With one of the “Big Two” comic publishers, Marvel, revealing their new Ms. Marvel superhero—Kamala Khan, an American Muslim woman of Pakistani descent—it is time to reflect on a rising fear of Islam that found resonance after 9/11.
Given the scope of comic book penetration worldwide, the introduction of a Muslim Ms. Marvel character carries with it great potential to challenge, or reinforce, the negative image of Muslims as the great “enemy” of the free world, replacing the old threat of Communism. Indeed, the reach and impact of comic books grew last year, after years of decline resulting from movement from traditional brick-and-mortar shops to digital sales and distribution. But still, in 2013 the US market for print comics was worth over 700 million dollars. The story for digital content was just as encouraging, with the US market for digital content more than doubling from 2011 to 2012 to top 70 million dollars and the leading digital distributor, comiXology, enjoying a broad global reach unmatched by traditional vendors.
So, what does it mean when we are asked to identify with the trials and tribulations of Kamala? We identify with Peter Parker, the archetypical teenage hero from whose cloth this new Ms. Marvel is cut, for a number of reasons: because he is picked on at school, because he has a non-existent romantic life, and because he struggles to live up to the expectations of his elders. These are all, by and large, things that could resonate with anyone. However, there are certain problems he might never face in the way his readership might. Peter Parker is a man, thus precluding dealing with problems young women might face that are specific to their gender. He is also Caucasian, precluding discussions of the problems children of different racial backgrounds might face. Of course, these issues are not ignored by writers who work in this medium, which is famous for challenging stereotypes; rather, such stories have traditionally been accessed through secondary characters like Gwen Stacy or Robbie Robertson, Peter Parker's first love and his African-American line-manager at the newspaper he works for, respectively.
In a sense, Kamala Khan comes from a great comic book tradition of subverting cultural norms. Peter Parker challenged the notion of the tall, muscular, square-jawed all-American hero, by instead being a scrawny young child who lacks confidence and people skills. Kamala Khan will now challenge the notion of white Judeo-Christian heroes and encourage Marvel's readership to understand the trials and tribulations of a different group of society, in addition to the high heroics that characterize Marvel's other outputs.
As a reflection of multiracial American society, superhero comics have long depicted characters from various non-white heritages, predominantly of African, East Asian and Native American descent, such as the legendary Goliath, Jubilee and Warpath, respectively. Kamala Khan fits comfortably into this tradition in superhero comics.
Even the depiction of different faiths, especially in a post-9/11 context, has been quite positive in comic books. Sooryia Qadir is a niqab-wearing Afghan Muslim who joined the New X-Men in 2002. That character, whose superhero alter ego is called Dust, was quite different from the new Ms. Marvel, however. In a way, Dust in 2002 was the fetishization of what it is to be a female Muslim, her superpower being the ability to turn into a sand-like substance: sand, deserts, Muslims—get it? She wore the head-to-toe covering of the niqab, and she was an oppressed Afghan teenager who was saved from slavery by the New X-Men.
Kamala Khan is different. It would appear there is nothing “exotic” about her heritage. This new Ms. Marvel instead normalizes the idea of being Muslim and being American. Her story has the potential to change what is perceived as contributory to American society. This inclusive example of a Muslim, Pakistani, female American protagonist is a step towards disarming Islamophobic images and promoting alternative conceptions of what it means to be a hero.