With its 6th printing under its belt the new incarnation of Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan, is clearly a giant hit. Its phenomenal reception has resulted in numerous articles praising its diversity and likeability. Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic writes ‘changing shape doesn’t mean that Kamala erases her ethnicity, nor, in the way of Superman, that she is forever split between nebbish and overman. Rather, in Ms Marvel, shape-changing seems to suggest that flexibility is a strength. Kamala is a superhero because she’s both American and Muslim at once. Her power is to be many things, and to change without losing herself.’ This is the crux of why Ms Marvel works so well; she has intersections up the wazoo (a Pakistani-American daughter of immigrants, Muslim and female) but the character and plot developments are masterfully balanced between embracing her difference without erasing it or tokenising it.
As a Pakistani-English daughter of Muslim immigrants there’s a few things about Ms Marvel that make it the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. There are quite a few great articles about why Ms Marvel is the bomb (including The Aerogram’s regular reviews) so I don’t feel like I need to do much in the way of talking about how great Ms Marvel is, but I’m going to give a shot at explaining why Kamala is so important.
Ms Marvel #1
The dinner table scene – Kamala has already been shown at home and with her friends. There’s no quicker way to humanise characters than to show their relationships at home and with friends. It automatically positions the reader on ‘her’ side and thus normalises everything about the panels: their clothes, their food, their house, THEM. The story here is not the ‘strangeness’ of what these people are doing but exploring who they are and the plot. There’s enough there to make it relatable (to the white, non-Muslim, non-immigrant reader) with an argument at the dinner table about staying out late. The bit about seeing boys, thinking about Allah and the praying are specific to Kamala, her family and their religion. Differences aren’t whitewashed and they aren’t caricatured; they’re woven into the narrative, a part of who Kamala is but not the sum total. To be quite honest, this is the scene that made me cry – I’ve had this argument with my parents because it’s almost a universal argument. Especially in the comics world – kid gets antsy, argues for more freedom, sneaks out. It’s as much a staple of comic book convention as Mary Jane staying dead but the difference here is who is doing the sneaking out.
Marvel have had Muslim characters before, but to have a Pakistani Muslim American girl is goddamn revolutionary. Kamala sitting at her desk and questioning why she has to be different is central to her character development. I’m not used to seeing Pakistani-or, let’s face it, just brown characters. ‘Pakistani’ is not a cultural capital in the ascendancy, with most characters being terrorists, rapists, raped, fundamentalists. The women are usually plot devices, if there at all, but here is a comic book from the foremost comics publisher with a brown girl as the hero. A brown girl that gets to struggle with normal teenager stuff (read: white teenager stuff) and her superpower is built on wanting to change how you look.
The final page of #1 with Kamala as white, blonde and tall didn’t have me worried the first time I read it. There were a few Tumblr posts about possible whitewashing or just complete confusion at the time of publication. But, I get it. I just get it. The plot of the first issue especially is one that I feel I have literally been waiting all my life to see (I have a tendency towards hyperbole, but, disclaimer: I mean it. In this post, I mean it all). Wanting to be white is written into your existence if you aren’t white and I still can’t quite believe that G. Willow Wilson went there. Not including this comic series, exactly four media products have made me cry in the last few years (Toy Story 3, NBC’s Hannibal [out of disgust still counts], Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and The Dew Breakers by Edwidge Danticat). So I’m not a frequent crier, but add Ms Marvel to the mix and I’m bawling any time I go near it. It’s a shock to see yourself represented, it’s a shock to see a character having a carbon copy of a conversation you’re continuously having with people and it’s certainly a shock to see yourself represented in a resoundingly positive manner.
Ms Marvel #2
‘It’s almost like a reflex. Like a fake smile. Like I have to be someone else. Someone cool. But instead I feel small.’
If this comic series needs to demonstrate, amongst the funny scenes, heart-striking topic choice, well-rounded characters and carefully thought out plot developments, that it is actually well written and produced? The showing, and not the telling. Kamala’s polymorph powers underpin her whole identity, especially considering the fact that at least initially she is able to control them based on what she feels and what she needs. She FEELS small just hearing Zoe’s voice but she NEEDS to save her because she’s a decent person. It’s not the most groundbreaking moment in the issue but it is the most heartwarming.
The groundbreaking moment itself comes with Kamala quoting an Ayat from her Dad (which also happens to be my favourite but nbd). Nothing I’ve come across deals as well with representing Islam within the context of the events of 9/11, the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the various sanctions against Muslims. Ms Marvel is, for obvious reasons, not the vehicle for blindingly positive representations of Islam but it still manages to isolate an inspiring, meaningful quote from the Qur’an in full knowledge of the context in which it is said. Compare that quote with the current push to have Muslims pre-emptively insist they’re not terrorists or sleeper agents of Islam. Many Muslims have had to explain why suicide bombers and rewards of virgins are not from the Qur’an or any respected Islamic source. And here comes Ms Marvel with a well-chosen Ayat that not only demonstrates Kamala’s motivation to help but also that a Muslim only needs to prove herself to herself.
Ms Marvel #3
Sitting in a mosque, bored. Not everything is devotion to Allah. Kamala asking about the lack of segregation for women during the Prophet’s time is a development of Islam as many-faceted. Nakia, having been shown wearing a scarf and insisting on people using her full name, is just as bored as Kamala. The girls boredom has a reason – a middle aged man lecturing two young girls about segregation is rarely going to have the desired effect. Their boredom, however, doesn’t mean they’re rejecting their religion or having a secular awakening. Instead, they’re demonstrating their appreciation of different interpretations of Islam as well as the reality that sometimes, it’s super boring to listen to Islamic lectures. Multi-faceted Islam is another innovative element of this comic; demonstrating that different interpretations exist is invaluable in the representation of Islam in popular media.
Kamala sitting in a high school changing room panicking about being able to control her own body is A PUBERTY NARRATIVE FOR THE BROWN GIRL. Some Girls’ Saz has her awakening sexuality as a prominent arc in season two of the show and seeing the classic puberty-superhero analogy with Kamala, as well as the don’t-be-like-your-mum (even literally) fear manifests. (For another classic brown-girl-puberty-narrative Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is pretty great at that. I’m completely convinced that the song ‘Mere Khawabon Mein’ is about a similar puberty storyline).
Yet another brilliant moment is Kamala getting a telling off from her mum. In Urdu. With no translation. ]screenshot] Sometimes, if you’re not William Wordsworth, texts aren’t written to be universally understood. Universally appreciated, sure, it’s possible. But universal understanding is not going to happen, for the simple fact that humans are not all the same. We are all special snowflakes, with the proviso of clumps of special snowflakes that sort of look the same. It’s significant that there is no translation because it’s a little shout out to people that do know Urdu, a little bit of ‘Hey, you, I see you’ that is invaluable.
Ms Marvel #4
Kamala uses a burkini as the basis of her costume. I have no point about the synthesis of Islam and immigrant life to make here, that shit is just straight up hilarious.
Ms Marvel #5
Something as simple as Kamala wanting her mum brings her mother into focus. She remains a side-character for our hero to bring to her life; this is an infinite improvement on the peripheral Muslim mother who either frets in worry for her sons or enables their terrorism. Kamala’s mother seems, until now, to be concerned and annoyed with her daughter – as any mother would be if their kid started sneaking out, wearing a burkini and emptying the fridge. Having Kamala frequently state what both her parents taught her fleshes them out as humans. That seems to be a pretty standard writing 101 comment but, once again, context is key. Kamala’s parents aren’t demonised for their restrictions on their daughter; the fact that they are able to have the odd scene here and there in which they communicate with her and focus on building her character is not only excellent parenting, but excellent parenting from Muslim Pakistani immigrants. How many times have you seen that happen before?
Kamala’s realisation that she needs to be the best version of herself, instead of a ‘watered down’ another is a nugget of parenting gold wrapped up in a comic. For me, great writing has shades and from where I’m standing the shades I can see make this specific panel a ‘representation matters’ message in action. If you are Muslim, and an immigrant, or a second-generation immigrant, or brown, or a woman, or anything else that isn’t typically considered normative – it needs to be communicated in some way to you that you are valid and that you are seen. That is exactly why representation matters, so you can become visible. (I would have given anything for 10 year old me to be able to read this comic and see myself staring back at me. Or, at least, 23 year old me can see that and 23 year old me is able to appreciate it) Kamala’s very superpower is a manifestation of racial issues, religious issues and, amongst other things, issues that come with being an immigrant. She gets to change herself into anybody or anything she wants to be and what she chooses to do is suit up and save people because ‘good is not a thing you are, it’s a thing you do.’ I mean. Can I get a woop woop?
Ms Marvel #6
Kamala is told by her father to visit Sheikh Abdullah for a ‘talk’ and she assumes that the Sheikh will lecture her about boys and advise her to stop lying to her parents. Instead, he says ‘If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about, do it with the qualities befitting an upright young woman. Courage, strength, honesty, compassion and self-respect.’ To depict a high ranking figure sitting in the mosque with a young woman and telling her to trust in her own qualities is yet another representation that trusts in the individuality of the role. The Sheikh is not a central figure but his influence is kind-hearted and well-meaning without patronising Kamala or questioning her choices. Just as the Sheikh preaches caution without restricting Kamala, Kamala herself can think his lectures boring and also take his advice as a respected member of their community. These are not quirks or contradictions, but nuances. Such nuance indicates the depiction of people and that is something that is noticeably missing when it comes to representing Muslim, brown and/or immigrant people.
It’s impossible to give voice to someone but it is possible to allow the space and time for somebody to be heard. Ms Marvel allows a different avenue for Pakistani, Muslim, brown, and/or immigrant people to be afforded the time, space and audience to be heard. Other people who belong to any or all of those categories have been talking for a while now but Ms Marvel’s very existence is changing the landscape of how Muslim people are represented and how we are seen. Kamala Khan is the vehicle for mass appreciation of the classic superhero trope – the humanity in the superhero is the compelling part.
Qahera, the hijabi superhero
The Washington Post’s Sabaa Tahir on ‘Why does Marvel’s latest book succeed? Because its new Muslim teen superhero is ‘sweet, conflicted and immensely relatable.’
The Guardian’s Muaaz Khan on ‘Marvel’s newest hero is a Muslim girl. Entertainment industry, take note.’
The Times of India’s interview with Ms Marvel editor Sana Amanat