Sara Alfageeh Talks Ms. Marvel, “Squire” and Being Self-indulgent as a Marginalized Creator

"Marginalized people are rarely allowed to be self-indulgent. We're told to think about how this reflects on us and how this reflects on our community and so on."

Sara Alfageeh Talks Ms. Marvel, “Squire” and Being Self-indulgent as a Marginalized Creator
Sara Alfageeh Talks Ms. Marvel, “Squire” and Being Self-indulgent as a marginalized creator

Sara Alfageeh is a Jordanian American illustrator and art director, originally from Boston, Massachusetts. She is known for her work in comics for Marvel and Star Wars, and children’s publishing. Her first graphic novel “Squire,” which she wrote with author Nadia Shammas, was published in 2022, and is a story about how an aspiring knight fights her way to a path to full citizenship, but she sees that the empire she fights for is not all that was promised. Alfageeh’s first picture book “Not Yet: The Story of an Unstoppable Skater,” written by figure skater Zahra Lari and author and screenwriter Hadley Davis, is based on Lari’s journey to becoming the first woman figure skater to compete professionally and internationally in a hijab. Alfageeh spoke to Fann about her work for Ms. Marvel, “Squire,” and as a cover artist. 

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become an illustrator?

Sara Alfageeh: So this was definitely not the plan for me. I didn't start drawing until I was about 17 years old. I was just bored in math class and decided to Google anime eyes for me to copy from online. Then I was joining these online communities on Tumblr, and the new “Avatar: Legend of Korra” series had just dropped. I was so invested in the show, and it was my first time really being active in a fandom in that way, even though I've been nerdy and geeky and into video games, movies and anime my whole life. It never really clicked for me [to ask] ‘Who actually makes these?’ 

For some reason, that connection just never happened until my last year of high school, and I was watching these other 15, 16, and 17-year-olds make fan art for the show, and they made it seem so much more approachable. I wasn't inspired to draw by seeing the incredible and the dauntingly beautiful scenes in the show, but rather from the more amateur artwork that was so well-received and led to lots of friends and meeting lots of interesting people online. I started drawing because I wanted to contribute to that beautiful community online. 

And then I went off to college to study psychology. Again, it wasn't really entering my brain that this could be a career path for me. I was just drawing for fun. It clicked specifically when “Ms. Marvel Vol. 1” came out. I was in my first semester of college doing psychology and hating it, and in one art class the teacher was pressuring me so hard to switch. He was like, ‘Next semester, if I see you it's because you're an art student. It's not because they're doing anything else.’ I was like, “Yeah, yeah, totally.” Then I read this book (Ms. Marvel), and I was gonna buy it anyway to quote, unquote, ‘just be supportive.’ We (Muslims) just have to show up to whatever little crumbs that we're gonna get, right? I had no idea it was going to be that good. I burned through the volume, and I was so shocked at the level of detail — it's gonna sound weird — that they got correct about growing up Muslim in America. 

There was one scene that struck me so intensely. Kamala Khan — the protagonist of the story, who is the first Muslim American superhero, and at the time, was the number one best selling Marvel comic — she goes to her imam in one of these scenes for advice, and the carpets in that mosque were correct. They looked like the ones that I pray on when I go to the mosque. I thought, ‘Who cared enough to get this detail right? It doesn't make any sense.’ That's what convinced me. I finally felt like there's this little space for me in this industry, and I am really, really into drawing and putting all my effort [there] and definitely not into my psychology classes. So I kicked down my counselors door, and I was like, ‘Alright, I'm switching.’ That's my trajectory. I started drawing at the age of 17, I was a full-time art student by the time I was 19, and then I had started getting my actual gigs and professional work by the time I was 21.

Fann Staff: I kind of relate to that too. My major inspiration for writing as well, although it never quite clicked for me at the time, was Ms Marvel. Because as a South Asian woman myself, I was reading it thinking, ‘Where did this even come from? How did this even happen?’ But that's so interesting that you noticed the carpet, because I was always paying much more attention to the words they were saying in Urdu, their house, and what her mom was wearing.

Alfageeh: I was so impressed by that because my frame of reference for how much Marvel cares about Muslim representation is watching the Iron Man movie and seeing the Egyptian dialect spoken in Afghanistan where they don't even speak Arabic. I just thought, ‘Oh, I'm not supposed to be here [watching this]. You don't care that I'm an audience member. You don't give a sh*t.’ That was my feeling around superhero movies — as much as I enjoy it, I understand never to have any hope that they’re going to get it right. And lowkey, that's how I felt about Ms. Marvel even though I knew that there was going to be a Muslim writer behind it. And honestly, it was kind of crazy to look back all the way to that moment because now G. Willow Wilson (co-creator of Ms. Marvel) is a dear friend and mentor. Saladin Ahmed who picked up the series after her is also again, a friend and mentor. The community is so small and we're all so clearly rooting for each other. It is a very good time to be a creator online for that reason, if you're willing to do the work, if you have ideas and you want to share them, people will receive you.

Fann Staff: You talked about the importance of the specificity and working to get the details right. One of my favorite things you've done was the reworking of Dust, the member of the X-Men. Could you talk a little bit about the thought process behind that reclamation of that character and the response that came from it?

Alfageeh: It's so interesting because it is a drawing I spent an hour on. It was something I did really purely for myself. It's so interesting to me, years and years later, people still talk about this little doodle. Now I’m like, damn, I should’ve put more effort into it; it's so scribbly. It was so fast. There's two sides of my brain: the illustrator who cares about craftsmanship and the other that [does] understand why people connected with it. It's the same reason why I felt like I had a reason to do it. These characters who are Muslim, they're often D-list or C-list X-Men. They show up once every three years in the corner of a panel. No one really cares, right? I've wanted to prove that you can make this a character worth caring about, and all you have to do is just do a teeny itty bit of research, and actually pay attention to the people who maybe identify like Dust, who wear a niqab. If you see all the Muslim influencers online, they're the ones doing the most with their fashion. I was like, ‘How come we're not allowed to have fun?’ You look at all these other D-list X-men and they look fantastic. There's a reason why the X-men fandom is so huge. It's because they have so many characters that you can identify with. And then I get the one Muslim, and it's like a stereotypical niqabi with single belt on and she turns to f***ing dust! I'm like, ‘we gotta give her a little love.’ I was complaining about it on Twitter, as one does, for a bit, because I came across this piece of art where she's given the same, superhero woman treatment where her clothes are somehow vacuum sealed to her chest. And I thought, ‘Oh, they really, they really don't give a sh*t.’ They do not care at all. As a creative, if you want something done right, do it yourself. If I'm going to complain, I better show that I can do it better. It was a real moment of like, ‘oh yeah, true. I can draw.’ And so I did. I threw it on [Twitter] and I shut my laptop off for the night. The next thing I knew, the next day I was getting contacted by the BBC, and I was getting contacted by these major news outlets. I opened up my Twitter and I have like 53 DMs, half of them telling me “Thank you,” and half of them telling me “F**k off.” It was so wild to me. Oh, this is what a piece of art can do — this is the kind of reaction like I had done nothing but make her interesting to myself, first and foremost. 

That was a real learning moment. I'm always going to prioritize what I find interesting and what I think is cool because there will always be someone else out there who agrees with me. Marginalized people are rarely allowed to be self-indulgent. We're told to think about how this reflects on us and how this reflects on our community and so on. That was my experience with Dust. I put myself, my comfort, and my interests first. The world somehow responded in kind, and it was also a very jarring time because it was the first time I had gotten serious backlash from a group of the internet who I don't know what they do all day besides yell at people, but I found YouTube videos dissecting me and my art. Really, really racist portrayals of me and death threats and all this stuff; it was so weird. I promise you this was like 1% of the positive outpouring, all of those losers moved on. People like you are still talking about Dust today. When I go to New York Comic Con, I still have people coming up to me talking about Dust, which is wild and cool and great. I still have people at Marvel at the Avengers office, like it got me my first job. They cited Dust when they hired me later on to work on Ms Marvel. To do a character for them, for me, was a real amazing full circle moment. I went from learning to draw because of Ms. Marvel and believing that there was a career for me, all the way to creating a character for Ms. Marvel and you know, getting to say I added my little touch, my little bit of love to this series that is so full of love as well. 

Fann Staff: What was the process behind the creation of Amulet as a character and his camaraderie with Ms. marvel? 

Alfageeh: As I mentioned before, Saladin Ahmed, who was the creator on that run of Ms. Marvel [asked me to work on Ms. Marvel]. He's my ammo (uncle) in comics. We met up at New York Comic Con where I was tabling, and he was signing in the same artists’ alley as me. We just went out to dinner, and he said, ‘I have a job for you that I trust no one else with. I can't tell you too much about it right now, but you just need to trust me. If you get an email from the Avengers office, you're gonna say yes.’ I said, ‘Aye aye captain, of course.’ At the time, I was working on my startup, I was working on “Squire,” my graphic novel, and I was just super, super busy. I was flying to California because I needed to meet investors, and I got the email. You know, the bat signal lit up, the Avengers hotline reached out, and they said, ‘We need you to design this Lebanese character who is going to be a gentle giant. We need you to understand he's going to be huge, and he's going to be intimidating in silhouette, but he has to feel kind.’ I thought it was the best. I'd been waiting for this. That's my favorite kind of space to work in, where I have two dichotomies that I need to balance, you know. Small but mighty, tall but kind — I love playing with polar opposites. I think that's what makes the most fun storytelling. So with Amulet, it was a real joy to also get a little fantastical with him. I wanted to really make his silhouette distinct. I wanted him to be recognizable whether he's one character out of 1000 on a page or the cover of a comic. They really did give me free rein. I had very few revisions, it was such a smooth process. I ended up drawing that character on my plane ride to an investor meeting. It was a really, really crazy time. But that's the thing, right? If you're willing to do it, opportunities will come. I wasn't gonna say no to this. And it was one of those things where I wasn't gonna do it for the money. I understood the opportunities and doors this was gonna open and I got my chance finally, to officially be like, Look at what I can do. Look at what I can contribute for Muslim characters in canon. So I'm forever grateful to Alanna [Smith, editor at Marvel] at the Marvel office and to Saladin Ahmed for thinking of me, of course. [I’m also grateful] for everybody who saw Dust and was like, ‘Oh, damn, this is me.’ Y'all got me jobs. 

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I was flying to California because I needed to meet investors, and I got the email. You know, the bat signal lit up, the Avengers hotline reached out, and they said, ‘We need you to design this Lebanese character who is going to be a gentle giant.'

Fann Staff: You talked about loving to play with polar opposites. I feel like Aizah (protagonist in Squire), as the main character is very small but mighty. Could you talk about crafting that main character and how you really got her relentlessness?

Alfageeh: For “Squire,” at the root of it I was thinking of my favorite character tropes. This is well before I ever thought I was going to make it into a book at the time. It was just honestly a homework assignment. I was in a concept art class and I had been working on this one project all semester. And I just started with, like that dichotomy. Wouldn't it be fun if I had a character who was small and a character who was tall? Okay, now I've drawn them. What else can I know about them? Well maybe they're knights, and maybe the small one is actually in charge and the big one just follows her around. Okay, well, that's kind of interesting. Well, where are they going? When I started adding these questions, and I started filling in the blanks and the world around them, that's what ended up becoming “Squire,” and this was after I had my Dust experience and I thought, ‘It's worth it to be self-indulgent.’ “Squire” was my very first time in art school where I thought, ‘Let me look at myself and my interests in my culture and allow this to be fun first for me, and then see if it's fun for anyone else.’ I had never really allowed myself to do that while in art school. I had really, really bad imposter syndrome actually, because I had not drawn since I was a kid. I showed up to art school a semester behind everybody else, I had a real chip on my shoulder. I wanted to prove to them that I could draw. I had hit a point in my skill set where I thought, ‘Okay, you know, I feel confident in myself. There's no doubt that I can draw in a really technical way. But now, what is the thing I'm trying to say?’ That story ended up being “Squire.” 

I really love the trope of the small but mighty, the small but scrappy. I like the idea of someone who’s not supposed to be the chosen one kind of, stories where everyone's looking around for the hero, and when they show up, they're like, ‘What are you? We're putting all of our hopes and dreams on you?’ I really, really enjoyed that. Aizah, as a character, was kind of my answer to that question. If you asked who would save us all they would not ever come up with her and I surrounded her with people that maybe would have been much better fit for the role. So she stayed as the underdog for a lot of the book, and it's really, really fun to start from zero and work a character up to where they've grown up enough, whether in their skill set or ideology, that they can believe they can change things. 

I was really, really inspired by my students at the time because I was a middle school and high school art teacher while in college. I would teach on Mondays and in the morning and evening, and then I would run off to my own classes later on that night. I would listen to my kids talk about climate change and gun control and all these really, really huge topics. They would use my art class to make protest posters because they were protesting in Boston Commons, and I was so interested in their perspective because they were directly affected by a lot of these issues when we're talking about the future. They had this unrelenting belief, an unrelenting insistence that this will change. Maybe it's rooted in naivete or maybe it's rooted in ignorance of how complex the system is, but you need that kind of person. Aizah was heavily inspired by that by those high schoolers. We had the Parkland shooting walkouts happening at that time, and I'm watching you know, these 16-year-olds saying, ‘We want to speak up for ourselves, we want to change this thing that's gonna affect us in a part of the cycle of violence.’ It's adults in the room who are saying, “Sit down, shut up, this is just how this goes.” Of course, we see this a lot in many young adult novels, and especially in anime as well and manga, which I grew up digesting. I just really, really loved that classic protagonist trope of people who weren't supposed to be the hero. Here you are saving everybody.

Fann Staff: That was so cool that it was inspired by the students you were teaching. How did that teaching experience shape you as an artist?

Alfageeh: Yeah, it was really interesting because it was at a private school that I used to attend. When I was at that private school, it was very STEM-focused. They cared about math and science and nothing else. If you're good at art, English, or history — cool, keep it to yourself, it’s not going to get you a job. It was the kind of school where by middle school, you know where you're going to go to grad school. So I thankfully left that environment when I was in high school, and I came back to visit many years later because one of my siblings was there. I ran into the headmaster and he asked me very frankly, what I was up to. I told him, ‘You wouldn't believe it, but I'm an artist.’ And he says, ‘No kidding, we didn't give you that.’ I said, ‘No, you sure didn't, sir.’ It was a very surprising interaction because it ended up with him offering me a job. He said, ‘Hey, you're crushing it. You're getting these jobs. I could never have imagined this path for you, and you went and figured it out by yourself.’ It was a really nice moment of closure actually for me, for him to acknowledge what that environment didn't do for me and what some students might be losing as a result. He gave me free rein in my classroom. If a parent complained, he said he couldn’t protect me. He said to let this class be my kingdom. 

I absolutely love teaching. It's always been in my bones. I also enjoy my own method of studying and of practicing my own skills to break a concept down and be able to effectively relate it to somebody else so that they can learn it: that requires a mastery over your own skill set. It's always forcing me to be in practice, which I really, really appreciated. If you only surround yourself with people of the same caliber, you're going to forget how you even do your own work because they all immediately understand what you do. It was a lot of fun. I was working with kids who had never really had regular exposure to art in that way. I used it as my chance to teach them art history, teach them about careers, and help them understand the stuff they already enjoyed. We would look at their favorite music videos, we would look at their favorite movies, and I’d help them at least understand how to ask the questions, ‘Why is this interesting to me?’ and force them to keep asking that about everything that they engage with: their favorite books or favorite movies. Trying to foster those skill sets as well as technical drawing skills was a ton of fun. I was extremely happy that at the end of all that I ended up writing a college recommendation letter for a girl to go to art school. Having that full circle moment was again really, really gratifying  

to me. After leaving this school, I felt utterly rejected, but having you know, the headmaster kind of give me this opportunity to do things right and seeing that direct impact, oh, I was hooked. I definitely am back to teaching after I'm done with my stint in video games, however long it will last. 

Fann Staff: I was looking at your work and your portfolio, and I noticed Once Upon an Eid. I know it's a middle grade book, but I went through it so fast like literally at midnight. I really loved the unique nature of each story. Could you talk a bit about your involvement in the crafting of this anthology?

Alfageeh: Yeah. so ‘Once Upon an Eid’ is an anthology of fifteen short stories edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed, both brilliant authors in their own writing. They very kindly reached out to me and asked me to illustrate this. It was all kicked off by an illustration I had done for a different project, where I show people who were in a shared apartment building, celebrating the festivities together in a really fun, kinetic way: someone is pouring a cup of tea to someone on another floor who's giving presents to somebody else. And they saw that illustration and were like ‘You will know how to insert this book.’ It was a lot of fun because I got to work with the person I credit with inspiring me to be an illustrator. I got to work alongside G. Willow Wilson. I was so glad I got to do that. She gave me a lot of free rein with the script and encouraged me to really make it my own. I got to directly talk to every single author and ask what are the goals of each story, what specific details would they want in their illustration. 

This book was honestly a collection of 15 book covers as well because each one had their own illustration. It was definitely a challenge for me because I was restricted to only working in black and white, which is not something I normally do. Anyone familiar with my work knows how much I love big bright colors. So it was a technical challenge, which I appreciated. And then it was the fact that I had to draw all 15 stories in a way and in a style that sounds cohesive. It was really, really fun because I went from really classic kids stories like the siblings baking brownies and being a very energetic messy kitchen scene to a story of a kid who realizes he's celebrating Eid in a country he is foreign to and not knowing if he's ever going to go home again, because him and his family have just done the dangerous trek of going from Syria to Greece. I tried to capture that moment of feeling super alone, while looking

out at the sea and another one of a girl learning how to replicate her late mother's Eid recipe, and this is her first Eid without her. I got to draw moments of absolute joy where they're talking about Black Muslim American community, memories and the history of Eid throughout time and the author shared with me her own personal family photos as reference and I got to include her into the story. So I look very fondly on that book. It's always fun to come across it in Ramadan because it's usually on display in bookstores. It's definitely not a book that ever would have existed as I was growing up. It's a lot of fun to have kids who will just assume from now on that there are books for them and also see their parents who are in the same boat as me who are like, ‘Oh my God, I could have never conceived that I would have this book growing up.

Fann Staff: What's the biggest challenge in moving from big bright colors that you usually use to black and white?

Alfageeh: So you can use line, color, and values — how dark to how light something is. You have all these tools as an artist to control this. I design things in this way because I know exactly where your eyes are gonna go first, where they're gonna go next, what you feel is far away, what you feel is close to your eye. I do that with all these different tools of color and line, value and saturation, all these things. So when you get rid of color you've lost one of your tools. You have fewer things to use in order to balance the page out. That can be quite complex, especially as you have illustrations with many moving characters, many elements and so many indications of what is in the foreground and what is far away. I also like trying to have dramatic lighting, which is something that I really enjoy in a lot of my illustrations. I had to understand I couldn't rely on color as a crutch. As I was building up this illustration, I needed to be very intentional to make sure the background is darker so that I put the characters in lighter clothes so that they seem like they're going to be very clearly distinct against their background. I need to make sure that I design this character so that you can always see them.

No matter where they are on the page, they're going to have a much more distinct silhouette, so for example in the comic that I drew, I gave our main character this big Afro and very distinct silhouette, so no matter if I put him in a very crowded scene or on top of a mountain, you would know that this is the character. I armed him with a little lantern as well, so there's nobody in this book besides him that looks like this. So while I don't have color to make him stick out I do have these other little tips and tricks 

Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Alfageeh: I would say, just start. Start with the stuff that you are very interested in, and try to be very aware of who are the people that are making the stuff you love as well. You can’t be like, ‘I want to be a comic artist,’ but you never engage with comics. You have to know that world. You can't say, ‘I want to work on the next ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’’ but not know who these artists are that are making it. It’s pretty easy to find these folks online and follow their work and ask them questions. I got my career started because all I had to do was just get online and be in these spaces where these opportunities were happening. I owe a lot of my career to just being on Twitter. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore with the descent of Twitter. But it’s important to put yourself where your future peers are going to be or already are. If you start searching up who wrote your favorite book or movie, find them online, see where they’re hanging out. If they're on Instagram, Twitter or Tiktok then follow them, engage with them — not as reader to creator but as a peer to peer. These folks are not that far off ahead of you. 

It only took me three years from learning that Ms. Marvel is the greatest thing in comics and picking my career path as a result to working alongside the person who made that possible. That’s not to say that everyone will have the same exact timeline, some people I work with — took them twenty [years] to really find their footing, some people took two years. You just don’t know. You won’t know unless you try, so even if you’re aware of how much further you have to go, just share the artwork, just post it, you’ll be OK. You’re going to get better, and then you're still fostering connections with people as you're getting better, and that’s really important. It’s never been a better time to be an artist in my opinion, and this is something that I really reiterate. Let everyone else say ‘No.’ You shouldn't be the first no in your life. No better day than today.

Alfageeh is @saraalfageeh on Twitter and Instagram, and her website is www.sara-alfa.com. She encourages emerging artists to reach out for any advice on publishing, video games, and illustration.

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