Opinion

Why America needs Marvel superhero Kamala Khan now more than ever

Kamala Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who fights crime in Jersey City. Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

During the first few weeks of the Trump administration, we’ve seen increased pressure on Muslim and immigrant communities in the United States.

In the face of these threats, which Marvel superhero might be best equipped to defend the people, ideals and institutions under attack? Some comic fans and critics are pointing to Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel.

Khan, the brainchild of comic writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, is a revamp of the classic Ms. Marvel character (originally named Carol Danvers and created in 1968). First introduced in early 2014, Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who fights crime in Jersey City and occasionally teams up with the Avengers.

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, fans have created images of Khan tearing up a photo of the president, punching him (evoking a famous 1941 cover of Captain America punching Hitler) and grieving in her room. But the new Ms. Marvel’s significance extends beyond symbolism.

In Kamala Khan, Wilson and Amanat have created a superhero whose patriotism and contributions to Jersey City emerge because of her Muslim heritage, not despite it. She challenges the assumptions many Americans have about Muslims and is a radical departure from how the media tend to depict Muslim Americans. She shows how Muslim Americans and immigrants are not forces that threaten communities – as some would argue – but are people who can strengthen and preserve them.

Superhero-in-training

After inhaling a mysterious gas, Kamala Khan discovers she can stretch, enlarge, shrink and otherwise manipulate her body. Like many superheroes, she chooses to keep her identity a secret. She selects the Ms. Marvel moniker in homage to the first Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, who has since given up the name in favor of becoming Captain Marvel. Khan cites her family’s safety and her desire to lead a normal life, while also fearing that “the NSA will wiretap our mosque or something.”

As she wrestles with her newfound powers, her parents grow concerned about broken curfews and send her to the local imam for counseling. Rather than reinforcing her parents’ curfew or prying the truth from Khan, though, Sheikh Abdullah says, “I am asking you for something more difficult. If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about, do it with the qualities benefiting an upright young woman: courage, strength, honesty, compassion and self-respect.”

Her experience at the mosque becomes an important step on her journey to superheroism. Sheikh Abdullah contributes to her education, as does Wolverine. Islam is not a restrictive force in her story. Instead, the religion models for Khan many of the traits she needs in order to become an effective superhero. When her mother learns the truth about why her daughter is sneaking out, she “thank[s] God for having raised a righteous child.”

The comics paint an accurate portrait of Jersey City. Her brother Aamir is a committed Salafi (a conservative and sometimes controversial branch of Sunni Islam) and member of his university’s Muslim Student Association. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Bruno, works at a corner store and comes from Italian roots. The city’s diversity helps Kamala as she learns to be a more effective superhero. But it also rescues her from being a stand-in for all Muslim American or Jersey City experiences.

Fighting a ‘war on terror culture’

Kamala’s brown skin and costume – self-fashioned from an old burkini – point to Marvel Comics’ desire to diversify its roster of superheroes (as well as writers and artists). As creator Sana Amanat explained on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” last month, representation is a powerful thing, especially in comics. It matters when readers who feel marginalized can see people like themselves performing heroic acts.

As one of 3.3 million Muslim Americans, Khan flips the script on what Moustafa Bayoumi, author of “This Muslim American Life,” calls a “war on terror culture” that sees Muslim Americans “not as complex human being[s] but only as purveyor[s] of possible future violence.”

Bayoumi’s book echoes other studies that detail the heightened suspicion and racial profiling Muslim Americans have faced since 9/11, whether it’s in the workplace or interactions with the police. Each time there’s been a high-profile terrorist attack, these experiences, coupled with hate crimes and speech, intensify. Political rhetoric – like Donald Trump’s proposal to have a Muslim registry or his lie that thousands of Muslims cheered from Jersey City rooftops after the Twin Towers fell – only fans the flames.

Scholars of media psychology see this suspicion fostered, in part, by negative representations of Muslims in both news media outlets and popular culture, where they are depicted as bloodthirsty terrorists or slavish informants to a non-Muslim hero.

These stereotypes are so entrenched that a single positive Muslim character cannot counteract their effects. In fact, some point to the dangers of “balanced” representations, arguing that confronting stereotypes with wholly positive images only enforces a simplistic division between “good” and “bad” Muslims.

Unbreakable

Kamala Khan, however, signals an important development in cultural representations of Muslim Americans. It’s not just because she is a powerful superhero instead of a terrorist. It’s because she is, at the same time, a clumsy teenager who makes a mountain of mistakes while trying to balance her abilities, school, friends and family. And it’s because Wilson surrounds Kamala with a diverse assortment of characters who demonstrate the array of heroic (and not-so-heroic) actions people can take.

For example, in one of Ms. Marvel’s most powerful narrative arcs, a planet attacks New York, leading to destruction eerily reminiscent of 9/11. Kamala works to protect Jersey City while realizing that her world has changed – and will change – irrevocably.

Carol Danvers appears to fill Kamala in on the gravity of the situation, telling her, “The fate of the world is out of your hands. It always was. But your fate – what you decide to do right now – is still up to you … Today is the day you stand up.” Kamala connects the talk with Sheikh Abdullah’s lectures about the value of one’s deeds, once again linking her superhero and religious training to rise to the occasion. In both cases, the lectures teach Kamala to take a stand to protect her community.

Arriving at the high school gym now serving as a safe haven for Jersey City residents, Kamala realizes her friends and classmates have been inspired by her heroism. They safely transport their neighbors to the gym while outfitting the space with water, food, dance parties and even a “non-denominational, non-judgmental prayer area.” The community response prompts Kamala to realize that “even if things are profoundly not okay, at least we’re not okay together. And even if we don’t always get along, we’re still connected by something you can’t break. Something there isn’t even a word for. Something … beautiful.”

Kamala Khan is precisely the hero America needs today, but not because of a bat sign in the sky or any single definitive image. She is, above all, committed to the idea that every member of her faith, her generation, and her city has value and that their lives should be respected and protected. She demonstrates that the most heroic action is to face even the most despair-inducing challenges of the world head on while standing up for – and empowering – every vulnerable neighbor, classmate or stranger. She shows us how diverse representation can transform into action and organization that connect whole communities “by something you can’t break.”The Conversation

(Katie M. Logan is assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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18 Comments

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  • No thanks.

    I’m rather sick of this nonsense going on at Marvel.

    “Oh, look at all these minorities!! Let’s make it look like we care about them and give them some heroes!! Oh no, but not their own heroes!! They get hand-me-down heroes!!”

    No, screw that. If you want inclusive representation you should give the people you want to represent their OWN characters rather than just giving them some second-rate hand-me-downs.

  • Doesn’t really apply. Prior to the appearance of Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel was a horrifically written character loaded with misogynistic editorial choices. (The link below will curl your toes about how horrific comic book plots can get.)
    http://www.geekinsider.com/on-the-rape-of-ms-marvel/

    If anything it is a rehabilitation of the name. Tokenism is not a guiding principle with the current character. Fangirl enthusiasm definitely.

    A character whose first reaction to being face to face with a hulking alien dog monster (Lockjaw of Fantastic Four comics) is to hug it and take it home as a pet has to be socially redeeming. ( http://observationdeck.kinja.com/ms-marvel-8-showcases-what-makes-kamala-khan-great-sp-1634068365 )

  • Where’s her head covering? That outfit is not very modest for an observant Muslim. I don’t expect the comic to be welcome in conservative homes.

    This smacks of condescension. Let’s remake one of our superheroes to give those poor Muslims a hero of their own so they will feel better about themselves and not feel left out. A liberal habit.

  • Anyone looking for validation for their life from a comic book hero, any comic book hero/heroine, is in desperate need of psycho analysis.

  • It’s not a remake. The previous character still exists under a new superhero name. Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel. Kamala Khan is a successor, not a replacement. Plus Ms. Marvel was a very minor character without a title prior to this incarnation.

    The character very much is an original one, written by a Muslim writer, with an acknowledged recycled name. It is not like the 70’s era (ethnicity) (noun) characters.

    BTW The cape flowing behind is the head covering. She is typically depicted wearing it as such.

  • “Ms. Marvel was a horrifically written character loaded with misogynistic editorial choices.”

    ‘Xactly my point, Spud. Give the Muslims their own unique character with her own ~persona~and~identity~, in the genre where persona and identity are seen as the most important things??

    Nah, let’s give ’em this terrible character that no one really liked that much anyways.

    Could’ve made her persona, name, identity, and Faith reflected in the hero and design. Could’ve made her her own person instead of putting her in the shadow of some other person. They did not.

    She doesn’t even have similar powers to the original. Her characterization is markedly different. They could’ve easily given her her own name and alter-identity, but instead they chose not to.

  • Did you read the article? They are just recycling the name, not the character. In fact, the original Ms. Marvel got upgraded to Captain Marvel and still has her own series (and movie slated in the near future).

    Kamala Khan is their own unique character, written by a Muslim and incorporating the author’s ideas on being a Muslim American. Even the costume uses Muslim traditionalwear and runs with it. You are accusing the creators of not doing something they clearly did.

    The reuse of the name also is largely an acknowledgment of comic book fans becoming comic book writers. It is also regular practice in the medium for minor characters. The character is written as a teenage superhero fangirl. So it works thematically to take over a previous hero name.

  • Congratulations to Marvel on this new character. I’m not a comic book reader, but I get how empowering it can be to see someone who is similar on tv.

    I’m old enough to have seen endless movies and TV shows of the helpless and silly little female in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. They bore no resemblance to the women I grew up with who were strong, capable and far from silly. Finally, finally there was Mary Tyler Moore, Designing Women, Maude, Murphy Brown and others. They meant so much to me and millions of other American women, children and men. I’m sure Muslim women, children and men will feel the same about Kamala Khan.

  • Comic books are for kids. I loved comic books as a kid in spite of being a seriously advanced reader. I even had a book of Bible stories illustrated using comics. The idea of a comic book is now built into books to encourage kids who are not interesting in reading to read. And I will say the character – minus super powers – sounds like she could be one of Judy Blume’s characters – one of my favourite children’s authors. And Kamala Khan is much more of a role model for any young female compared to Betty and Veronica aka Archie.

  • A head covering is not required for an observant Muslim. That’s cultural thing, not a religious requirement.

  • Mention needs to be made of “The 99,” a Muslim comic boak series popular with Muslim kids around the world.

  • Betty and Veronica are obviously dated. My objection is not to comics per se, but your point about comics being for kids is also dated. Off brand comics are a cottage industry in the Pacific Northwest which draw a number of adult aficionados; this fact is also illustrated in the story themes of “The Big Bang Theory.” When adults forsake intelligent literature for the Twitter like nature of comics, one has cause to question their sensibilities. One could argue that we all need relief from the vicissitudes of life, but in America how many such outlets are in fact needed, beyond the multitudes already extant. As to kids, I see no harm in providing comics with ostensibly virtuous characters, but Marvel and DC have descended largely into the maelstrom of the outre’.

  • you are right in that comic books aren’t just for kids. However, as much as I also would like to see people read intelligent literature, apparently 98% of public libraries now have comic book/graphic novels sections due to demand. Given that more than 1/5th of the adult population is not able to read above a grade 5 level, then this may be a genre that meets that need. So maybe the genre needs some fleshing out. And I must confess, that I would be a minimal reader left to my own devices – either author or genre bound – without a book discussion group obligating me to read novels and non-fiction that wouldn’t have been of my own choosing.

  • Though not a member of a book discussion group, I appreciate the value they bring to understanding texts more fully because people bring different insights to what they read. I’m not particularly genre bound, though I have little taste for modern fiction.

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