Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Kamala Khan has made important strides for representation in comics since her very first issue. Ms. Marvel was created by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson, and artist Adrian Alphona. Kamala became Marvel’s first Muslim-American superhero to headline her own series. She took over the identity from the previous Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers. Kamala’s character and series were met with tremendous praise and success. Her debut issue reached a rare seven printings; her first volume “No Normal” was the best-selling graphic novel in 2014 and won the Hugo Award for the best graphic story in 2015. She will also soon be on her way to appear in the MCU. Kamala Khan’s success kickstarted the ALL-NEW MARVEL NOW! relaunch in 2014, which introduced and diversified many heroes. However, at this point, many of those diversified heroes have reverted or will revert back to their original identities. It begs the question: what makes Kamala Khan so successful, and why couldn’t other characters have the same lasting effect? Let’s take a closer look at Jersey City’s protector and try to find out! Legacy Kamala Khan’s success encouraged Marvel to diversify its roster. As stated earlier, following Kamala’s debut in ALL-NEW MARVEL NOW!, Marvel created new heroes. However, many established identities changed hands. Sam Wilson (Falcon) took on the Captain America mantle, Thor’s hammer went to Jane Foster, Wolverine’s mask went to his clone/daughter Laura Kinney, and Marvel gave America Chavez, a queer Latinx superhero, a solo series. Although, by the time of this article, those identities have since reverted back, and America Chavez’s book has been canceled. Episode 88: Marvel’s Muslim Superheroes – Ms. Marvel, Monet St. Croix, and Dust Wilson posted on her blog a number of factors that can be seen as reasons why many of the new characters weren’t as successful. One very potent point is that many of the MARVEL NOW! characters replaced established heroes after (or in one case, before) the character had been degraded in some way. It’s hard to disagree; Thor became unworthy, Logan died, and Steve Rogers joined HYDRA after Sam took over. That approach damages the legacy characters because it harms the legacy their predecessors have created. To quote Wilson, “Who wants a legacy if the legacy is shitty?” Unlike many characters that followed suit, Kamala Khan took over an identity that was known but had been retired. Even better, she received the blessing of Carol Danvers to use the name. It felt much more organic, and Danvers didn’t have to be degraded in order to pass down her legacy. It also helped that Kamala was a fresh character without any previous ties to Marvel. When ALL-NEW MARVEL NOW! and its successive rebrands (such as ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT MARVEL) started — multiple heroes changed at the same time (i.e. Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Hulk) — usually without fresh (new) characters taking over. There wasn’t a chance for the same kind of character development that Kamala had as a new character. Authenticity Kamala Khan’s debut as a Muslim superhero sparked interest because it was a unique first. Marvel had never had a lead Muslim character before, and there were many reactions, both good and bad. Ultimately, Kamala received both critical acclaim and love from fans. Much of the praise came from the portrayal of Kamala’s Muslim faith and how it affected her life and family. Ironically, this came from the fact that no one believed the book would succeed. Quoting Wilson once more, “We were originally going to pitch it as a 10 issue limited series. I had a 3 issue exit strategy because I assumed we were going to get canned. There was no “diversity initiative” anywhere–getting that thing made at all was a struggle. It was a given that any character without AT LEAST a 20-year history would tank. Everybody, myself included, assumed this series was going to work out the same way.” The result was that Wilson and the creative team had the freedom to write the story they wanted to write. The team drew on their own experiences as Muslim-Americans and created a story that reflected them. It made Kamala and the story feel incredibly real and authentic, which was a huge element of its success. The story explored real Muslim religious practices and the difficulties in balancing two sets of cultural responsibilities. Everything felt genuine. This wasn’t like a shout-out to Norse mythology like Thor. This was people writing about a specific group because they knew and understood them. It was something that simply felt organic. Because it was. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment. Imitation Naturally, Marvel sought to imitate this. Obviously, representation in comics is important. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to look at the timing of the following Marvel NOW! rebrands and not see it as a reaction to Kamala’s success. Marvel is ultimately a company, and if something they do works, they want to do it again. That led to many underrepresented characters in new roles, but without the kind of care and authenticity that MS. MARVEL had and continues to have. Diverse characters don’t have to embody their group to be loved. Kamala set a high standard for balancing character and culture. Jane Foster and Sam Wilson were good heroes, but they ultimately spent more time being heroes then exploring the African-American community or being a woman in Asgard. They felt placed into the roles (though Sam’s history and circumstances made his transition more organic) without first showing the strong connections to their culture like Kamala had. Under Pressure There was also less pressure on MS. MARVEL which allowed the creators more freedom to make it authentic. Its success led to higher standards for everything that followed. That’s not to say the MARVEL NOW! books weren’t good. THOR and ALL-NEW WOLVERINE became critically-acclaimed books with long runs. AMERICA was a long-overdue spotlight for queer and Latinx representation. Still, it was hard for those characters to appear as if they were being different in light of MS. MARVEL’s success. Sam Wilson, X-23, and Jane Foster were diverse heroes taking over established roles like Kamala did, but as mentioned, the original identity was somewhat degraded. America Chavez was a young, diverse hero, but reviews of the book show more focus on impact and style than the stories they were telling. I read the debut issue myself and felt the writing depicted America poorly, making her look selfish and unlikable. It was a shame because it was a chance to tell a unique story. The writing didn’t have to be perfect, but it dragged down the character instead of pushing her up. It showed Marvel took parts of the “formula” for MS. MARVEL for these books but tried to replicate it too quickly. Writing MS. MARVEL’s representation was a strong element to its success, but representation alone isn’t enough. AMERICA earned praise for its authentic portrayal of a queer Latina character. Nonetheless, low sales from the direct market led to its cancellation. This was an unfortunate outcome because it perpetuated the idea that “diversity doesn’t sell.” I am not a Muslim-American. I don’t have the same connection to Kamala that Muslim-Americans have. Still, her book is one of my all-time favorites. So what attracts a white Catholic male, or any non-Muslim-American, to this book? Because even though it sees the world through a Muslim-American lens, it goes on journeys we’ve all taken before. Kamala struggles to find where she belongs. Her early issues show someone caught between what the world and her family expect her to be. That speaks to a multitude of different people, including those with similar religious barriers, or those who just struggle with expectations of who they are. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment Kamala struck a chord with me early on when she snuck out of the house for a party. Among her many thoughts is one simple phrase: “Why can’t I be normal?” Like everyone else in the world, I’ve asked that. Kamala just shows it through a different lens. The creative team chose to tell a story authentic to Muslim-Americans, but also universal enough to appeal to others. It led to strong moments like Kamala shape-shifting into the blond-haired, blue-eyed Ms. Marvel and feeling completely out of place. Her journey was about being a hero and also being herself. That made the book for everyone. To quote Axel Alonso, “If her story is universal, then people are going to come and read it. If it feels true, if it resonates, people are going to come.” MS. MARVEL #16 Review: Resisting the Cyberbully Authentic Writing + Representation = Kamala Khan These two critical elements show what makes Kamala Khan — and any underrepresented character — work. Whatever group a character might belong to, it needs to be shown authentically, in a way that feels real to that group. The writing must also work to establish a sense of realness with the characters. Characters need a strong sense of place, but they need to feel like real people. To quote Wilson once more, “Diversity as a form of performative guilt doesn’t work. Let’s scrap the word diversity entirely and replace it with authenticity and realism. This is not a new world. This is *the world.*” In other words, diversity that would be “forced” is throwing in a marginalized character just to check off a list while giving them nothing of substance to contribute. But giving a character like America or Kamala a platform, a seat at the table, an integral part of the team, should not be considered forced — it’s a reflection of the real world. Without authentic portrayal, representation becomes a checklist made to lessen guilt or grab a specific audience. It leads to inauthentic characters that have no substance beyond the color of their skin or nationality. And without diversity, writing loses a lot of great avenues for storytelling. Readers don’t get to see the different lenses that people see the world through, or how these characters reflect the world as it is. MS. MARVEL may not show the entire Muslim-American experience, but it shows the authenticity and strong writing needed to show more of it. So for anyone that wants to create the diverse heroes of tomorrow, read Kamala Khan today.