What to Make of the New Muslim Superhero on the Block

“Solid female characters, not just superheroes, are essential for the Arab world at this time of unprecedented violence against women.”  — Joumana Merhej, creator of female Muslim superhero “Malaak” (quoted by Salon editor/writer Prachi Gupta)

New Ms Marvel w/ family and a friend

Copyright Marvel Comics

A Facebook friend of mine posted an article announcing Marvel Comics’ new “Muslim Girl Superhero”, which will debut in January 2014. His accompanying comment was “Explain this:”. (Not sure what there is to explain, really.) I only saw a couple of responses, and they were generally negative. Not hostile, but perhaps dubious/suspicious and pessimistic. My reflex was to retort with something similar, but as I thought about it some more, I decided it was worth a little more research before forming any opinions. So, I checked out a few more articles beyond the primary one (from the New York Times), including by Reuters, Salon, Marvel, and Al Jazeera. They were all fairly brief and mostly all the same stuff, but I was able to glean a few more facts and a couple good quotes.

The character is the brainchild of two Marvel editors, Sana Amanat (who grew up Muslim and whose experiences inspired the idea) and Steve Wacker, and the writer they brought onto the project, Muslim-convert G. Willow Wilson. Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan is a huge fan of Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (formerly Warbird, formerly Binary, formerly Ms. Marvel). So, when Kamala develops powers of her own, she pays homage to her favorite superhero by calling herself the new “Ms. Marvel” and donning a crimefighting costume reminiscent of Danvers’.

Of course, Kamala looks somewhat different than most costumed heroes (including Danvers), at least in the Marvel and DC Universes. She is a dark-skinned girl of South Asian — some definitions would include Pakistan as “Middle-Eastern” — ethnicity and, even more at issue, from a predominantly Muslim culture. Kamala herself, like her family whom she lives with in New Jersey, is Muslim. Based on the promo images (see above), the Khans seem rather Westernized in their appearance, so while “conservative”, they probably aren’t very strict. (In fact, they remind me of friends I had back in NJ, at least one of whom described himself as a “secular Muslim”.) However, her brother is described as “extremely conservative”, which may indicate he will become “radicalized” (or tempted to, anyway) in the future.

According to Amanat,

“It is so important that we tell stories that reflect the ever-changing world that we live in and being a Muslim-American is so much a part of that…. [This story] is about a young girl who is figuring out who she is and what happens when these really extraordinary things happen to her.”

Beyond the usual coming-of-age, teen angst stuff (a la Spider-Man), Wilson explains,

“[Kamala] struggles to reconcile being an American teenager with the conservative customs of her Pakistani Muslim family. So in a sense, she has a ‘dual identity’ before she even puts on a super hero costume. Like a lot of children of immigrants, she feels torn between two worlds: the family she loves, but which drives her crazy, and her peers, who don’t really understand what her home life is like.

This makes her tough and vulnerable at the same time. When you try to straddle two worlds, one of the first things you learn is that instead of defending good people from bad people, you have to spend a lot of time defending good people from each other. It’s both illuminating and emotionally brutal. That’s what makes this book different.”

Also,

“It’s for all the geek girls out there, and everybody else who’s ever looked at life on the fringe.”

That actually sounds pretty good, though I’m curious about the “defending good people from each other” line. The best comics-writing incorporates a believable portrayal of real-world, very “human” issues and conflict. This title sounds like it will have plenty to draw from, and the creative and editorial teams have a definite direction they want to take the character(s). So, color me intrigued.

The following comments are even more focused on the religion issue:

Copyright Marvel Comics

Copyright Marvel Comics

“Wilson: Islam is both an essential part of her identity and something she struggles mightily with. She’s not a poster girl for the religion, or some kind of token minority. She does not cover her hair — most American Muslim women don’t — and she’s going through a rebellious phase. She wants to go to parties and stay out past 9 PM and feel ‘normal.’ Yet at the same time, she feels the need to defend her family and their beliefs.

Amanat: As much as Islam is a part of Kamala’s identity, this book isn’t preaching about religion or the Islamic faith in particular. It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self. It’s a struggle we’ve all faced in one form or another, and isn’t just particular to Kamala because she’s Muslim. Her religion is just one aspect of the many ways she defines herself.”

My cynical side wants to read past or through what the creators say and think, “Oh, great! Another blatant attempt to push issues of ‘diversity’ and multiculturalism. Here come the not-so-subtle lessons about religious & anti-religious bigotry; bullying; the poor, misunderstood ‘radical’; yada-yada-yada…” As one commenter to the FB post reminded, most creators in the comics industry these days are of a liberal/progressive mindset, which usually means a “politically correct” take on things. Sometimes, this can manifest in an overcompensation to give Muslims not just fair, but special, treatment, emphasizing the “religion of peace” claims as if they somehow outweigh or neutralize the terrible realities. (And, yes, perhaps some people do need to be reminded that by far the majority of Muslims are not sympathetic to jihadist activity or the extreme sexism and cruelty common in certain sects.)

But, for now at least, I don’t really see much indication of a heavy-handed, politically-correct approach to Miss Khan’s story. Maybe it will crop up later, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, for now. So, I choose to remain “cautiously optimistic” in hopes that the new Ms. Marvel remains an enjoyable read, socio-culturally relevant and fair, without becoming caught up (however subtly) in PC, pro-Islam indoctrination. Maybe, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by this groundbreaking book.

UPDATE 4/20/2015: I finally got a chance to read a trade paperback (TPB) collecting the first 5 issues (plus another short story) of the Ms. Marvel series featuring Kamala Khan. I liked it! The characters and dialogue ring true… real. As expected, there is humor, action, and teenage “issues”, all reminiscent of early Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Plus, of course, there’s the whole what-is-happening-to-me-with-these-crazy-new-powers thing. But, there is also the promised struggle of being a Pakistani-American Muslim, as Kamala tries to be respectful of her parents and inherited culture, while aching to be a “normal” American teenage girl. The religious aspect is naturally woven throughout, since it is integral to her family/culture and, therefore, a big part of her identity. After reading *Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus* by Nabeel Qureshi, a real-life Pakistani-American and former Muslim of the Ahmadiyya sect, I feel I have just a little bit more insight into Eastern thinking and what it is like for many American Muslims trying to find that balance. In fact, Kamala’s home life seemed so “familiar” that I wonder if her family is also Ahmadi.

Earlier, I quoted co-creator Amanat as saying, “[T]his book isn’t preaching about religion or the Islamic faith in particular. It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self.” Based on these first few issues, that seems to be holding true. It was an entertaining read, and I look forward to (hopefully) reading additional stories about the personal and “professional” struggles of the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

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