Before you stream Ms. Marvel, here’s a sneak peek at the comic book series that inspired the new series. Ms. Marvel is just one of many diverse comic books available in the Library of Congress’ collection of 12,000 plus titles and over 160,000 original print issues. They span genres from Black to Latinx to LGBTQ+ and more. Drop by the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room to see for yourself.
Her name is Kamala Khan, teenage comic book super-fan, but you may know her better as Ms. Marvel. Like our friendly neighborhood web slingers Miles Morales and Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Khan also has to juggle her schoolwork along with her superhero obligations. Unlike Peter and Miles who live in New York, Kamala is a Muslim Pakistani American who lives just across the Hudson River in Jersey City. (Baldanzi and Rashid, 2020) So, being a Muslim superhero comes with a lot of cultural baggage that her friends and classmates have a hard time understanding. As an Asian American, though not Pakistani, I can relate to Kamala’s experience and other minorities may share some commonalities as well.
Whole Lot of Rules
On the very first page of Ms. Marvel issue no. 1 (2014), we see Kamala at the deli counter staring longingly at a BLT, wishing she could eat it but the bacon part is definitely not allowed. Muslims are prohibited from eating pork because it is haram not halal. Her friends aren’t very sympathetic to her plight, but I am. As a kid living in Pakistan, I had friends who couldn’t eat pork for the same reasons.
Next, we have a situation many of us Asian kids are very familiar with. It’s Friday night and Kamala asks her parents if she can go to a party. They immediately veto that idea suggesting that she should do her homework instead. My iron-fisted, five-foot-nothing, Vietnamese mother would whole-heartedly agree. She deemed that the weekend did not begin until my brother and I finished our homework. At first glance, it sucks but getting the homework out of the way does free up the rest of the weekend.
Speaking of brothers, to their father’s chagrin, Aamir seems to put more effort into practicing the Five Pillars of Islam rather than looking for a job or eating apparently. Then again, it is Friday or Jumʻah which in Islam is considered a holy day analogous to Sunday being the Lord’s Day for Christians or Saturday being the Sabbath for those of the Jewish faith. In some Muslim countries like Pakistan, the weekend is Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday. So, his father could cut him a little slack. Also, is that lamb biryani with a side of pakoras that the family is having for dinner? If so, in my humble opinion, that’s a lot tastier than a BLT. But, I digress.
Bending the Rules
Desperate to fit in with her classmates, Kamala defies her parents and sneaks off to the party anyway. While there, Zoe and Josh, a culturally insensitive duo, try to impress their friends by trashing Kamala’s religious customs and her ethnicity. They trick her into drinking alcohol which for some might not be a really big deal, but for Muslims it is forbidden. Daily prayer or Salat is considered a purification ritual, therefore sobriety is a requirement. Furthermore, Salat is supposed to be performed five times per day, spread out from before sunrise to after sunset which doesn’t leave much time for happy hour. To add insult to injury, when Kamala spits out the vodka-spiked orange juice Zoe wisecracks, “Ugh, Kamala, no offense, but you smell like curry. I’m gonna stand somewhere else.” Hey, Vietnamese American types like me are sometimes accused of smelling like fish sauce, a staple of our diet. As far as I’m concerned, people like Zoe don’t know what they’re missing out on or they just lack a sense of gustatory adventure. Either way, disrespecting someone’s beliefs and culture is not the best way to win friends and influence people.
Don’t worry, Kamala gets the last laugh. On her way home from the party Kamala passes out while walking through a Terrigen Mist and experiences a vision. To me, though, it looks more like a never-released Marvel Bollywood film starring Kamala’s favorite superheroes: Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Captain America. They even sing in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Kamala takes this opportunity to vent her frustrations about her difficulties trying to fit in, her crisis of identity due to the cultural differences between her and her peers, and her super strict parents who seem to conveniently forget that she’s “from Jersey City, not Karachi.” Captain America admonishes her for disobeying her parents in a futile attempt to be accepted by her classmates.
Captain Marvel seems more sympathetic and asks Kamala, “Who do you want to be?” Now, you may notice that the shirt Kamala is wearing sports Carol Danvers’ old Ms. Marvel insignia (see image below). Carol Danvers, currently Captain Marvel, has had many identity crises of her own. So, it’s no surprise that Kamala replies that she wants to be just like Captain Marvel. But, before granting her wish, Captain Marvel warns Kamala that being a superhero is not going to be all fun and games. She is still going to be a Muslim teenager navigating high school when she’s not out saving the day. Bursting out of a Terrigenesis cocoon transformed as the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala’s wish is fulfilled.
The Inhumans, who developed the Terrigenesis transformation that Kamala goes through, believe that “it reveals who you really are [and] is a privilege which should be earned through struggle and hardship.” (Son of M no. 5, 2006; Infinity v. 1-4, 2013). Ms. Marvel reminds readers to embrace and celebrate their differences rather than simply trying to fit into some stereotype even if doing so proves difficult. And so the adventure begins.
Writer G. Willow Wilson is a practicing Muslim who converted to Islam while attending university right around the time of the attacks on September 11, 2001. She was born in New Jersey and moved to Colorado when she was still in elementary school. In fifth grade she got bit by the comic book bug when she discovered the X-Men, her favorite cartoon on TV. Her interest in comic books continued through her teenage years. After graduating from university, Wilson got a job in Cairo, Egypt teaching English and writing articles for Time magazine and The Atlantic criticizing Egyptian President Mubarak’s regime. She also began to write comic books. She wrote Vixen: Return of the Lion, a DC Comics limited series featuring a female superhero from the imaginary African country of Zambesi. Another DC Comic she has contributed her talents to is Wonder Woman. After returning to the U.S., she published her first novel Alif the Unseen, a cyberpunk fantasy about an Arab Indian hacker, garnering her the 2013 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. In between completing her novel and receiving the award, Wilson was tapped by Marvel editors Stephen Wacker and Sana Amanat to resurrect Ms. Marvel as a teenage Pakistani American superhero raised as a Muslim (Tolentino, 2017).
Editor Sana Amanat is a Pakistani American from New Jersey and was raised as a Muslim by her Indian and Pakistani immigrant parents. Like your average kid, she read comic books, watched superhero cartoons with her siblings, and enjoyed the Sunday comic strips in the newspaper, but, she was not a hard-core comic book fan. In fact, she started out pursuing a career in journalism before ending up in the comic book industry. Gotham Chopra, founder of Virgin Comics (now Liquid Comics) and son of Deepak Chopra, gave Amanat her first job in comic books as an editor. She eventually landed at Marvel as an assistant editor. In addition to Ms. Marvel, Amanat has edited Hawkeye and played an integral role in resurrecting Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel. She has risen through the ranks to become the Vice President of Content and Character Development for Marvel Entertainment which involves developing content for both comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), including the new Ms. Marvel TV show.
I was inspired to write about Ms. Marvel because, when I bought my first comic book almost forty years ago at my local bookstore in Islamabad, the idea of a comic book featuring a Muslim superhero was unfathomable. I hope the bookstore is still there and that Ms. Marvel graces its shelves.
Adad-Santos, Alex. Marvel Comics’ Secret Weapon is a Woman Named Sana Amanat. Vox.com. November 19, 2015.
Baldanzi, Jessica. and Rashid, Hussein. eds. 2020. Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
Brown, Jeffrey A. 2015. Beyond Bombshells: The New Action Heroine in Popular Culture. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
Let’s Talk Comics: Superheroines
Letters About Literature National Winners 2019: National Winner, Level 3: Amatullah Mir
Tolentino, Jia. “The Writer Behind a Muslim Marvel Superhero on Her Faith in Comics.” New Yorker (New York, NY), April 29, 2017.