The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.
It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.
Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).
Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.
Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.
Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.
Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.
If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.
It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.
Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.