On the Ms. Marvel Moment
This is the second essay published here on Mizan Pop in our Muslim Superheroes series. The first can be read here.
Marvel Comics’ Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, is having a moment right now. The character, a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim from Jersey City, was first introduced in her own ongoing series in February 2014. The series was canceled in December 2015, when Marvel restructured its entire fictional universe and, more to the point, its product line. But Kamala already stars in a new monthly series, and has a spot on the roster of Marvel’s flagship super-team, the Avengers – or at least, on one of the many teams now using that name. (She has also scored a respectable number of guest appearances in other titles.) In light of this rapid ascent, it is perhaps time both to ask why she is so popular and to consider whether or not it will last.
If Kamala’s background is meant to resemble that of any specific person, the most likely candidate is Marvel editor Sana Amanat – both are, as Amanat herself puts it in her 2014 TEDxTeen talk, short, nerdy, Pakistani-American Muslims from Jersey.
Kamala was born out of Amanat’s conversations with Marvel senior editor Stephen Wacker about her cultural experiences, and the editor teamed with popular writer (and convert to Islam) G. Willow Wilson in imagining the character fully.
From a creative standpoint, it seems that an important reason for Kamala’s existence has been a desire to represent in pop culture a type of Muslim American different from the stereotypes so common in recent years. This goal, of “reclaiming the American Muslim narrative,” is not that of Amanat and Wilson alone; groups like the Muslim Writers Collective and the Muslim Squad are trying to do something similar. As A. David Lewis and I noted in a post here on Mizan a few weeks ago, several other Muslim superheroes have been born from the same impulse. Compared to those other characters, many of whom were introduced with much fanfare, but faded from view shortly after, Kamala’s story is still developing.
One important thing to note about Ms. Marvel is that her “moment” started even before her first issue hit comic shops. Shortly after it was announced that she was going to be introduced, the Internet was abuzz: Ms. Marvel, it was soon claimed, would “shatter taboos [and] open the eyes of a new generation of comic book readers to the mostly unseen, unknown complexities of being a Muslim-American woman.”1 One writer prophesied that “[h]er very existence will enable readers to see past the ‘Muslim’ tag, into a powerful and flawed multifaceted human being [and that her introduction] gives scope to discuss how America sees power, who can access power and who has the right to be powerful.”2 Another praised Marvel for introducing the character: “She is strong, she is resilient, she is fierce, she is determined. She is Ms. Marvel.”3 And, as expected, there were those voices who spoke out against Marvel’s diversity initiative, particularly with a heroic Muslima in the works.4 All this, positive and negative, was a pretty curious response to something that had only been described in vague outlines. It should go without saying that the introduction of a nuanced, well-developed, un-stereotyped, and non-Orientalist Muslim superhero character would be cause for much celebration, but hailing Kamala Khan as that character this early could have been deemed premature.5
Conversely, Wilson was expecting some caution from Muslim Americans themselves: “People’s guard immediately goes up because often what are portrayed in the media as ‘sympathetic characters’ end up rehashing the same old stereotypes and racist baggage that all of the unsympathetic characters have reflected.”6 This type of wariness, expressed for example in an insightful article in Al Jazeera, was warranted because of historical precedents.7 In 2002, for example, Marvel had introduced the Afghani Muslim superheroine Dust. When she first appeared, Dust had to be saved by a white man. Inextricably linked to the desert, her power was the ability to turn herself into sand. The whole character revolved around praying, feeling guilty, and telling Western women that they didn’t understand her veil, which is framed almost exclusively in terms of modesty, of her hiding her sexuality. (This modesty, however, is rarely taken seriously by the writers and artists, who often engage in voyeurism and depict her in tight clothes, in her underwear, and, once, naked.) Little has changed in Dust’s portrayal since.
Today, we can say with certainty that Kamala is not another Dust. She may be similarly modest, but in a way that is both truer to the character and that includes a critique of the sexualized exhibitionism of many other superheroines. Her Muslim identity is not reduced to a single aspect. Further, she is not the only Muslim in her world; along with Kamala, we are also introduced to her hijab-clad Turkish-American friend Nakia; Kamala’s mother and father; and her brother Aamir, a self-described Salafi. This last aspect is perhaps most noteworthy, since it directly challenges an all-too-common contemporary conception of the traditionalist and reformist Salafi ideology as deeply tied to violent extremism.8 Kamala introduces the problems a young Muslim woman can face in the contemporary U.S., and her world presents, in microcosm, a (limited) view of the country’s Pakistani Muslim minority, which is also suggestive of the diversity of America’s Muslim communities more broadly.
But there is more to Kamala than “just” a corrective of Muslim American representation. Said Amanat: “Kamala Khan is so much larger than just a pop culture icon. She came together in response to that global subconscious desire for representation. For those Muslim-American, bacon-sniffing, short, nerdy girls like me. And for anyone else, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, religion, who just feel like misfits themselves.” Kamala is trying to fit in and figure out where she belongs. It is clear from how Amanat speaks of the character that a search for personal authenticity is also at the center of the representational project.
This search for broad appeal is echoed in the comics themselves. There are threads about how Kamala tries to fit in as a teenager, and the second arc – not exclusively, but particularly – has a clear theme of generational identity, unconnected with ethnicity or religion, running through it. Similarly, Wilson has noted that the series was produced to counter several stereotypes and issues of representation. “It’s not about the side boob,” she said about female representation. “It’s not about the tight costumes. It’s about real 21st-century challenges and values that women have.”9
The positive reception of Kamala that preceded even her first appearance continues to date, as she takes a larger part in the Marvel Universe. The reviews have been good and the sales have been high, suggesting that the character has broad appeal of a kind that the creators wanted. But this popularity may not be without problems.
In a survey of Ms. Marvel‘s reception, feminist scholar Miriam Kent notes that reviewers often stressed that Kamala is “just like us.” This, Kent writes, was done in a way that seemed to cast aside Kamala’s most particular aspects, as “a specific sort of outsider in terms of gender, race, religion, and nationality,” and in a way that indicated “almost a fondness for assimilation” on the reviewers’ part.10 In their hailing of Kamala’s universality, her reviewers seem to have let her specificity fall to the wayside.
Thus, one of her central characteristics, the experience from which she was born and which she is supposed to represent, becomes subsumed under a flattening discourse: “The emphasis on relatability has the effect of positing a kind of universal teen experience which critics suggested was being fulfilled by the character. Rather than focusing on the specificity of Kamala’s female-teen-American-Muslim subjectivity, critics concentrated on how the themes of the book fit into their experiences.” While it would be going too far to say that this applies across the board of Kamala’s reception, a cynical reading of this situation might ask if Kamala’s success comes because of her difference, or in spite of it?
Kamala’s moment did not come out of nowhere. She is often discussed in relation to other recent changes to the Marvel Comics lineup. In 2011, in an alternative continuity of stories labeled the “Ultimate Universe,” a black and Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales took up the mantle of Spider-Man from the white Peter Parker.11 In 2014, Jane Foster, a perennial supporting cast member in Marvel’s Thor mythos, picked up the magical hammer that for decades had given the thunder god’s power to a man.12 And in 2015, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Marvel mainstay Steve Rogers, the original and enduring Captain America, handed over his iconic red, white, and blue shield to his long-time ally, African-American Sam Wilson (formerly the Falcon). These are all noteworthy changes, which seem to signal a commitment to diversity on a scale and with a depth without parallel in Marvel’s publication history.
But it is important to note that there is a flipside to all of this. Marvel did not publish Kamala and the others for purely altruistic reasons. Comic books are an industry, a business. While the company has not done much direct consumer research (which is difficult in the industry), publisher Mark Buckley notes that they have been noticing changing demographics at comics conventions around the nation and in other areas of reader interaction.13 These new characters are a (belated) response to these changes. They are an investment, and the readership has returned it: Miles Morales’ Ultimate Spider-Man, Jane Foster’s Thor, and Kamala’s Ms. Marvel, Buckley said in January 2015, were “legitimate” and “top-selling” hits. For now, they all seem safe enough.
However, changes to this new situation might already be on their way. Just recently, Steve Rogers returned to the Marvel Universe as one of two Captain Americas.14 Rogers’ return, says writer Nick Spencer, was always going to happen, but he also says that Sam Wilson will not be “going anywhere.” Similarly, after the above-mentioned restructuring of the Marvel line, Miles Morales now shares the Spider-Man name with the original Peter Parker. That the newcomers are set to remain for the time being is encouraging, but, should industry sales start slumping, it is not hard to imagine which of the two Captains or Spider-Men will be jettisoned. (Marvel already has a history of redacting its major character changes, such as in the infamous “Clone Saga” where Peter Parker was thought to be a clone — then, in the face of poor sales, proved otherwise.)
Similarly, unless Kamala’s sales keep up once her novelty wears off, she might join the many other Muslim superheroes that have blipped on the pop culture radar in the past half-decade; not because she is without merit, but because her specificity might not be what many readers are drawn to – at least not in the long run. As Amanat said after the first issue came out, there was a concern that the character might be regarded as a gimmick.15 Further, her rapid ascent might cause Kamala-fatigue. Two years after first appearing, she is already part of a flagship title’s main cast. There is no higher honor, in Marvel circles. Barring any of this, what makes her stand out, her Muslimness in particular, might be sidelined if and when Wilson hands over writing duties to someone else. It would not be the first time a character was radically altered with a change in creative hands.
It is amazing and encouraging to see how well Kamala has held up in the two years she has been around. She has sold well, reviewed well, and even traveled from the comics pages into the real world, where she has been used in a campaign against Islamophobia in San Francisco. Still, while I hope I am wrong in doing so, I can’t help but wonder if Kamala’s moment will last (and this goes for the other characters above as well). Shortly after the first issue came out, Wilson told the LA Times that “[p]eople love to talk about new and different […] They don’t always love to buy and read new and different.”16 Fortunately, audiences seem to have proven Wilson wrong on this point. The next question now seems to be if they will allow the new and different to become part of the center, while still retaining its specificity.
MARTIN LUND is a Swedish Research Council International Postdoc at Linnaeus University, Växjö, and a Visiting Research Scholar at the Gotham Center for New York City History, CUNY Graduate Center, New York. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Lund University (no relation), as well as a Masters in Theology, History and Anthropology of Religion, also from Lund University. His current research focuses on representations of New York City in American comic books and graphic novels. His book Re-Constructing the Man of Steel: Superman 1938–1941, Jewish-American History, and the Invention of the Jewish–Comics Connection is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.
 Rula Jebreal, “Meet the Muslim Ms. Marvel: Kamala Khan’s Fight Against Stereotypes,” The Daily Beast, November 8, 2013 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/08/meet-the-muslim-ms-marvel-kamala-khan-s-fight-against-stereotypes.html).
 Shelina Janmohamed, ”Hallelujah! Even Muslim Women Can Now be Superheroes,” The Telegraph, November 6, 2013 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10430505/Even-Muslim-women-can-be-superheroes.-Hallelujah.html).
 Sabbiyah Pervez, ”Why We Should All Marvel at this Muslim Superhero,” The Independent, November 14, 2013 (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-we-all-should-marvel-at-this-muslim-superhero-8932359.html).
 Anonymous, “New Ms. Marvel is More Like Ms. Muslim,” Infidel Blogger’s Alliance, November 7, 2013 (http://ibloga.blogspot.com/2013/11/new-ms-marvel-is-more-like-ms-muslim.html).
 Martin Lund, ”Digest: Greeting Ms. Marvel Before Her Arrival,” Gods in the Gutters, December 13, 2013 (https://godsinthegutters.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/digest-greeting-the-muslim-ms-marvel-before-her-arrival/).
 Anonymous, “‘Ms. Marvel’: G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat on Kamala’s Transformation,” Hero Complex, March 27, 2014 (http://herocomplex.latimes.com/comics/ms-marvel-g-willow-wilson-sana-amanat-on-kamalas-transformation).
 Leon Moosavi, “Why Can’t Spider-Man Convert to Islam?,” Al Jazeera, November 27, 2013 (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/11/why-can-spiderman-convert-islam-20131122115933370663.html).
 Steven Zhou, “‘Salafi’ Does Not Mean ’Terrorist’: Stop Assuming That All Conservative Muslims are Violent Extremists,” Salon, December 21, 2015 (http://www.salon.com/2015/12/21/salafi_does_not_equal_terrorist_stop_assuming_all_conservative_muslims_are_violent_extremists/).
 Anonymous, “Kamala’s Transformation.”
 Miriam Kent, “Unveiling Marvels: Marvel and the Reception of the New Muslim Superheroine,” Feminist Media Studies 15 (2015): 522-527, 524.
 Michael Orbach, “Jewish Artist Kills Spider-Man, Brings Him Back to Life,” The Times of Israel, February 17, 2013 (http://www.timesofisrael.com/jewish-artist-kills-spider-man-brings-him-back-to-life/).
 Joshua Yehl, “There Was Only One Choice for Female Thor’s Identity,” IGN, May 19, 2015 (http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/05/19/there-was-only-one-choice-for-female-thors-identity).
 Andrew Wheeler, “The Books Are Selling: Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley on the Company’s Gamble with Diversity,” Comics Alliance, January 20, 2015 (http://comicsalliance.com/marvel-publisher-dan-buckley-diversity/).
 Anonymous, “Spencer Explains Steve Rogers’ ‘Captain America’ Return, Sam Wilson’s Status,” CBR, January 21, 2016 (http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/spencer-explains-steve-rogers-captain-america-return-sam-wilsons-status).
 Anonymous, “Kamala’s Transformation.”
 Anonymous, ”Kamala’s Transformation.”