New characters in the Marvel and DC Comics universes almost always have the odds stacked against them, contending with the likes of Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America and so on. These are characters with decades of stories and fan bases which major comic book companies rely on for sales but whose rehashed exploits have become stale.
Furthermore, not all comics readers are straight white males anymore and might not identify with these characters. “There is more representation of dinosaurs than Muslim women in comics,” an employee at Fantastic Comics on Shattuck remarked when talking about the lack of diversity in superhero comics. This lack of inclusivity has gotten to the point where some online comics communities have outlined ways to make comics more diverse and representative. While DC Comics has taken significant steps backward in this regard, Marvel has, over the last few years, responded to this call for more representation by announcing titles starring female heroes and all-female teams, heroes of color and LGBT heroes.
Marvel’s latest character in this initiative is 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim American teenager Kamala Khan, star of the series “Ms. Marvel,” written by Muslim American author G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona. The series was inspired by conversations between Marvel editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker about Amanat’s Pakistani American upbringing.
The first issue opens with Kamala staring longingly at a BLT sandwich in a cafe before school, lusting over the “delicious infidel meat” (as she calls it). Perky, blonde classmate Zoe walks in, commenting on Kamala’s friend Nikia’s hijab (“I mean, nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Nobody’s going to, like, honor-kill you?”).
We then learn more about Kamala: her obsession with The Avengers, her wildly popular fanfiction and, above all, her desire to fit in with other kids. However, her conservative Muslim family prioritizes tradition over trying to assimilate into American culture, which gets in the way of that desire.
Later in the issue, as Kamala is walking home from a party she snuck out to attend, a mysterious haze manifests, knocking her out. Waking up, she hallucinates that she is face-to-face with Captain America, Iron Man and her hero Captain Marvel, all speaking Urdu, a predominant language in Pakistan. They point out how she denies her culture by wanting to be like the other American kids, and she tells them her dream to be awesome and butt-kicking while wearing a “politically incorrect costume” (as Kamala calls it) and “giant wedge heels,” stereotypical hallmarks of female superhero costumes. Captain Marvel grants this wish but warns Kamala that “it’s not going to turn out the way you think.”
As a first issue, “Ms. Marvel” does a decent job of introducing Kamala and her world. Wilson successfully writes an interesting character that draws readers in, but dialogue can be clumsy at times in portraying Kamala and her family and friends. Zoe’s comment about the hijab, as well as a later comment about Kamala “smelling like curry,” for example, don’t sound like things someone would actually say. It’s clear that Wilson is making a point about the ignorance most Americans have about Muslim traditions, but those lines just feel awkward and artificial. That doesn’t detract much from Kamala’s struggle as a teenager torn between two worlds, though.
“Ms. Marvel” proves that comics are finally moving in a positive direction. While there is still work to be done — Marvel’s best selling series still focus on white, male superheroes — at least Marvel is listening to fans. Characters like Kamala need to be more common in mainstream superhero comics, because fans want this and publishers need this — if they want to keep their readers.
Youssef Shokry covers literature. Contact him at [email protected].