The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 213 | On Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel

Leaving Proof 213 | On Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel
Published on Thursday, February 13, 2014 by
Ms. Marvel‘s Kamala Khan is both unique and similar to Marvel Comics’ other teenaged superheroes in certain respects. That seeming contradiction is a good thing.

… I have two daughters, ages one and almost-three, and this is something that I’ve really been thinking about since becoming a mother. What icons will they have? What heroes will they look up to as they grow up? It was important to me to have a female Muslim character that can be aspirational. We’re so used to seeing in the news that Muslim women are downtrodden and need saving, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to make a story where the Muslim woman narrates her own life.

We all need superheroes, no matter what age we are or where we come from. I think it’s just a matter of the superhero being the right hero for the time, and that’s what I think, in a strange way, is the tremendous responsibility of writing superheroes: it’s that they reflect the times, they reflect the zeitgeist.

- Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson, speaking to the BBC

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The new Ms. Marvel series debuted last week and quickly shot to the top of Marvel’s digital comics sales chart.

If one were to go by the promotion and third-party press coverage the new Ms. Marvel series by World Fantasy Award-winning novelist and Eisner-nominated comics writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona has received in the months and weeks leading to its debut last week, one could almost be led to think that the only thing worth noting about it is that its protagonist Kamala Khan is an American-born Muslim teen of Pakistani descent. Of course, a female/American Muslim/”third culture kid” superhero starring in her own book is an Important Thing in terms of advancing the pop culture discourse on race, religion, immigration, and identity politics, but one of my biggest concerns while following the title’s development in the comics and mainstream press over the past several months was that evaluations of the work would be so overwhelmingly focused on those aspects of the character and the comic that they could only be discussed in those terms and within that context.

Wilson is in a unique and challenging creative space. On one hand, she is tasked with presenting the new Ms. Marvel’s distinct cultural heritage as an important part of her make-up, but on the other, she has to ensure that Ms. Marvel isn’t seen by the readership-at-large “only” as a Muslim or Pakistani-American superhero or that the comic is only trading on the charm of the novel and unfamiliar.

Anyone familiar with Marvel’s publishing history will know that the new Ms. Marvel isn’t Marvel’s first attempt at a Muslim superhero, or even its first attempt at a young female Muslim superhero. There was the mutant teenager Dust (real name Sooraya Qadir), introduced by Grant Morrison and Ethan Van Sciver in 2002 in New X-Men #133. One could say that giving a superhero from Afghanistan the codename “Dust” and the mutant superpower to turn her body into a sand-like substance is rather quite emblematic of the frequently well-meaning but wrong-headed and unintended ethnic, cultural, and religious stereotyping that goes on in many superhero comics, but it was progress at the time, and even quite bold, given the timing of the character’s introduction. (That Dust’s abaya is sometimes drawn by comics artists as a form-fitting black dress is representative of a different species of issues that pertains to how women are portrayed in superhero costumes in general.)

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The topic of religion is addressed in Ms. Marvel, but it is not “a comic about religion” by any stretch of the imagination.

What sets the new Ms. Marvel apart from Dust is that one would think that the former contains a sort of substance to her design and writing that just can’t be found in the latter as she’s been written so far. Kamala Khan was created with the input of Marvel Comics editor Sana Amanat—who is of Pakistani heritage—and Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson is a practicing Muslim, born in the New Jersey environs that serves as the comic’s initial setting, and she lived and worked as a journalist in Egypt for several years. Now, I’m not claiming that only a woman writer would be able to write a credible female character (Greg Rucka’s work is one of many counterexamples to dispute this statement) nor am I asserting that only Muslim writers can write credible Muslim characters or anything else to that effect. That said, I don’t think anyone can argue with the reasoning that certain authentic insights about life as a female Muslim in America and life as the child of immigrants in America will probably come easier to a female American Muslim writer working with a Pakistani-American editor than to a creative team that isn’t directly informed by the same cultural experiences. Ms. Marvel is a work-for-hire comic featuring a new character that is, when you get right down to it, simply another addition to Disney/Marvel’s portfolio of corporate properties, but it also feels like an earnest, emotional, and culturally immediate work.

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Kamala’s concerns and problems mirror that of most any other teen.

Where Wilson really succeeds in her writing of the first issue of Ms. Marvel is that she is able to present Kamala’s journey towards self-realization as being—somewhat paradoxically—both personal and not being all that different from that taken by teens everywhere, regardless of their gender, religious affiliation, or ethnicity. Kamala is at that stage in her young life when she is testing the boundaries set by her parents with regards to her social life, questioning the rules she grew up with, and she’s in the middle of the messy, messy task of finding out just who she is and defining who she wants to be. Kamala feels awkward and she simply wants to belong—she’s tired of being  the only person in her class whose mother packs her pakoras for lunch—but at the same time, she doesn’t want to become just like everybody else. Anyone who is currently navigating the turbulence of adolescence or has successfully passed through its trials and emerged into adulthood can relate to those types of issues. Even a seemingly Muslim-specific issue played for laughs like the opening sequence that has Kamala obsessing over the “delicious infidel meat” that is bacon will resonate with readers who’ve grown up with strict dietary restrictions for nutritional, ethical, or religious reasons.

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I do wonder how the character will fare under the pen of a different writer or under the guidance of a different editor, as will inevitably happen for a work-for-hire property. As of right now, however, in Kamala Khan, Wilson, Alphona, and Amanat have successfully updated for contemporary times the classic Marvel Comics “underdog teen superhero” template first introduced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Peter Parker. One could probably say that their creation, in its own little way, reflects the zeitgeist.

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