Ms. Marvel, a well-known character in Marvel comics, has come a long way since 1968, when she appeared as a muscular, sexualized blonde superhero in thigh-high patent-leather boots. The newest Ms. Marvel is a 16-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants from Jersey City. In February 2014, Kamala Khan will be the first Muslim woman character to headline a Marvel comic.
Marvel’s characters include aliens, mutants, other-world gods, super-soldiers and super-geniuses who are known for their incredible powers and certain interrelated personal flaws. Storm, The Black Widow, Invisible Woman, and Carol Danvers (the original Ms. Marvel) are a few of the famous women Marvel heroes.
The comic book company should be both applauded and sometimes chastised for its depictions of Ms. Marvel. Calling her “Ms.” in the ’70s shows that Marvel acknowledged the changing times by incorporating a title that did not include a woman’s marital status. In addition, Carol Danvers was depicted as a feminist editor of a magazine for women (prior to that she worked for NASA and the CIA). At the same time, Danvers—like other women comic superheroes—fought crime in Spandex leotards and underwear. Those women are also much less known by the general public, and far less likely to have lead roles in Hollywood films drawn from the comics.
Khan isn’t Marvel’s first Muslim woman superhero, either: Sooraya Qadir (also known in X-men comics as Dust) is an Afghan American mutant who can transform into a living sandstorm; Dr. Faiza Hussain, who appeared in Captain Britain comics, can disassemble objects and people into their component parts and Monet St. Croix, a telepath with superhuman speed and strength, appeared in X-men comics. Unlike Kamala Khan, though, they’ve all had supporting roles, while Khan is the first Muslim character to have her own series.
In that series, Khan will discover that she is a shape-shifter who can shrink and grow her entire body, as well as specific limbs. Eventually, she will learn to transform into different people and objects. Her storyline includes her identity crises over her abilities to polymorph as well as her cultural identity (straddling American and Pakistani culture).
G. Willow Wilson, the comic’s writer, said she wanted the story to be true-to-life; she wrote it “for all the geek girls out there, and everybody else who’s ever looked at life from the fringe.” Already, Khan is more realistic than the original Ms. Marvel, who was 5-11 and tremendously muscular, yet still somehow managed to weigh 124 lbs. Khan is drawn as a normal teenager. Her crime-fighting costume incorporates the classic Ms. Marvel lightning bolt, but is not nearly as overtly sexy as that of Danvers—possibly to respect Khan’s Muslim upbringing.
Of course having a starring Muslim character may bring some controversy Marvel’s way. As series editor Sana Amanat told the The New York Times,
I do expect some negativity … not only from people who are anti-Muslim, but people who are Muslim and might want the character portrayed in a particular light.
Other critics are hesitant to pat Marvel on the back before they see the series. They worry that it won’t be very successful because the company won’t give her as much promotion as they do for their white male heroes.
As Muaz Zekeria, editor of a video gaming blog, told NPR,
Any Muslim superheroes I’ve seen introduced go through the same cycle: introduced; heavily featured in one book; book either gets canceled or wraps up; character fades into the background; and is rarely, if ever, heard from or featured again. This also goes for most minority characters.
We can only hope that the new Ms. Marvel’s giant morphed fists and feet not only dispatch her enemies but also kick butt in promotion and ratings. It would be nice to see her and other women superheroes make it into marquee roles on the big screen as well as on the little page.
Photos of Kamala Khan courtesy of Marvel Comics, Adrian Alphona and Sara Pichelli
Shae Collins is the previous owner of a Marvel encyclopedia of every character ever made. She is also the creator of A Womyn’s Worth, a social commentary blog that addresses interests and cultural issues of black women. Follow this current Ms. intern on Twitter.