Saladin Ahmed on Disrupting the Expected in Spider-Man’s Brooklyn
Meet Ahmed’s new character Starling in ‘Miles Morales: Spider-Man’ #6!
In writing about starlings, Frank Heppner of the Audubon Society noted that when it came to the birds, often “you get unpredictable behavior out of predictable rules.” While MILES MORALES: SPIDER-MAN writer Saladin Ahmed may not be familiar with this quote, it is clear he has similar plans for his Starling, a brand new player on the Merry Marvel scene that debuted this week in MILES MORALES: SPIDER-MAN #6.
We spoke to him about the ways his approach to Miles Morales has evolved over the past six months, how his collaboration with artist – and Marvel Young Gun – Javier Garrón has created a fully realized fictional Brooklyn and supporting cast for Miles, and, of course, about the new bird winging in from the sky above.
Before reading further, be aware that this interview contains minor spoilers for MILES MORALES: SPIDER-MAN #6!
Marvel.com: You are about half a year, probably more, into writing Miles Morales. Has your understanding of him evolved over that time? Do you feel like you have a different handle on him now than when you started? Has he surprised you?
Saladin Ahmed: I don’t know if he has so much surprised me as I am getting comfortable with him. The first issue or two when you are working with a new character, you are sort of finding your voice with them. Now I feel like I… we are in a groove with him, both me as a writer and Javier [Garrón] and I as a team. We are better understanding this character and this world.
We have spent a fair amount of time these first few issues establishing the supporting cast for him in a way that maybe has not quite been done like that yet. It has just been super fun doing that.
Marvel.com: Once you got to see Javier’s rendering of Miles, his supporting cast, and the world around him on the page, with David Curiel’s colors and Cory Petit’s lettering, did that change anything about your approach to Morales? Did it make him more “real’ or anything like that for you?
Saladin Ahmed: Oh. Oh yes. Yes absolutely.
It really made me think about clothes, for instance, in a way I absolutely was not. What an important part of a teenager’s life clothes are.
There’s a sort of back and forth in defining Miles’ Brooklyn. Javier is in Spain. He’s certainly been to Brooklyn, but he’s not in New York. I spent a number of years in Brooklyn myself but I am away from there now so we have this process. I send him photos and suggest a little something. Then he looks and suggests a little something and we have this back and forth process. That way we’ve created this world that is sort of real Brooklyn and sort of Marvel Universe, and thus its own kind of thing.
Javier has been huge in making that become realized. Even down to things like how a crowd should look, what the mix of folks should look like. He continues to surprise me with the genius details he makes sure to include.
We have actually—not sure if it happened last issue or it happens in this issue—but we’ve changed the way we are crediting the series. Changing it to say storyteller [for Javier] because really, we are doing this together.
Marvel.com: Speaking of Brooklyn, how has the choice to ground Miles in Brooklyn shaped the book? How has it enhanced storytelling, given your advantages or challenges?
Saladin Ahmed: [Brooklyn] has gone through a lot of changes over the years of course, but [it] has always been one of the more interesting parts of New York City. It is also pretty deeply neglected in Marvel lore. We haven’t had a lot of Brooklyn-based heroes. So having that kind of be Miles’ stomping ground —as Hell’s Kitchen is to Daredevil—is a delight.
As I said, I lived there a number of years. I taught in places that are kind of similar. I taught at Brooklyn University for several years, which is sort of near to be the real inspiration for Brooklyn Visions. It is a world I have some familiarity with. I didn’t grow up there but I have familiarity with it. Brooklyn has always been a rich environment. It feels like the next phase when Marvel said, “You know what, we are going to take place in actual New York, not a fictional place like it.”
Marvel.com: Speaking more specifically to Starling, this is not the first time you are introducing a character to the Marvel Universe, but it feels like one of the bigger ones. What is that like for you as a creator to introduce someone brand new to the lore, to the proverbial sandbox?
Saladin Ahmed: It’s exciting! I have created some deep space characters, but she is certainly the first straight up 616 Super Hero. It was a delight.
We tried to walk a line between classic and contemporary in creating Starling. So she, in several different ways, looks towards Marvel’s past. On the other hand, she very much is Miles’ contemporary in the current Marvel world. That was very intentional on both fronts.
Marvel.com: In terms of storytelling, what made this feel like the right time for her to come into the book? What kinds of avenues does she open up for you?
Saladin Ahmed: For me, Super Heroes—and street-level Super Heroes in particular—there is always this kind of character who is sort of a foil but also an ally with some romantic elements to it. Like Black Cat and Spider-Man. It is a very classic trope. I felt like Miles needed that in his life. Then, looking at the action structure of this story, I realized that now was a time it could use that element, it could benefit from Starling’s introduction.
So I started to think about what kind of character might feel that role. There were a couple of other pieces in play that I won’t get too much into but they fit in nicely with her and… Yeah, that’s where it starts.
Then you begin to think of an image. I had this idea of a costume, one kind of like the Vulture—the Adrian Toomes costume, but with changes. With someone young in it.
I had all those elements in my mind and they collided, and here we are.
Marvel.com: Can you give us an idea of who Starling is, beyond that image and that kind of archetype?
Saladin Ahmed: Well, her name is Tiana Toomes. Like Adrian. And she is the Vulture’s granddaughter.
We will find out more about her backstory because she will be returning. What we do find out this issue, though, is her grandfather used to go and hide out in Detroit when things got hot in New York. We do not know a whole lot more right now. But, like Miles, we have that thought of, “that crusty old super villain?”
And [Tiana] is like, “Well, you know, family is weird.”
He built her suit, or helped her build her suit. Then he basically taught his granddaughter to fly. So there is this side of Adrian happening when he is away from the heat in Detroit that we haven’t seen.
Now she is staying in his place in Bay Ridge that’s rent-controlled. Some things happened back in Detroit that she had to get out of there so he was like, “Hey” and gave it to her. So she has her own place, which Miles thinks is very cool and grown-up.
Marvel.com: I love that incorporation of Detroit. I love when the Marvel Universe moves into other real cities outside of New York.
Saladin Ahmed: If I had not made some character from Detroit into Marvel canon I feel I would have failed my hometown, so…
Marvel.com: Obviously, we know that familial connection fuels the bird name to some degree. But why a starling in particular? What are the aspects of that bird that stuck out to you or inspired the name?
Saladin Ahmed: She will talk about that in a later issue. It is not a name you’d expect and she is well aware of the connotations of it, but she has definite reasons for choosing “Starling.” She will talk about that more down the line.
Marvel.com: Mentioning Spider-Man and Black Cat conjures some expectations, but how would you characterize the energy between Spidey and Starling? How do you feel their chemistry is like?
Saladin Ahmed: She is maybe a year or two older than Miles but they are both teenagers. They are both figuring out what they are doing. It is not an overt “romance” romance—yet, at least—but there is definitely some flirty chemistry there. There is also some camaraderie in terms of crime-fighting although they have some pretty different ideas about methods, about where the limits are.
Marvel.com: In terms of the supporting cast, how does introducing this character into the dynamics change or disrupt things?
Saladin Ahmed: That will be something we’ll see ramifications of further down the line.
Marvel.com: People are standing in front of the new release wall at their local comic shop. What is the two-sentence pitch you give them to make sure they add MILES MORALES: SPIDER-MAN #6 to their pile?
Saladin Ahmed: I’d say it is a story about violence and redemption, with Tombstone as the big band forcing both Miles and Starling make some difficult choices.
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