AS I beheld the new book, I became nervous — as in really apprehensive, sweaty-palms nervous. I knew that it would be so easy for its creators to get this book wrong — and so difficult for them to get it right. Why? Because the heroine of this new book, which made its debut yesterday, is highly uncommon — even for the comics world. She’s a 16-year-old superhero who is Pakistani American. And she’s Muslim.
Let’s be real: The word “Muslim” has certain connotations attached to it. We all know what they are, and when you say “Muslim girl,” you’ve now got a whole different set of misconceptions.
And when you say, “Muslim girl who is a comic-book superhero,” well, people’s antennae tend to go up. And I say that as a young woman who is Muslim. And Pakistani American. And who reads graphic novels and grew up on the X-Men.
The debut is part of a larger women’s “Characters and Creators” initiative — which, in and of itself, is remarkable in an often male-centered comic-book world — yet media attention focused on Ms Marvel when the New York-based publisher announced that Kamala Khan would inherit the mantle of the old Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers (now the hero of Captain Marvel).
“People are trying to find something controversial in it,” Sana Amanat, the book’s Pakistani American editor, said in an interview.
Amanat came up with the idea for Kamala Khan after telling a story about her childhood to friend and fellow Marvel editor Steve Wacker.
Members of the news media “want to know if we’re going to be talking about the oppression of women,” Amanat said. “I’ve had a lot of questions about whether we are going to be changing the face of Islam.”
Marvel editors insist they’re not trying to make a political statement. Editor in chief Axel Alonso, who spearheaded the enormously successful Marvel NOW! initiative, sees Kamala as a natural entrant into Marvel’s comic-book universe.
“She’s a teenager and she’s struggling to find her own path,” Alonso said. “She’s imbued with great power and she learns the responsibility that comes with it. That’s a universal story.
The fact that she’s female and first-generation American, continuously struggling with the values and authority of her parents, gives the story extra nuance, but it’s a universal human story.”
As a Pakistani American woman, I can relate to Kamala. As a kid living in an isolated desert town, the most diversity I saw in my media was Claudia Kishi, the Japanese American girl from The Baby-Sitters Club. At age 10, or even 15, it would have meant the world to me to see a Pakistani girl portrayed positively, let alone as a comic book superhero.
When I first read the news about Kamala, I was excited. Then my natural paranoia set in. How would Marvel tell this story? Would they make Kamala ashamed of her background or religion? Would they make her strong and independent enough? Would they stereotype her?
Even if Kamala’s creators managed to avoid the obvious missteps, would they tell a good story? What if they focused so much on being politically correct and sensitive that they lost the magic that every superhero story needs to catch on?
When I asked myself what I’d want to see in a comic about a Pakistani superhero, the first word that came to mind was “relatable.” But I also wanted Kamala to be familiar to everyone.
Because it’s not just the lonely, comic-book-loving Pakistani teen who needs a hero like Kamala. It’s the people who look at that teen and only see a Muslim or a Pakistani instead of a whole person.
Somehow, the new Ms Marvel managed to be everything I wanted her to be. We meet a 16-year-old girl living in Jersey City, N.J. with her family. She’s a fan of Captain Marvel and has a thing for sniffing BLTs.
She’s trying to find her place in the world, survive high school and not tick off her parents.
When she encounters a creepy, otherworldly mist, her life changes and we have the setup for her eventually becoming Ms Marvel.
Kamala comes off as sweet, conflicted and immensely relatable. She could be a Latina or an African American, a descendant of Chinese immigrants or a blonde Daughter of the American Revolution.
Her struggles will be familiar to anyone who has tried to figure out where they belong.
—By arrangement with the Washington Post