Marvel’s Muslim Superhero Ms. Marvel

The cultural realm of the American Muslims will soon display another shade in its spectrum. Earlier, we saw the appearances of Simon Baz*–who is dubbed as the first Muslim Arab-American superhero–as the latest Green Lantern in the 2012 series and the Afghani Soraya Qadir a.k.a “Dust” in the X-Men squad in 2002. Now, we are going to find a full series story of an American Muslim superhero called Kamala Khan a.k.a Ms. Marvel.

According to this Huffington Post article, two Marvel editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker “concocted the character together after Amanat entertained Wacker with anecdotes from her Muslim-American childhood.” Then, the idea was picked up by the writer G. Willow Wilson, who is herself a Muslim. Earlier, G. Willow Wilson was known as the writer of the award-winning Cairo: A Graphic Novel with artist M.K. Perker. G. Willow Wilson is a creative writer-cum-journalist who lived in Cairo for sometime and contributed articles to major periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Magazines and other periodicals. Cairo itself is a captivating graphic novel whose story is a mix of action, mythology, just-enough portion of romance, politics and mysticism presented in frequently non-conventional and playful panels. The noteworthy aspect of the graphic novel is how, against the stereotypical depiction of life in a predominantly Muslim society, life in Cairo is not only about Islam or piety while at the same time it inseparable from its Islamic undertone.

Back to Ms. Kamala Khan, one thing that we need to pay attention to is the fact that this story is not from someone who shares empathy with, for example, some marginalized member of the American community or the oppressed member within the Muslim community and thinks s/he need to helps save these groups–as if the “subaltern” cannot speak for themselves. I do hope, though, that this Ms. Marvel will carry some personal life stories of an American Muslim (or an American Muslimah–the feminine marker of the word Muslim, if you’re concerned about the gender marker :D), instead of just the life stories of stock Muslim characters.

On top of that, the origin of this superhero’s creation itself has some special value to me. I don’t want to slip into intentional fallacy here, but I do want to cherish the fact that this is a Muslim character whose inspiration comes from the hands of a person with a Muslim background and then written by a person who becomes a Muslim in her early adulthood. In other words, we are talking about two demographics of the American Muslim community here: the immigrant Muslims growing up as Americans and Americans who later in life become Muslim and, presumably, have to make sudden adjustments in life.

Written and oral narratives from the American Muslims are quite abundant lately, and each group of in the Muslim community has their unique stories. The experience of African American Muslims is totally different from that of the immigrant Muslims or American Muslim “converts”–a term I have begun to shy away from. Even from within the immigrant Muslim community there are different stories–Arab, South-Asian, Southeast Asian, first generation, second generation, and whatnot. So, it’s quite thrilling to know that Ms. Marvel is born to at least two elements in this array.

On a slightly related note, it is noteworthy that the article mentions that Sana Amanat also anticipates some negativity coming from both sides, from those who have negative opinions about Muslims as well as from the Muslim community itself, some of whose members might not be happy with the portrayal of Ms. Marvel’s characters that don’t meet their expectation of an ideal Muslim girl. Yet again, this is to be expected, isn’t it?

By the way, I have only been talking about what’s happening behind the screen. I’m sorry for that negligence, Ms. Kamala. Now, what is Ms. Marvel’s super power? Shape-shifting! Hmm, I don’t want to rush to the analysis section before really reading the actual text, but isn’t it interesting why the power has to be shape shifting? In fact, “shape shifting” of some sort actually happens in the American Muslim experience or Arab Immigrant experience. Well, shape shifting is actually at the core of superheroship. The tights-wearing Superman has to shape-shift into the super uptight personality called Clark Kent, and the courageous Batman is a laid back businessman called Bruce Wayne during the day at work. But I believe there is another explanation why the creators “institutionalize” shape-shifting into the character of Ms. Marvel.

This is too early of a hypothesis, but let me give it a shot: Ms. Marvel’s shape-shifting, I think, has a more grounded origin. An article on io9 mentions that “She has a dad who wants her to concentrate on school, a mom who wants her to avoid concentrating on boys in the slightest, and a very conservative brother.” She probably indeed needs a shape-shifting skill of some sort to meet these expectations. It sort of reminded me of author Diana Abu-Jaber who says in one of her autobiographical piece that she had a colorful teenage life because she was an American on the street and an Arab at home. Or, if you watch the movie Amreeka(2007), you will find the rebellious teenage character who insists that she is an American while her mother in a fit of anger exclaims “As long as you live in this house, you live in Palestine!” However, it would be intriguing as well as enlightening to find in this story double-edged critiques–both directed at the larger American society as well as the Muslim community–such as common in fictional narratives by Arab-American or Muslim American writers.

Anyway, without further due, let’s welcome Ms. Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel.

* Simon Baz is a Lebanese-American superhero wearing a Green Lantern Corp costume donning on his right arm a glowing green tattoo of an Arabic word which in English means “courage.” By the way, is it a coincidence that green is a color commonly associated with Islam?

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