Woman of Marvel: Emily Shaw '10
Marvel comic book editor Emily Shaw ’10 shares details from her world of storytelling and character creation.
If Emily Shaw ’10 could have any superpower, it would be teleportation. Each morning, she would beam up from her Brooklyn apartment to the Midtown Manhattan offices of Marvel Comics, where she works as a comic book editor, then beam herself home in the evening. “It would save me at least 1½ hours on my commute every day,” says Shaw. “Plus, I love the idea of being able to jet across the world for a weekend.”
Though she’s never given teleportation powers to the Marvel characters she works on, Shaw has imbued them with a variety of otherworldly talents. Moon Girl (whose “real” name is Lunella Lafayette), for example, is a black 8-year-old genius and gadget inventor from the Lower East Side of New York whose closest buddy is a red dinosaur. And Scarlet Witch (whose real name is Wanda Maximoff, and who’s played by Elizabeth Olsen in the recently released movie Captain America: Civil War) is a globetrotting detective who solves mysteries with magic.
Shaw focused on literature and writing at Haverford, figuring that her future lay in publishing. But a graphic-novel class in her senior year taught by then-English professor Theresa Tensuan ’89 (now a dean) opened the English major up to the world of comics, and a class visit from an alumni comic book editor, MacKenzie Cadenhead ’98, changed Shaw’s plans. “I loved storytelling and was an avid reader, but I had never been exposed to graphic storytelling,” says Shaw, who wrote her senior thesis on the graphic-novel series Watchmen. “I decided then that I wanted to work in comics.”
After traveling for a year, the St. Louis native moved to New York, spent a year in an administrative office job, then landed an assistant-editor position at Marvel. Today she’s an editor in charge of coordinating the art, design, and storylines of about a dozen comics, working closely with writers and artists. And all of her superheroes are female.
“Female characters at Marvel have had a total resurgence,” says Shaw. Of Marvel’s 60 or so books, nearly half feature women, a number that’s jumped from just two or three since she began working there. There’s a new, female Thor who has assumed the mantle of the original (male) Thor, and Ms. Marvel (“real” name Kamala Khan), a Pakistani-American superhero.
“Hulk is now a Korean teenager, and Captain America is a black man,” says Shaw of the changing makeup of superheroes. “Marvel characters are rooted in ideals, not their sex or skin color.” Even the traditionally white, male comic-book staff is changing. “In editorial, we’re almost half women at this point, almost all newer employees.”
For the past few years, she’s been part of the “Women of Marvel” panel at New York Comic Con, the huge comic-book convention. “We started in a tiny room, and now it’s one of the most popular panels there,” says Shaw, who also hosts a Women of Marvel podcast with three female colleagues.
“Superhero comics aren’t necessarily about good vs. evil so much as they’re meditations on the question of what does it mean to be a hero,” explains Shaw, who says that the stigma of comics as a lowbrow medium isn’t accurate. “There are simpler stories for kids as well as more complex stories that appeal to a wider range of people.” (National Book Award author Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is currently writing Marvel’s Black Panther series.)
"None of our characters are perfect; they’re flawed just like everyone else,” says Shaw. “It’s how they learn to accept those flaws and wrestle with the idea of what it means to do the right thing—that’s what’s interesting.