories that look more like the world around us, stories that don't always put one kind of character at the center of them, and that we have work by creators who are not just one type of background and don't just have one kind of life story, right?

Both of those things I think are crucial, just kind of straight-up political power issues, that even if I weren't a creator, I would hope I would be like, "There's an inequality there, that needs to change." But for me, as a writer, in terms of the craft, it's just part of telling the story right, right? If you're gonna dig into a character... I wrote about Quicksilver, I did a miniseries. And I thought about everything about this character. I thought about what is it like to live your life at 800 miles an hour? And I also thought about what does it mean that he grew up, what Marvel used to call a gypsy, but he grew up in a Roma community, right? And probably not thought a whole lot about his background when Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] were just trying to crank out stuff. And then we live with the legacy of something like that. So then, let's pay special attention to it and really think about what that kind of background means for a character. And I'm always interested in where a character comes from and what kind of world surrounds them. And those two questions, I think to really -- I think any writer should be interested in those questions.

Absolutely.

And I think that to really honor those questions, you have to pay attention to things like where the people sit in the pecking order, right? And did they grow up thinking that their every word was gospel because they occupied a certain place? Some kids today grew up having to fight to be heard, right? Those are two very different stories. And I hope that in my writing, the diversity that comes out is a kind of natural extension of trying to get those characters' stories.

It's like with anything. It's sort of like you're thrilled at the progress and you look at how much has to still happen, and you're dismayed and you try and try and kind of keep the former in mind instead of focusing on the latter.

1comments

*****

Spider-Man: Miles Morales #2, written by Saladin Ahmed and illustrated by Javier Garron, is now available online and at your local comic book shop.