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 debuts Wednesday, 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 X-Men.
On Wednesday, Marvel Comics will launch its new Ms. Marvel character. 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, the Pakistani Muslim hero, would take on 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. tells Comic Riffs.
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 tells us. “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. Axel Alonso, the Marvel editor-in-chief 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 tells us. “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 female, I can relate to Kamala. (And while I’m not an obsessive comic-book or graphic novel reader, I did grow up reading X-Men, The Crow and The Sandman.) 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…for two seconds. Then my natural paranoia set in. How would Marvel tell this story? Would they overplay the ethnic angles? Would they play it down? 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.” Yes, I wanted my 15-year-old self to be able to read the book and say, “Hey, this is totally me.” But I also wanted Kamala to be familiar to anyone, 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.
Before starting the book, I figured I was asking for quite a lot. I told myself not to get my hopes up because I’d probably be disappointed.
But I wasn’t.
Somehow, Ms. Marvel managed to be everything I wanted it to be. We meet a 16-year old girl living in Jersey City with her family. She’s a fan of Captain Marvel and has a thing for sniffing BLT’s. 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.
Although Amanat created Kamala Khan, the book is illustrated by Adrian Alphona (”Runaways”) and written by G. Willow Wilson, an American Muslim convert known for thoughtfully addressing all manner of culturally sensitive topics in her past work (”Alif the Unseen, Cairo”).
In addition to deftly handling the family and cultural dynamic, Wilson is such a natural at dialogue that I’m wondering whether she’s secretly a 16-year-old Pakistani superhero. Her skill is most apparent in a scene between Kamala’s progressive, streetwise father and her holier-than-thou elder brother. “Prayer is noble,” Kamala’s father says to his work-shirking son, “But when you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something…like finding a job, for example.”
With that same wry humor, Wilson touches on the stereotypes that many Muslim women and girls deal with on a regular basis. “Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki,” a well-meaning but culturally uneducated character says to one of Kamala’s friends. “But…nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Nobody’s going to, like, honor-kill you?”
Some expected comic-book tropes make an appearance: the nagging parent; the rebellious child; the hint of a possible romance; a difficult lesson learned.
And there are suggestions of broader themes to come, many of which are commonly explored in comics (though the medium does not get enough credit for it). As teenagers, how do we balance the identity that our parents impose upon us with the person we want to be? What do we do when our friends try to protect us from things we don’t want to be protected from? What happens when we realize we don’t fit in, no matter how much we try? What happens to our hopes and dreams when it seems like there’s no way of ever attaining them?
For now, these themes are just suggestions. And that’s as it should be, because what matters most in any story, comic book or not, is whether the hero is someone you care about and can relate to. At its heart, the first issue of Ms. Marvel is a simple, familiar story about a girl who feels like the worst kind of misfit.
And that’s something that almost every comic book fan can understand.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Comic Riffs contributor Sabaa Tahir is a former Post journalist and YA author whose upcoming book, “An Ember in the Ashes” (Penguin Press/Razorbill), has been optioned by Paramount.