By Padya Paramita
Content warning: mention of Nazis
On the day after the 2016 US presidential elections, a queer international student of color found herself at a comic book store face-to-face with a superhero she had never seen before. In encountering Kamala Khan—known by her superhero alias, Ms. Marvel—I discovered a girl much like myself: brown, Muslim, fighting demons, trying to find a balance between Americanization and her South Asian roots. This discovery was incredibly surprising to me for a couple of reasons. First I wondered why I had never heard of her before. How come she wasn’t tearing up headlines and bookshelves everywhere? My second reaction was one of joy and relief. Growing up as a comic book fan, I wanted a brown female role model instead of big buff white men in tight suits fighting Nazis while women fawned over them. By acknowledging the importance of presenting different races in its predominantly white content, Marvel directly challenges the comic book canon in a way they never have before.
With the emergence of heroes such as Ms. Marvel, America Chavez, and Miles Morales, perhaps the comic book industry, like other media platforms, has started to realize the importance of representation. Acknowledgement and increased diversity is a step in the right direction in ending people’s hesitation about categorizing comic books and graphic novels as works of literature. Debates in communities of color continue over what is “legitimate” and “acceptable” literature. Often, comics are categorized strictly as part of popular culture, meant for children and not adults or “real readers.” A lot of non-Western women’s stories exist in graphic form, for example, many female-centric Japanese manga highlight and celebrate diversity of race, culture, and gender.
However, the moguls of the American superhero comics, Marvel and DC, especially in their feature films, have not previously showcased superheroes of Asian or Latinx descent, nor have they presented openly LGBTQ superheroes or mentally ill heroes as explicitly as television has. Only a few black leads fight on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Usually it is the side characters, such as Nick Fury in The Avengers and Sam Wilson in Captain America—or worse, villains, like Mordo in Doctor Strange—who are portrayed by the “minorities.” Asia is also exoticized and stereotyped in these movies, such as when Batman learns martial arts in Batman Begins from a white instructor in Bhutan. Even more formal scholarship on graphic novels, like the work of leading scholar Hillary Chute, has not been open to studying the work of artists of color beyond the classic Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Scholars refuse to answer the overarching questions of why there is not enough autobiographical graphic work by women of color, or why experiences from and for a non-Western perspective are not portrayed in the canon.
Marvel has begun to acknowledge non-homogeneous patterns when it comes to race and reflecting demographics accordingly. Enter Sana Amanat’s Ms. Marvel—Marvel’s first brown, Muslim superhero, who is inspired by Amanat’s experiences growing up as a Muslim-American! Ms. Marvel is a revelation, a gift from the comic gods for the young female fans of the genre, especially for brown girls, hoping to find someone to relate to. While most female superheroes are older white women, confident and possessing a very specific body type not everyone can identify with, Kamala Khan is a teenager from Jersey City of Pakistani descent, struggling to balance her newfound shapeshifting abilities with homework and strict family life. By the end of the first series, she even becomes a part of Marvel’s seasoned superhero team, the Avengers, a group she starts out as a superfan of.
Marvel shapes the story of Ms. Marvel so that young girls can relate to her, which is an astoundingly bold step away from its usual male-centered content. Marvel’s choice to expand their universe to cater to the diverse demographics of their readers is a move towards positivity and progress. On November 9th, 2016, Ms. Marvel helped me to remember there is hope out there for anyone fighting for change. It was not the end of the world. Standing there in the comic book store in the middle of Union Square, I felt seen, understood, and represented. Even though Marvel and DC had, and still have, a long, long way to go, that day I found a superhero who is a breath of fresh air in an industry that has not always succeeded in acknowledging diversity. Holding Ms. Marvel in my hands, I couldn’t be happier for myself and other young female comic book readers out there.
Padya Paramita '18 is learning this year how much she truly loves theater.
From October 2017 issue