Picture this: A 12-year-old boy walks into a comic bookstore. He’s been reading comics for a good year now. He peruses the shelves scanning for the latest issue of Superior Spider-Man. In the previous instalment, Green Goblin has just become king of New York’s underworld setting the stage for the Goblin Nation story arc. The store clerk looks up from the comic he is reading and beckons the young man to come over.
“Hey there little man, uh, your name is Aqil, right? There’s this new comic I reckon you might like.”
He gestures to a comic book a couple of shelves to the left. The cover features a woman wearing what looks like a dupatta around her neck – like the ones the boy’s mum wears. She’s got her right hand balled into a fist with some books tucked under her left. The title read Ms Marvel #1. The boy is intrigued.
“I thought Ms Marvel was white.”
“No, that Ms Marvel goes by Captain Marvel now. This is the new one.”
“What’s her name?”
Those who know me in real life know that I am a huge geek. My areas of expertise include Star Wars and Marvel in particular. I’ve been reading comics for close to a decade now. That being said, my intake over the last two years has been significantly limited (another hobby of mine choked by the demands of A-levels). Yet, over the last couple of weeks, I have decided to get back into the habit of reading comics. Where before I used to visit the comic bookstore in person to collect my monthly cache of paperbacks, I now read comics digitally via Marvel Unlimited (Netflix but for Marvel comics). Naturally, I decided to revisit one of my favourite Marvel characters.
In this post, I’m going to introduce the character of Kamala Khan a.k.a Ms Marvel for those who are unfamiliar with the Inhuman charged with defending the streets of Jersey City. Seriously? have you been living under a rock? I’ll then “briefly” outline the history of comic books and the backstory behind Kamala’s creation before analysing her impact on the comic industry and popular culture. I’m sure it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
Who is Kamala Khan?
Kamala was born in Jersey City, USA to immigrant parents Yusef and Muneeba Khan from Karachi, Pakistan. Her older brother Aamir was born in Pakistan before moving to the US. Her family history can be traced back to her maternal great-grandparents, Kareem and Aisha. They moved from Bombay to Karachi during the Partition of India. She also has a nephew called Malik and her sister-in-law Tyesha is an African American revert.
Growing up, Kamala had two best friends: Nakia Bahadir, a social activist of Turkish descent, and Bruno Carrelli, a prodigious genius of Italian descent. Kamala met Nakia in kindergarten, where they bonded over their shared faith in Islam. She then met Bruno in second grade and the two bonded over their shared interest in Tween Mutant Samurai Turtles (the Marvel Universe’s equivalent of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Bruno would end up falling deeply in love with Kamala. Unfortunately, Kamala, too preoccupied with her life as Ms Marvel, has trouble reciprocating those feelings. Not to mention the cultural and religious boundaries that would have to be overcome.
Alongside her close friendships with Nakia and Bruno, Kamala also has an interest in video games, fan fiction and, of course, superheroes. She was a devoted fan of the Avengers. Little did she know she would one day become one. In particular, Kamala looked up to her idol Carol Danvers a.k.a Captain Marvel. I say these in the past tense because future events would test Kamala’s belief in the heroes she looked up to.
In school, Kamala has trouble fitting in due to her Pakistani-American identity. Something all too familiar for those born into immigrant families. Her peers often mock her faith and geeky interests putting her more towards the bottom of the social hierarchy allowing her to fly under the radar. All in all, Kamala is your average teenager. At least, she was, until the Terrigen Mist.
First off, a brief lesson in the lore of the Marvel Universe:
The Kree are an ancient alien race of advanced, militaristic, and blue-skinned humanoids. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the Kree experimented on early humans resulting in the creation of the Inhomo Supremis more commonly referred to as the Inhuman species. Unlike their human cousins, Inhumans naturally exhibit extraordinary powers. However, these powers can vary significantly. Relations between humans and Inhumans were indifferent at best. Still, some interbreeding occurred, meaning some humans are carriers of Inhuman genes. To activate one’s latent Inhuman genes, they must undergo Terrigenesis. Such is the case with Kamala.
One night, Kamala was caught in the Terrigen Mist which enveloped Jersey City following the Inhumanity crossover storyline. She subsequently underwent Terrigenesis which unlocked her latent Inhuman genes, giving her superpowers. Kamala can share her mass through time with different versions of herself. On a molecular level, she actually transports her atoms through time. This allows her to transform her body (think Ant-Man, Mr Fantastic and Mystique) in any way she can imagine. Kamala can also heal serious injuries (think Deadpool and Wolverine) by reverting to her original form. She usually uses her power to elongate her limbs, enlarge her fists, or enlarge/shrink her entire body.
Now Kamala Khan uses her powers for the greater good, donning the name Ms Marvel in homage to her idol. She has served in several superhero teams including the Avengers and her very own Champions whom she leads. When she is not saving the world, you can find Kamala attending Coles Academic High School, hanging out with her friends and family, or playing World of Battlecraft (the Marvel Universe’s equivalent of World of Warcraft).
A “Brief” History of Comic Books
To really understand why Kamala Khan is such a big deal, one needs a brief history lesson. As I’m sure you’re aware by now, whenever I say “brief”, I do in fact mean anything but “brief”.
The history of comic books can be divided into four ages: The Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Modern Age.
THE GOLDEN AGE (1938 – 1956)
The Golden Age of comics began with the publication of Detective Comics’ (which would go on to become DC Comics) Action Comics #1. It was the debut of the superhero that started it all: Superman. The popularity of Superman gave rise to many rival publications. Timely Comics (which would one day evolve into Marvel Comics) was established in 1939. The first comic book published by Timely Comics was Marvel Comics #1. It included three stories, all of which were first appearances: The Human Torch, Angel and Namor the Sub-Mariner.
During WWII, comics boomed in popularity, particularly the likes of Captain America, Batman, Wonder Woman and Shazam. It was also during this time that comics began to branch out into other genres. By the end of the war, comics had essentially become a mainstay in American culture. However, during the late 40s, the popularity of superheroes began to decline. Many superhero comics would be cancelled as audiences sought out other genres such as westerns, comedies, romance, and horror.
In 1954, the comic book industry would experience its first major setback. Following the release of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, comic book publishers were brought in to testify in court. The belief was that comic books were contributing to youth crime. As a result, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was introduced to enact self-censorship leading to the cancellation of titles and a decrease in comic book sales.
THE SILVER AGE (1956 – 1970)
In light of the changes brought about by the CCA, publishers began reintroducing superhero comics starting with the introduction of DC’s Flash in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This eventually led to the creation of the Justice League in 1960. Marvel would then capitalise on the renewed interest in the superhero genre brought about by DC publications.
Under the guidance of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, Marvel began its ascent. To compete with DC’s Justice League, Marvel released The Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. For the first time, superheroes were portrayed as multi-dimensional characters with their own problems, inner demons, and fears rather than the archetypal superheroes typical of the time. Marvel ushered in a new era of superheroes that were more relatable to the reader. Fans began to see themselves in their favourite characters. During this time, Marvel also introduced famous superheroes such as Spider-Man, the X-men, and the Hulk.
The Silver Age represented a revival in the comic book industry during which superhero comics rose to prominence as a genre again. Meanwhile, other genres went into decline.
THE BRONZE AGE (1970 – 1985)
By the time the Bronze Age came about, superheroes had become synonymous with comics. Nearly all comics featured superheroes. However, the tone of superhero comics began to significantly shift to reflect real-world social issues. New plotlines tackling subject matter such as drug abuse, racism, grief, and alcoholism began to flourish, pushing the boundaries of what the CCA deemed acceptable.
There was also a rise in female superheroes such as Spider-Woman, Ms Marvel (Carol Danvers), and She-Hulk and minority superheroes such as Luke Cage, Storm, and Shang-Chi. While the industry was primarily dominated by superhero titles, a few non-superhero titles were able to survive such as Star Wars comics which were first introduced in 1977.
The Bronze Age established many conventions in the comic book industry. Artists tended to focus more on realism rather than the heavily stylised work during the Golden and Silver Ages. Team-ups and cross-overs became more common, establishing the Marvel Universe and DC Universe, respectively. There were even a few DC and Marvel cross-overs such as Superman vs the Amazing Spider-Man. Furthermore, Comic books were no longer distributed at newsstands but at speciality stores. Thereby allowing smaller publishers to grow.
THE MODERN AGE (1985 – PRESENT)
This brings us to the current era. Many characters would be redesigned, and independent comics would flourish thanks to speciality stores. At the same time, the larger publishers such as Marvel and DC would become more commercialised. This period also saw antiheroes (protagonists with questionable morals) become the norm with the likes of Marvel’s Wolverine, Deadpool, and Venom and DC’s Batman, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen. Comic books also began targeting adult audiences with more mature-rated content.
Successful comic book film and TV adaptations helped significantly grow the comic book industry. Marvel would see particular success with its animated X-Men series. Things were going right for the comic book industry, and business was booming. At least until the speculator market crash of 1993.
By the late 80s, important comics such as first issues or first appearances were being sold for thousands of dollars. The prevailing thought was that comic books were good financial investments that would be worth fortunes in the future. In response, publishers began releasing loads of special edition comics in the hope of increasing sales. One fascinating trend was the introduction of foil covers.
However, by saturating the market with print runs of special editions, it defeated the very purpose of a special edition; how can something be special if it’s commonplace? As a result, the speculator market began to crash in 1993, causing sales to plummet, retailers to close and publishers to downsize by decreasing the number of series they ran. Comics featuring women and minority characters suffered the most as companies began to take fewer risks. In 1996, Marvel declared bankruptcy however it has since rebounded and retained its position as the largest comic book publisher.
During the late 90s and early 2000s, comic book sales began to drop. However, sales for graphic novels (collected editions with multiple issues bound together) increased. Think of a comic book issue as a chapter and a graphic novel as the entire book. This new publishing format helped comics gain respectability as a form of literature. Graphic novels are usually given volume numbers with writers creating stories that last four to twelve issues. Nowadays, most comic book series are republished as graphic novels as soon as a story arc is completed.
The late 2000s saw another bounce back for the comic book industry. The release of the Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) helped introduce a new generation to comic book superheroes bringing in new fans such as myself. Digital comics were introduced in 2007 with Marvel Unlimited. Since then, all major publishers release their comics digitally helping them reach a wider audience. The new digital space has also allowed independent creators to get their ideas out there as well.
By the early 2010s, superheroes were well and truly part of a global cultural phenomenon. More people than ever before had heard the names Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Superman, Batman, etc. In no small part due to the success of the MCU and other superhero films. That being said, the majority of marketed superheroes were white men.
It is worth noting that when it comes to identity and gender politics, comic books have been relatively progressive compared to other forms of media. In particular, Marvel has done an excellent job of reflecting the world around us. However, the rule has always been that white male characters tend to sell the best. As a result, comic book publishers would focus on narratives that featured this demographic. There were, of course, as with anything, a few exceptions. But even then, Black Panther has never quite had the same reach as Captain America at least until the release of his solo film.
By 2014, Marvel had been focusing on its core characters: The Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk etc. They had also recently begun promoting the Inhumans. While some minority characters such as Miles Morales had loyal followings, they never had the same level of importance as Tony Stark or Peter Parker.
Enter Kamala Khan.
The Birth of a Trailblazer
Sana Amanat, an Indian-Pakistani-American, born and raised in New Jersey with a degree in political science from Columbia University, joined Marvel Comics as an editor in 2009. During her time at Marvel, Amanat worked on several comic books including Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Daredevil, and Spider-Man. One day, Amanat was talking with one of her fellow editors, Stephen Wacker, about her childhood and her experience growing up as a Muslim-American. The conversation sparked the idea to create a comic book that authentically depicted the Muslim-American diaspora.
They then approached writer G. Willow Wilson, an American revert, also born and raised in New Jersey known for her recent novel Alif the Unseen. She loved the idea and couldn’t wait to work on the project, although she was worried about the potential backlash. Comic book artist and Runaways co-creator Adrian Alphona was brought in to draw Kamala and bring her to life on the page.
When it came to designing the future Ms Marvel, a lot went into consideration. Both Wilson and Amanat wanted to pay homage to the previous Ms Marvel while also creating something new that Marvel fans could be proud of. They also wanted to create something that spoke to a broader audience that is rarely represented in comic books.
Before Ms Marvel, there had only been a few Muslim superheroes in comics such as DC’s Simon Baz and Marvel’s Dust. Even then, no Muslim superhero has ever headlined their own comic series instead only appearing as side characters. Similarly, there was only a handful of female superheroes headlining comics at the time. Amanat and Wilson wanted to change that.
Marvel knew they wanted a teenage Muslim girl to take on the mantle of Ms Marvel. Still, the character’s ethnicity, location and appearance were left to Wilson to decide. After going through many iterations, including the idea of Arab girl from Dearborn, Michigan, Wilson eventually settled on a Pakistani-American from Jersey City. And just like that Kamala Khan was born.
Revolutionising the Comic Book Industry
There were a lot of doubts over whether Ms Marvel would be successful. In an open letter to fans, Wilson admitted that Amanat and her had only expected Kamala to make it to ten issues before being scrapped. New characters tended to have poor debuts; add any modifiers, and they would do even worse. Kamala was at a particular disadvantage: she’s brown, she’s a woman, and she’s a Muslim.
Ms Marvel #1 landed on store shelves on the 5th February 2014. To everyone’s surprise, she was a huge success. The first issue would far exceed expectations by making it to a seventh printing. To put that into perspective, most comics rarely make it to a sixth printing. The Amazing Spider-Man #583, which made international headlines for featuring President Obama in 2009, only made it to a fifth printing. For a new character to do this on their debut was practically unheard of. For a brown, Muslim female, it should have been impossible.
The success would not stop there, though. Ms Marvel graphic novels would also perform very well. Ms Marvel Volume 1: No Normal was the best-selling graphic novel in October 2014 and made it to the number two position on the New York Times Best Seller (NYTBS) list in November. The following year, No Normal won the Hugo award for Best Graphic Story and the Joe Shuster Award for Outstanding Artist as well as nominations for eight other awards.
Over the next few years, Ms Marvel graphic novels would continue to debut in the NYTBS list top five and win multiple awards including the award for Best Series at France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2016 (interesting considering France’s recent attitude towards Muslims).
The unexpected success of Ms Marvel must have definitely come as a shock to comic book publishers. However, it did mean one thing: comic book fans were hungry for new characters from different backgrounds. Ms Marvel began a chain reaction that would pave the way for unprecedented levels of diversity and representation in comic books.
For Marvel, the success of Kamala’s debut proved that new characters from unusual backgrounds could be very lucrative. Marvel would go on to pour new focus into such characters. Korean American Amadeus Cho would take on the mantle of the Hulk in 2015. America Chavez, Marvel’s first Latin-American LGBTQ character, got her own solo series in 2017. Similarly, Marvel would also introduce new characters such as Cindy Moon a.k.a Silk in late 2014 and Riri Williams a.k.a Lionheart in 2015.
However, none would quite reach the same levels of success as Ms Marvel. In fact, in some cases, they were flops: America Chavez’s solo series would only last 12 issues. Thereby highlighting the flaws of cashing in on diversity for the sake of diversity. That being said, the Marvel universe and comics, in general, are more diverse than they have ever been before. This wouldn’t have been possible without the commercial success of Ms Marvel.
As of 2018, Ms Marvel has sold over half a million in graphic novels. Traditionally, she remains one of Marvel’s digital bestsellers.
Pop Culture Icon
Immediately following Kamala’s debut, she became a comic book icon. Fans were cosplaying as her at comic conventions making it pretty clear that Kamala was already a fan favourite. People were beginning to liken her to Gen Z’s equivalent of Peter Parker. It wouldn’t be long before, Kamala started having an impact on the real world.
In early 2015, the American Freedom Defence Initiative (AFDI) purchased 50 bus advertisements in San Francisco. The adverts called for aid to be revoked from Muslim majority countries and equated Islam with Nazism. In response, street artists began covering the adverts with pictures of Ms Marvel and anti-racist slogans.
This isn’t the first-time superheroes have been used in politics – Captain America is literally a walking American flag – but it does illustrate Kamala’s growing popularity as a symbol of resistance. Kamala’s likeness would once again be harnessed in the wake of President Trump’s Muslim ban.
On the 16th March 2016, Amanat was invited to introduce President Obama at a White House reception for Women’s History Month:
Kamala would make her first TV appearance on the 31st July 2016 in Season 3 Episode 1 of the animated Avengers: Assemble series. She would go on to make multiple appearances in Marvel animated series including a central role in Marvel Rising – a new media franchise launched in 2018 that focuses on Marvel’s new generation of heroes.
In September of this year, Kamala made her first proper video game appearance in Marvel’s Avengers as one of the main characters. She had appeared in other video games but mostly as an unlockable side character not central to the plot.
Next year, Kamala is set to make her MCU debut in her own exclusive Disney+ series. She is going to be played by industry newcomer Iman Vellani. The series is being written by British comedian Bisha K. Ali and is set to have four directors: Belgium-Moroccan duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Pakistani-Canadian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Indian-American Meera Menon. It remains to be seen what role she will play in the MCU, but if her current status in comic books is any indicator, I’m sure it will be big.
In just six years, Kamala Khan has gone from having her own comic book series to her own place in the MCU. Quite an achievement for a character that was only expected to make it to ten issues.