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Nerd Cred

Novelist and LSA alumnus Saladin Ahmed discusses his success with comic books and how his creative process has changed in this new medium.
by Brian Short

 

There are any number of moments from the first six issues of Marvel’s Black Bolt comic book that illustrate how gloriously weird the series is. A king admits under duress that he can’t fry an egg because he’s never had to learn, and that he doesn’t know how to drive a car because, where he comes from, everyone flies. The prison warden—a floating, enfogged entity of gore and gristle and nightmare limbs—screams Penance! Penance! for no apparent reason. There are fistfights lost on purpose, walls that melt inexplicably, and remote controls that kill on command.

Welcome to the imagination of Saladin Ahmed (A.B. 1999), where nothing seems to be what it is, and where everything is in the process of changing into something else.

Ahmed wasn’t trying to get into comics. A few years ago, he had been put in touch with Sana Amanant, then a senior editor at Marvel Comics. Amanant had invited Ahmed to develop a pitch for Marvel, but other projects took precedence and Ahmed’s pitch never materialized.

More recently, a different Marvel editor reached out to Ahmed with a new writing project about a very old and very strange character, an alien king named Black Bolt. Ahmed would be writing a monthly comics title with the same name as the protagonist. This time, he jumped at the chance.

 “It really feels like coming home for me as a writer,” Ahmed says. “Before I read much prose, I read comics. The first things I ever wrote as a kid were basically imitations of Marvel comics. So holding that first issue in my hands, that was pretty exciting.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saladin Ahmed (right) onstage with See Something Say Something host Ahmed Ali Akbar. The show was recorded at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

A Michigan Marvel

Born in Michigan, Ahmed came to U-M as a transfer student. In LSA, he majored in American culture and also did significant coursework in English and creative writing, work that changed him as a reader, he says. His Department of American Culture classes were tied closely to the work Ahmed did with Arab American student organizations. As a student activist, he participated in a sit-in in the president’s office to change the university’s policy on labor standards for clothing and memorabilia production.

“That’s a fond memory, spending a chunk of my senior year at that sit-in,” Ahmed says. “Although I have nothing but fond memories of Ann Arbor.”

After graduating, Ahmed moved to New York. There, he got his MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. Eventually, he branched out into other forms of expression, including genre fiction, where he found significant success. His 2012 fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon won a Locus Award for best first novel and was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula Award.

The success of Throne of the Crescent Moon helped Ahmed land the job as the writer on Black Bolt, whose titular character also appears on the ABC network’s superhero television series Inhumans. Ahmed himself has also enjoyed some increased exposure, appearing recently on Buzzfeed’s See Something Say Something podcast.

It’s fun, Ahmed says, tackling the challenges of this new art form and enjoying the rewards that come with exploring untrammeled artistic terrain.

“In a prose novel, all a reader has is words to create a picture,” Ahmed says. “You really learn when you’re working with a comics artist that you’ve got to trust them to do a lot of that heavy lifting. Even with dialogue, you can’t always be as clever as you’d like to be because there’s not room for it sometimes. You just hone the story down to the essence.”

Geeking Out at Every Step

Now, Ahmed is taking on more comics work. He recently announced he’ll contribute to an upcoming anthology of tales set in the Star Wars universe. He is also writing a new comic series called Abbott, starring a Detroit journalist named Elena Abbott who uncovers the link between a series of crimes and supernatural forces, which is now available for pre-order.

There’s some real nerd cred that goes along with being a comics writer, Ahmed says. (Nerd cred is a good thing, by the way.) Ahmed got the chance to attend the launch of the Black Bolt series at Green Brain Comics in Dearborn—right down the street from where the comics shop he went when he was young once stood.

“It’s a sort of spiritual successor to the store where I bought comics as a kid,” Ahmed says. “Doing the launch there, seeing the covers and the variant covers, seeing my name on the credits, it’s all great. I’m the kind of guy who geeks out at every step along the way, and it’s been a fun ride so far.” 

A Michigan Marvel

Born in Michigan, Ahmed came to U-M as a transfer student. In LSA, he majored in American culture and also did significant coursework in English and creative writing, work that changed him as a reader, he says. His American Culture classes were tied closely to the work Ahmed’s did with Arab American student organizations. As a student activist, he participated in a sit-in in the president’s office to change the university’s policy on labor standards for clothing and memorabilia production.

“That’s a fond memory, spending a chunk of my senior year at that sit-in,” Ahmed says. “Although I have nothing but fond memories of Ann Arbor.”

After graduating, Ahmed moved to New York. There, he got his MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. Eventually, he branched out into other forms of expression, including genre fiction, where he found significant success. His 2012 fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon won a Locus Award for best first novel and was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula Award.

The success of Throne of the Crescent Moon helped Ahmed land the job as the writer on Black Bolt, whose titular character also appears on the ABC network’s superhero television series Inhumans. Ahmed himself has also enjoyed some increased exposure, appearing recently on Buzzfeed’s See Something Say Something podcast.

It’s fun, Ahmed says, tackling the challenges of this new art form and enjoying the rewards that come with exploring untrammeled artistic terrain.

“In a prose novel, the writer can only create a picture with words,” Ahmed says. “You really learn when you’re working with a comics artist that you’ve got to trust them to do a lot of that heavy lifting. Even with dialogue, you can’t always be as clever as you’d like to be because there’s not room for it sometimes. You just hone the story down to the essence.”

 

Saladin Ahmed (right) onstage with See Something Say Something host Ahmed Ali Akbar. The show was recorded at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

Geeking Out at Every Step

The success of his 2012 novel helped Ahmed land the job as the writer on the Marvel comic series Black Bolt, whose titular character also appears on the ABC superhero series Inhumans. Now, Ahmed is taking on more comics work, writing a recently announced story in an upcoming anthology of tales set in the Star Wars universe. It’s fun, he says, tackling the challenges of this new art form while enjoying the rewards that come with exploring untrammeled artistic terrain. 

“In a prose novel, all a reader has is the words to create a picture,” Ahmed says. “You really learn when you’re working with an artist that you’ve got to trust them to do a lot of that heavy lifting. Even with dialogue, you can’t always be as clever as you’d like to be because there’s not room for it sometimes. You just hone the story down to the essence.”

And there’s some real nerd cred that goes along with being a comics writer, Ahmed says. (Nerd cred is a good thing.) Ahmed got to attend the launch of the Black Bolt series at Green Brain Comics in Dearborn—right down the street from where the comics shop he went when he was young once stood. 

“It’s a sort of spiritual successor to the store where I bought comics as a kid,” Ahmed says. “Doing the launch there, seeing the covers and the variant covers, seeing my name on the credits. I’m the kind of guy who geeks out at every step along the way, and it’s just really exciting.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first arc of the Black Bolt comic series follows an alien king accustomed to power who is suddenly imprisoned and forced to come to terms with his fellow convicts and his mysterious jailer.

 

 

 


All images courtesy of Saladin Ahmed
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Release Date: 11/13/2017
Category: Alumni
Tags: Brian Short; American Culture