Muslim Ms. Marvel and Other Minority Superheroes

The last few years in the Comic Book world have been full of attempts (or one could say plagued by failed attempts) to write and draw more interesting and genuine minority characters. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe killed off its white mainstay Peter Parker, replacing him with a Black/Hispanic Miles Morales, while Marvel’s film studios are mixing things up by featuring the black character Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, in Captain America 2, Dominican actress Zoe Saldana as Gemora in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film, and the possible casting of Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch in the future Fantastic Four reboot. Alongside of race, sexuality is emerging as a major facet to writing more complex and modern characters. Marvel’s X-Men member, Northstar, along with DC Comics’ Green Lantern and Batwoman, are all openly gay superheroes now, although there has been some controversy regarding Batwoman getting hitched. While issues of race, sexuality, and gender are becoming important for millennial comic book readers, the medium of comics rarely ventures into writing characters with religious diversity, especially when it comes to Islam in a post-9/11 America.

Well Marvel Comics is about to try and change that. Created by editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker, Marvel’s 40 year-old title “Ms. Marvel” will feature a Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan.

In George Gene Gustines’ New York Times article, Amanat noted that Kamala will be dealing with normal teenage angst, but through the lens of an Muslim-American girl from whose family is from Pakistan. But Amanat and series writer G. Willow Wilson, a professing Muslim, are aware of the negativity that may come with simply being Muslim in America, while also being true, yet unique, to Muslim readers who will no doubt flock to the title.

It is hard not to see the political swirling going on behind Kamala’s incarnation into comic book history. As pointed out by one of my professors at Duke, naming the character Kamala has to be related to the rising popularity and inspiring story of Malala Yousafzai. On a more subversive level, Her Pakistani heritage should tingle a nerve to those who believe Pakistan had some sort of involvement in hiding Osama bin Laden. Still, Kamala takes on the mantle of Ms. Marvel, a title formerly held by Carol Danvers, who paved the way for female characters by becoming the new and long overdue second female incarnation of Captain Marvel.

As much as Kamala’s turn at Ms. Marvel should be celebrated, there is much room for caution. As Gene Demby illustrates in his NPR article, “Who Gets To Be A Superhero? Race And Identity In Comics,” minority superheroes have never gotten the respectable treatment their deserve. Demby writes that superheroes, like the X-Men, have continually been a political canvas for allegorizing issues from the civil rights movement to the AIDS crisis. However, while superheroes seem to embody a small minority under government persecution, these characters are primarily white, creating a complicated relationship with racism. Quoting Orion Martin, Demby suggests that this sort of misnomer in depiction of minorities in comics helps “the white male audience of the comics to appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples,” thus reinforcing and creating deeper social and ideological inequality.

Christian, white, male characters have totally dominated superhero comics since their inception in the 1930s. Inside this dominance lies a definite racial bias. When black characters are written in comic book lore, they end up being tribal or African, like Storm from the X-Men or Black Panther, with the possible exception of Luke Cage (someone needs to do work on his character). Gender inequality also plagues comics. Much of my recent work and interests at Duke is trying to deal with why and how these (male) heroes embody masculine desires and attempt to deal with social anxieties of WWI and II and the 9/11 tragedies. What I have found, with the help of several smart people and insightful books, is that even when comics venture out into female superheroes, they still seems to aggrandize male sexual fantasies.

If superheros and their likenesses reflect American ideology and ideas of social normality (what we should look like; who we should marry; who we should idolize; who we should fear) then minority superheroes, whether they are black, Muslim, or gay, threaten not only our comic book “allegiances” to the traditional white male histories of our beloved characters, but challenge us in the core of our personal and societal prejudices in their reflections and incarnations of social abnormality. What makes Superman “super” may not be his powers after all, but his bourgeois status, his Anglo-American jaw line, and his winning complexion. In Scott Bukatman’s words, maybe the only way for the comics to be socially relevant across the spectrum of identity is for them to shed their hyper white/masculine tendencies, for the X-Men to become Ex-Men.

The problems that Demby puts his finger on are hopefully the ones that Kamala’s creative team, led by Wilson, will try to upend. What a dream it would be to see a Persepolis-like character with superpowers. Honest depictions of racial and religious minority characters are threatening because they challenge our fan-boy obsessions with Iron-White-Man and Batman-Billionaire. In time, maybe comics can reroute their bias and become a place in which we can deal with the social and psychological dimensions of such problematic obsessions.

Ms. Marvel featuring Kamala Khan will be released in mid-March.