Muslim, Immigrant, Teenager…Superhero: How Ms. Marvel Will Save the World

It’s not often that the launch of a new comic series gets a lot of attention in the mainstream media, but Ms. Marvel #1 is an exception to the rule. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenage girl, the first Muslim superheroine, got a lot of press.

When the first issue was released earlier last month, I was eager to pick up a copy.

Comics have always been a portal into culture and society—as the zeitgeist changes, so do their narratives. While superheroines were few and far between in the early days of comics, the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s brought with it a modest number of female characters, including the first Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers.

First appearing in 1968, and debuting on her own in 1977, Ms. Marvel was meant to be, in the words of writer Chris Claremont, a “hip, happening, 70s woman striking out on her own,” from the honorific “Ms.” to her job as the editor of Woman magazine.

There was not a lot of religion in comics until the 1970s and 1980s brought an emphasis on more complex, emotional and socially-relevant issues. For example, Daredevil, introduced in 1964, did not see his devout Catholicism examined in depth until the 1986 “Born Again” story arc.

The introduction of Kamala Khan is the latest in the longstanding tradition of comic books diversifying their characters to better reflect and reach out to their audiences. More specifically, Ms. Marvel #1 is part of the All-New Marvel NOW!, an initiative with the explicit aim of attracting new readers, much like DC Comics’ The New 52 revamp.

The last few years have seen several other notable attempts at creating a more diverse comic universe, from the creation of the Jewish and lesbian Kate Kane (as Batwoman) and the Black and Hispanic Miles Morales (as Spider-Man), to the same-sex wedding of X-Men member Northstar.

Of course, these efforts were not received entirely without controversy. Some saw them as mere publicity stunts, while others decried the minority aspect as feeling forced and tokenish.

Kamala’s creators, then, faced a difficult task. She needed to be shaped by her Muslim background, but not an embodiment of all that is Islam. She needed to be more than a one-dimensional stereotype, but not completely free of cultural specificity.

Fortunately, writer G. Willow Wilson, editor Sana Amanat, and artist Adrian Alphona have created a superheroine who stands well on her own.

We first meet Kamala at her local Jersey City deli, where she stares at a BLT sandwich longingly, whispering to herself, “Delicious, delicious, infidel meat….” Throughout the issue, she’s shown to be a quirky, albeit frustrated, youth (her parents can’t seem to appreciate her Avengers fan fiction, for example) with a vibrancy that jumps off the page.

The art of Alphona and Ian Herring stands out, adding a feeling of dynamism that matches Kamala’s energy. The standard teenage narratives about peer pressure and family expectations apply, and the main conflict stems from a disagreement over whether Kamala can attend a party (naturally, she sneaks out to do so).

But Islam plays a significant role throughout the story, and to Wilson’s credit, it never feels forced.

Nakia, Kamala’s Turkish-American friend, may be the most interesting supporting character; having recently embraced her Muslim heritage, she now chooses to go by her full name, instead of her nickname Kiki, and wears a hijab despite her father’s admonitions. Similarly, Kamala’s brother Aamir seems to possess a conservative and strict view of Islam—much to the dismay of their father (“Praying is noble, but when you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something…like finding a job, for example.”).

Both stand in contrast to Kamala, who views her immigrant Muslim background as a source of frustration, the reason why she can’t be “normal” like most of her peers.

The story is compelling enough that you almost forget this is a superhero book—until the last third of the issue when a blue mist spreads across the city. The mist is in fact the Terrigen Mist, a mutagenic vapor that grants superpowers to certain individuals. It causes Kamala to dream/hallucinate a meeting with her beloved Avengers, including her hero Carol Danvers (now known as Captain Marvel), who greets her in Urdu, reciting a poem by Amir Khusro.

The meeting is a moment of self-reflection for Kamala, as she ponders who she is and who she wants to be, before her transformation into Ms. Marvel finally occurs.

It was clearly important to Wilson (a Muslim woman herself) to sort out Kamala’s identity as an immigrant, as a Muslim, and as a teenager before seeing her develop as a superheroine; a luxury many other superheroes—introduced via a hyper-efficient origin story or another comic series—do not get. The conversations about culture and religion are expositional but never stale, as they tap into an ongoing dialogue happening in many households across America.

The comic is not without its flaws: certain characters and plot points are underdeveloped, and the pacing is a bit off. But it takes rewarding chances and touches upon an impressive range of topics in fewer than 30 pages.

As with all new comics, Ms. Marvel faces an uphill battle, but if the digital sales of the first issue—and a second printing— are any indication, she will survive to fight another day.