Ms. Marvel and the Rise of the Muslim Superhero in America

Umberto Eco argued that Superman, from the character’s inception in the 1940s through about 1970, was a politically conservative figure. The stories were about protecting property and combating petty crime, rather banal stuff given the character’s powers. The character was opaque and unchanging (i.e. the stories are plot-driven adventures, not character-driven).

Art by Adrian Alphono

Hugh Fox has argued, correctly, I think, that Eco’s treatment was true of the DC comic book house style through about 1970, but that comic books changed in the 1960s under the impact of Stan Lee (Stanley Lieberman) of Marvel Comics, who introduced more character-driven plots, with anti-heroes and angst. Other writers, such as Roy Thomas (whose BA was in education with a concentration on English and History), took up such themes. And, of course, underground comics and in-house experimental artists and writers such as Jim Steranko and Neal Adams challenged the older opaque-conservative style explored by Eco. In fact, Adams and Dennis O’Neil in some ways transfered the trope of the unchanging opaque character to the neo-Orientalist villain Ra’s al-Ghul (Arabic for the head of the ghoul) in the 1970s and after.

More character-driven stories required colorful characters and leant themselves to exploration of changing, multi-cultural America, with the introduction of African-American, gay, Native American and other characters and cultures different from the essentially British-American (Kent, Parker, Rogers, Stark) white male icons of the golden age. Comic books chronicle American popular culture and as such reflect large changes in society such as the post 1965 changing ethnic character of the nation.

So what could be more natural than for Marvel Comics to reboot Ms. Marvel, the Roy Thomas character that served as an homage to the old Captain Marvel, he of the Shazam!, as a Pakistani-American teenaged girl from New Jersey named Kamala Khan? Muslim-Americans probably amount to some 6 million, and 90 percent of them are first and second-generation immigrants of the post-1965 wave. Pakistani-Americans along with Indian-Americans (the latter both Hindu and Muslim) are the wealthiest and best-educated immigrant groups in the country. Marvel editor-in-chief Alex Alonso said, “(Kamala) ‘s a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who is trying to figure out who she is and trying to forge an identity when she suddenly bestows great power and learns the great responsibility that comes with it.” The Marvel press release also said, “Kamala has all of her opportunities in front her and she is loaded with potential, but her parents’ high expectations come with tons of pressure,” Marvel describes. “When Kamala suddenly gets powers that give her the opportunity to be just like her idol, Captain Marvel, it challenges the very core of her conservative values.”

Interestingly, a Muslim-American has a creative role in the new project, pointing to the multi-cultural character of enterprises such as Marvel Comics itself. Jesse Schedeen notes,

“Series editor Sana Amanat spoke about Kamala’s palce in the Marvel Universe, saying, “The inspiration for the new Ms. Marvel series stemmed out of a desire to explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective and yet, this story isn’t about what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani or American. Those are just cultural touchstones that reflect the ever changing world we live in today. This is ultimately a tale about what it means to be young, lost amidst the expectations bestowed upon you, and what happens when you get to choose.”

The attention to identity issues and the power-responsibility nexus signals the post-Eco Marvel understanding of character. Kamala is more Peter Parker than Clark Kent. The further language about “parents’ high expectations” plays on stereotypes of Asian-Americans (a la Tiger Mothers) and the reference to “conservative values” likewise pigeon-holes Muslims as inevitably conservative, ignoring the vital leftist, secular, gay and avant-garde subcultures among Muslims.

We haven’t seen an exemplar of the comic, due in February. But here are some initial concerns. First of all, Marvel did not give her a Muslim first name. Kamala is from the Sanskrit, and is one of several words in that language referring to the lotus flower. (It is unrelated to the Arabic Kamal or “perfection.”) Pakistani Muslims have a South Asian heritage and will give Sanskrit-derived names such as Kamala to their children, but I suspect that it is more common among secular-minded families than among “conservative” ones. It will also be interesting to see how they deal with veiling (unlike in the Arab world, you can’t really take wearing a head scarf as a proxy for telling whether South Asian Muslim women are conservative).

It could also be argued that choosing a female Muslim character is less challenging for American popular culture than a male. Gayatri Spivak pointed to the colonial trope of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” America is clearly looking for a “liberal” Muslim woman hero a la Malala Yousafzai as a counterpoint to extremist patriarchal Muslims of the Taliban sort. Would America be as ready for a pious Muslim-American male hero?

You wonder if the authors will allow themselves to be influenced by Muslim diaspora graphic novels such as Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” or by Naif Al-Mutawa’s The 99, a post-9/11 reimagining of the Muslim superhero with universal humane values. One suspects that Marvel will also feel the heat from the hateful Islamophobic network of Richard Mellon Scaife and Rupert Murdoch along with their foot soldiers such as Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes.

Along with Aljazeera America and the president’s annual Iftar (fast-breaking) dinner with Muslim Americans during Ramadan, Ms. Marvel’s advent signals the further Americanization of the Muslim-Americans, naturalizing them alongside Catholic-Americans, Buddhist Americans and Jewish Americans as part of the tapestry, if marked by difference from the latent Protestant ‘natural’ identity of the country unconsciously imputed by many American authors.

On the other hand, ethnic female stardom has often been a means for the assertion of acceptability or “whiteness” of immigrant groups, as Diane Negra argues.

24 Responses

  1. I’m eager to see what Marvel does with her, and how she’ll interact with the others. Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. Just a quick correction:

    “So what could be more natural than for Marvel Comics to reboot Captain Marvel, he of the Shazam!, as Ms. Marvel”

    The Captain Marvel you are referring to is owned by DC comics, there are actually 2 different Captain Marvels. The Shazam one is owned by DC comics, and the Marvel one (who was an alien who became a hero on Earth).

    The character of Ms. Marvel is a separate Marvel comics character, who was a white Woman, who has now taken up the mantle of Captain Marvel, leaving the Ms. Marvel identity available, and I am sure there are probably some copyright reasons for reusing the Ms. Marvel title as well.

    • Thanks so much, Waseem. But I still think that the Ms. Marvel character created by Roy Thomas was sometimes referred to as Captain Marvel and is clearly a Silver Age homage to the Golden Age icon.

      • TBH, I am not to familiar with Ms. Marvel, most of what I know of the character, are from some of her guest starring in X-men comics, so you are probably right.

      • Think it all you want, but it’s incorrect. Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers) was a Major in the USAF when she got her powers, and was never referred to as Captain anything until the 2012 series. She was always meant as an spin-off to Marvel’s Captain Marvel (Mar-vell), but none of them had any connection to Fawcett/DC Comics’ Captain Marvel (Shazam).

        If you want a character inspired by the golden age Captain Marvel (Shazam), look no further than Miracle Man (Marvel Man in the UK) and the legal issues that surround him. In fact it was legal issues between Fawcett and DC that resulted in Fawcett Comics having to cease publication on the title due to similarities to Superman. Since Fawcett cancelled the title as a result of this, Marvel saw an opportunity and started publishing a comic under that title (it was their company name after all) and in order to remain in the clear legally, the character was intentionally made as different from both Superman and Shazam as possible. When DC eventually licensed Shazam from Fawcett Comics in 1972 (leading to a full ownership by the ’90’s) they couldn’t call the book Captain Marvel due to Marvel publishing a title by that name, so they had to call it Shazam! The character was still referred to by that name within the book and by other characters however.

        Do a little research maybe.

        Also, don’t you think it might be important to give the actual name of the Muslim creator working on the new Ms. Marvel? G. Willow Wilson deserves to be named. It might also be mentioned that she became a Muslim by choice, and was not born as one.

        And your title is rather misleading. Why don’t you wait for the book to actually be published before we call it the “rise” of anything. You’ve also ignored the dozen or so already existing Muslim characters in comics, including a Green Lantern, an international ally of Batman, and at least one X-Man.

        Again. Research.

        And this doesn’t require a complex knowledge of comic book history or anything. I would just think that if the term “Muslim Superhero” was in the title of this article you might have googled it.

        As Informed Comments go, this one’s pretty uninformed.

        • I’m grateful for the detailed comments, which, however, seem to me to address a small part of my posting, which was about the significance of the launch for American culture.

          I called Ms. Marvel an homage to Captain Marvel, and she certainly was, which you implicitly acknowledge by bringing up the potential copyright issues.

          I hyperlinked to my sources, which appeared just after the Marvel press release, and they did not at that time mention Ms. Wilson by name. Subsequent reporting has highlighted her, which is all to the good. It is often the case that my pieces are ahead of the news curve and naturally later reporting is fuller with regard to some details.

          Ms. Marvel will be the first Muslim-American superhero with her own comic book, which is what my title refers to and I would defend it. I was aware of the Green Lantern Muslim and Dust; they don’t have the same significance as this title.

    • It’s even more complicated than that. Wikipedia can set you straight, but suffice it to say that the Roy Thomas CM (a pacifist alien named “Mar-Vell”) may have resembled the Golden Age “Shazam” character in a few respects, including his name, but was otherwise unrelated. A female spinoff, Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers), was introduced in the 1970’s. Some felt the name to be too retro, so she was renamed several times (Binary, Warbird). At the same time, other writers liked the name “Ms. Marvel,” and either reversed the switch, giving it to her back, or assigned the name to separate characters (google “She-Thing” for another example). Meanwhile, Mar-Vell died of cancer in the 1970’s, and his name was reassigned to an unrelated black woman (Monica Rambeau, later renamed Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum), then to his son, and recently to (drum roll) Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel. The idea behind her and Capt. Monica is that women can be “Captain” too. However, rather than abandon the name “Ms. Marvel,” Marvel (the company) assigned it to another, new, unrelated heroine with shape-shifting powers (hence the big hand in the picture).

      Her creation came on the heels of DC’s (DC is the rival company which owns Superman and Batman) creation of a Muslim (and male) Green Lantern. (Note that there are various human members of the Green Lantern Corps, and that an alternate-earth GL, who is not a member of the Corps. but has an identical superhero name, has been revealed to be gay.) But the first Muslim superhero in the West may be the Arabian Knight, from the 1970’s. He was an Egyptian archeologist with a magic carpet and a scimitar.

      • Or if that’s too confusing–the Roy Thomas “Mar-Vell” Capt. Marvel is dead, Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers) is now Capt. Marvel, and a new character is now Ms. Marvel.

  3. Superman was most certainly NOT a conservative character in his first 3 or 4 years! He became one in the 50s, though thoae stories were less about petty crime and more about high concept scifi and nostalgia. In his first appearance, Superman fights a war lobbyist, breaks into the governor’s mansion to prevent an unjust execution, and fights a man who was beqting his wife. During his first few appearences, he also helps miners gain more working rights and fights the national guard, forcing them to replace slums with affordable housing because he decides the reason for juvenile delinquency is because they don’t have affordable good housing in the city. Superman comics also became staunchly anti-death penalty later on.

    Kudos to Marvel!

  4. The confusion over Captain Marvels is common, due to past copyrights. The lightning insignia is similar to Shazaam!(The original Captain Marvel, DC’s), however that lightning costume was adopted much later on by Ms Marvel and no one’s claimed if it was inspired or linked.

    I don’t think South Asian based names as opposed to Arab, or even Persian, names would necessarily tell one how conservative or secular a Pakistani family could be if they had named their daughter Kamala Khan as opposed to a Ayesha Khan.

    The character’s family will be portrayed as traditional or conservative though, with the brother especially right-wing, who may either be setup as someone who’ll turn around eventually or end up being her nemesis. Can see how there’ll be a good deal of national, religious, ethnic stereotypes touched on here on top of the feminist contrasts of former and current Ms Marvels.

    There were male Muslim superhero characters in both DC and Marvel comics, though she maybe the first in the Marvel line to have her own title and the first Muslim female to have her own major mainstream comic title.

    A Lebanese American held the Green Lantern title not too long ago, but I guess he wasn’t a permanent replacement for Hal Jordan nor had any conservative leanings. There was a French-Algerian superhero versed in Parkour who was part of Batman Inc, which drove Islamophobes nuts when discovered, though I don’t know what his leanings were. There was an Afghan Muslim conservative female superhero, codenamed Dust, who was part of one of the X-men groups (New Mutants?) too. There were Indian origin characters, a part sentinel heroine and a mutant expert female scientist, who were part of the X-men comics too. Been a long time…!

  5. Let’s not forget there was a black female incarnation of Captain Marvel for a time as well named Monica Rambeau. She was around for a brief time, led the Avengers, then basically faded into the background under different names. She reappears on occasion, but is no longer a significant character.

    I do not think this new character will last. Marvel trying to sell female characters alone has been met with rare success, but even then for a limited time before they feel the need to cancel the title. Adding an unknown Muslim like this will be a bigger hurdle. Some feel she should have been introduced as a member of teams like Young Avengers or New Warriors before giving her a solo title. It does not help that there seems to be a Saturday morning cartoon aspect to this, so not sure what audience Marvel is aiming for, adults or kids, as I’ve not read all articles yet. In promo photos there appears to be a porcupine character having Hulk hands – ??? Go figure. I think it will be interesting at first with curiosity driving initial sales, but then she’ll fade away like Rambeau in the end. I appreciate Marvel’s attempt here, but this seems like it needs to have been thought through more. Hopefully, Professor Cole’s mention will give her more of a chance, but Marvel has to ultimately make it pay off creatively, financially, for women, for Muslims, and comic/graphic novel fans to succeed. Good luck!

  6. I was thinking that a non-super hero called “Sloth-man” would effectively capture our national psyche.

    Whatever the danger (global warming, peak oil, bad music), Sloth-man would stand on the sidelines, wringing his hands, slowly, until the danger had passed, or had overtaken us all.

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