Marvelous, Muslim, and American
Marvel Comics’ Kamala Khan
Welcome back to our post-millennial analysis of the current state of fandom. Today we discuss Ms. Marvel, a figure designed to challenge the unfortunate perceptions many have of Muslim Americans today. This graceful comic deals with issues both broad and specific with a unique perspective.
Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.
Legacy characters are hard to get right.
Just ask Gerry Conway, whose attempt at creating a replacement for the beloved Robin/Dick Grayson was so hated by fans that they literally voted to have that replacement beaten to death by the Joker [ 1 ]. To be fair, the resulting Red Hood/Jason Todd arc is pretty awesome, but it took a long time before his canon in the Bat Family became something that people enjoyed (and it took many writers and many arcs to reach that point).
When a choice made regarding a legacy character is even a little bit controversial, everyone has an opinion. One such incident began with the rebranding of Ms. Marvel as Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers was not the first attempt at a female Captain Marvel (people forget both Monica Rambeau, a black woman [ 2 ], and Phyla-Vell, who had an explicit, same-sex relationship [ 3 ], when it comes to discussions of representation for women in comics), but she has become an enduring example of a successful and well-liked character assuming a legacy mantle from another hero. After her mentor, Mar-vell (also known as Captain Marvel) dies protecting Carol, she elects to take on his name in honor of both his involvement in her life and as a tribute to his sacrifice. However, this did leave an unclaimed title now that Ms. Marvel had received a promotion.
Enter G. Willow Wilson and Kamala Khan. To say that 2013—or the entirety of the post 9/11 U.S.—was a hostile environment for Muslims would be a bit of an understatement. Yet Wilson, herself a Muslim convert and hijabi, and her editor, Pakistani Muslim Sana Amanat, saw an opportunity to create a comic starring one of the first explicitly Muslim characters in Marvel comics; while it’s true there have been other characters of varying degrees of importance, Kamala was the first to take on such a prominent and advertised role.
A Revolutionary Endeavor
The fact that Kamala even takes up the mantle at all is revolutionary. It would not have been unexpected to just leave the title of Ms. Marvel in Carol’s past; there was a tremendous push around the time that Carol became Captain to change her title, many people calling it misogynistic and demeaning to call her “Ms. Marvel” when she was not only a very powerful hero but also an established high-ranking officer in the U.S. Air Force. However, Carol’s title not only changes, her old title is bequeathed to a teenager, allowing it to belong to someone it fits and to speak to the character herself.
Kamala develops powers after being exposed to a mist that revealed her latent powers of shapeshifting. She purposely chooses to take up the name “Ms. Marvel” as a personal tribute to her heroine. In fact, she discovers her powers because she’s upset at feeling Othered, altering her physical appearance to match Carol’s because her blonde, blue-eyed form seems more comfortable and safer than Kamala’s brown Muslim one. However, Carol is emblematic of both Kamala’s stress and what eventually allows her to find a purpose and a cause she can believe in; later, reflecting on what she is going to do, Kamala’s image of Carol Danvers becomes a healing influence as Kamala uses her hero’s names and motifs to build her own persona.
This is a touching reminder of how our heroes, fictional and real, can have a profound influence on us, making it one of the most personal and believable examples of why legacy characters exist. It’s one thing to have a mantle passed down by family or a mentor, but it’s quite another to choose a mantle, and it was this conscious choice on the part of Kamala that is why she resonates so deeply with so many readers.
Adding the nuances of her brownness and her Muslim faith into the mix, Kamala is about as far from Carol Danvers as you can be. Gone is the colonel, the woman in the peak of her career given powers and a cause by a dying hero. Instead, we have a young high school girl, deciding what type of woman she wants to grow into in a world that persecutes her for the color of her skin and her faith. The best superhero comics are almost exclusively rooted in a real-world emotional core; at its heart, Wilson’s Ms. Marvel is about finding out who you are and how you fit into a wider world when you’re a little different than the rest.
Both Universal and Targeted
As universal as some aspects of the story are, there are very specific issues tied to the Muslim community that take things a step farther. Wilson’s personal involvement with Muslim America as a white American convert of course differs from Kamala’s, who is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. But her faith and experiences still lend an incredible nuance to the story and its characters. In a 2016 interview with Comics Bulletin, Wilson spoke eloquently about why she didn’t want Kamala to wear a hijab, citing the complexities many young Muslim girls feel along with a desire to avoid easy symbology, but Wilson still chose to develop a supporting cast with varying Muslim faith practices [ 4 ]. This included Kamala’s best friend, who wears a hijab, and her very religious brother. Given the tensions these characters feel regarding each other and the world they are navigating, the comic paints a complex and compelling picture of an immigrant experience that is becoming increasingly more relevant.
This also extends to the cast around Kamala as well as within her own family. Bruno, one of Kamala’s close friends, is an Italian immigrant living with extended family due to poverty and struggle. They bond over feeling like outsiders and even though Bruno doesn’t face the same sort of persecution as Kamala does, he struggles with the fact that he comes from a very poor and displaced family. While he is not the focus, he is yet another lens through which the immigrant experience can be viewed and permits the comic to spread beyond one experience into many. This is one of most successful aspects of the title, as it shows that there are many ways our culture creates outsiders. Even in the face of that we can come together, even if our experiences seem very different at first glance.
The Muslim-American Experience
Like Wilson, editor Sana Amanat is also Muslim, though they have very different experiences as Wilson is a white convert and Amanat’s family is Pakistani. An exploration of these differences is in the very DNA of the title, as Wilson and Amanat took time and care to make sure that this comic was both true to the Muslim experience and didn’t come across as proselytizing or one dimensional.
In a number of interviews, Amanat has said that while Kamala’s identity as a Muslim is very much in the forefront, preaching about Islam, or even religion in general, is not on the book’s radar [ 4 ]. Instead, it’s meant to showcase universal issues.
“It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self,” Amanat said, adding that Kamala’s “religion is just one aspect of the many ways she defines herself” [ 4 ]. This indicates how much Amanat and Wilson thought about making sure the religious aspects of her conflict were only part of the overall weave of Kamala’s story. This is a comic about trying to fit in and to belong, and that message intentionally transcends religion to make it universally applicable [ 5 ]. I found the approach tremendously successful; as a queer person, I felt a deep connection to that feeling of otherness, even though Kamala’s experiences stem from a very different place than those I’ve personally experienced.
For Wilson, telling this story was also fraught. In the Comics Bulletin interview, she recounted the extreme pressures she put herself under to develop Kamala as a character as authentically as possible. “There was no margin for error,” Wilson said, knowing that her creation would be placed under high levels of scrutiny, and this played a role in her decision to have Kamala not wear a hijab and to place her family living in a region of New Jersey where there is a strong Pakistani immigrant presence [ 4 ]. Abandoning the use of the stereotypical approach of the so-called “ideal” American Muslim, instead Wilson developed Kamala, her family, and even her friends as the type of Muslims that she saw around her in her own life. Such richness in character development paved the way for a more genuine approach to the issue of religion and faith, and the book is better for it.
Wilson credits Amanat for her invaluable aid in avoiding many of the conflicts she had encountered previously when trying to write Muslim characters. Having a fellow Muslim as an editor prevented the “almost unconscious shifting of the narrative” that non-Muslim editors exhibit, as they have a lack of any direct experience with the faith or the community. Yet even within the shared faith of Wilson and Amanat, there is a remarkable diversity of experience, allowing each of them to push and challenge each other in a way that allowed the story to expand and take on more nuance and complexity. This is, ultimately, what makes this comic so strong and so human. The diversity of perspective, both from the characters themselves and from the creative team, allows Ms. Marvel to be rooted in the real issues of identity, connection, and community, while still being fantastical, silly, and, at its core, a superhero story [ 4 ].
The choice to make Ms. Marvel both Muslim and dark-skinned resulted in a highly controversial launch. The New York Times ran an article on Kamala and protests and praise were flying thick and fast from both sides [ 6 ]. It seemed like every major news outlet had something to say, even ones that rarely covered pop culture or comics. In the end, the comic was a groundbreaking success. The first issue went into six printings, which is incredibly rare for comics, and has sold over 50,000 issues in its first printing [ 7 ].
Given that most comics hope to sell about 3,000 copies, it doesn’t take much to see that Kamala has become a bit of a phenomenon. The title was met with both critical and popular acclaim, winning awards and accolades. It was also nominated for multiple Eisners [ 8 ] in 2015, as well as winning a Hugo award. All three of the title’s trade paperback collections have appeared in the top five of the New York Times’ bestsellers list, and it still runs in the form of a solo title years later.
A Legacy Grows
The smash hit that this comic became quickly shot Ms. Marvel into a very public and established role as a prominent and popular Marvel character over the last 8 years, expanding her presence into other Marvel products beyond just the comic she originated in. She has a starring role in Marvel’s 202 Avengers video game [ 9 ] and as of May 2021 filming wrapped on a Ms. Marvel television show for Disney+ [ 10 ], which are connected to the larger MCU and are often a testing ground for smaller stories that often connect back to the larger MCU as well as influencing the comics themselves.
It’s clear from the way Marvel continues to embrace and highlight her that her success has been much broader than just a particularly well-done comics run, though Kamala certainly has had one. From appearances in animated features and mobile games to her very own show, Kamala Khan is a character with lasting impact in terms of the shaping of the Marvel Universes both comic and cinematic.
Why Kamala—and Her Success—Is So Important
So what’s the significance? For one, it’s a call to arms—the demand is there for well-written and diverse characters in comics. There is no longer room for the argument that diversity won’t sell or that no one will read comics with a new character, instead churning out yet another Wolverine comic if Marvel wants to sell comics. Ms. Marvel was a comic that exceeded all expectations and silenced all detractors by being not only critically and financially successful, but also representing a shift in the public’s view of what comics could be; if the New York Times is talking about it, there is more to it than it being just another comic.
It’s also important to recognize that a great deal of the success of the writing comes from the direct involvement of the Muslim faith as represented by Wilson and Amanat. Kamala was crafted by Muslim women and that is part of why the issues of race and religion flow so seamlessly into the story. As much as the phrase “write what you know” may be considered trite and unhelpful, it’s undeniable that more minorities and marginalized groups participating in fields like comic book creation as artists and as writers will lead to more authentic writing—and more accountable, non-minority writers.
Ms. Marvel bucked every excuse trotted out by executives for recycling the same old trite, white-male Christian heroes. It’s now up to us to make sure it’s an example that we can hold up to refute anyone who says diverse, nuanced comics aren’t worth fighting for.
Her continued success and longevity after her debut is further proof that diverse, own voice narratives in comics and beyond have, when done correctly, a wide and eager audience. This well-done series continues to be a critical, commercial and long lasting success that many creatives can look to as an example of how to update legacy characters and embrace a diverse perspective both in story and in the creative team itself.
Phyla-Vell: the forgotten Captain Marvel [ 11 ]
Kamala and Carol Danvers aren’t the only women who have been associated with the Marvel mantle. Phyla-Vell’s stint as Captain Marvel was short and unsuccessful, but her later comics during the Annihilation Cycle as Quasar were quite well written, though their failure resulted in her role getting smaller and smaller until her apparent death—though it has been teased that she is not fully dead and could be revived.
Phyla-Vell’s short career as Captain Marvel was distinguishable for her relationship with Moondragon, aka Heather Douglas. There was no teasing here—the relationship was made explicit, as was Moondragon’s own bisexuality. Their relationship is the root of some of excellent comics stories, including one where Phyla, Orpheus-like, delves into the realm of the dead to rescue Moondragon, who sacrificed her own life to do so. While some may say that Quasar and Moondragon’s fates are typical examples of the “queer tragedy” trope, the story is less about that and more about the price they both pay for their heroism, both as individuals and as a couple. Interested in learning more? The story unfolds in Annihilation: Conquest [ 12 ] and the 2008 run of Guardians of the Galaxy [ 13 ].
- “NYC FEB 19 2017: Following decades of Islamaphobia, a crowd of ~10,000 joined Mayor de Blasio in declaring: “Today I am a Muslim” at a rally.” a katz. Shutterstock. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/new-york-city-february-19-2017-586293899
- “A native of Jersey City, Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel stands proudly defending her local neighborhood, as a testament to her Pakistani and Muslim-American identity.” http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/marveldatabase/images/1/18/Ms._Marvel_Vol_3_2_Molina_Variant_Textless.jpg
Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.
- Lapin-Bertone, Joshua. “How ‘A Death in the Family’ Shook the World.” DC, 12 Oct. 2020, dccomics.com/blog/2020/10/12/how-a-death-in-the-family-shook-the-world.
- Williams, Stephanie. “Who Is Monica Rambeau?” Marvel, Marvel Entertainment, 17 Feb. 2021, marvel.com/articles/comics/monica-rambeau-in-the-comics-marvel-unlimited.
- “Quasar (Phyla-Vell) Powers, Enemies, History | Marvel.” Marvel, Marvel Entertainment. marvel.com/characters/quasar-phyla-vell. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Omer, Ardo. “Interview: G. Willow Wilson on Ms. Marvel and the Muslim-American Experience.” Comics Bulletin, 15 Nov. 2016, comicsbulletin.com/interview-g-willow-wilson-on-ms-marvel-and-muslim-american-experience.
- Gustines, George Gene. “Marvel Comics Introducing a Muslim Girl Superhero.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2013, nytimes.com/2013/11/06/books/marvel-comics-introducing-a-muslim-girl-superhero.html.
- Wilson, G W, and Adrian Alphona. Ms. Marvel: Vol. 1., 2016. Print.
- Lovett, Jamie. “2015 Eisner Awards Nominees Announced.” Comicbook.com, ViacomCBS, 6 Sep. 2017. comicbook.com/news/2015-eisner-awards-nominees-announced/.
- Wilson, Angel. “G Willow Wilson Nominated for Eisner Award for Ms Marvel.” The Geekiary, 20 Apr. 2016, thegeekiary.com/g-willow-wilson-nominated-eisner-award/32705.
- Lawler, Richard. “Kamala Khan Will Be a Main Character in the ‘Marvel’s Avengers’ Game.” Engadget, Yahoo!, 5 Oct. 2019. engadget.com/2019-10-05-marvels-avengers-ms-marvel.html.
- Walsh, Savannah, and Lauren Puckett. “Production On ‘Ms. Marvel’ Has Officially Wrapped.” Yahoo!, Yahoo!, 21 May 2021. yahoo.com/lifestyle/disney-casts-ms-marvel-disney-202600305.html.
- Abnett, Dan, Andy Lanning, Keith Giffen, Christos Gage, Michael Hoskin, Mike Perkins, Timothy Green, Mike Lilly, Tom Raney, and Wellinton Alves. Annihilation Conquest: Book One., 2018. Internet resource.
- Annihilation: Conquest Omnibus. Marvel Comics, 2007.
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, Issues 1-25. Marvel Comics, 2008.