Kamala Khan, the superhero known as Ms. Marvel, just experienced a significant milestone: her 50th solo issue.
Since her debut four years ago, Kamala has gone from being one of the new characters whose fate was unclear to a new addition to Marvel’s superhero pantheon. Even her creators and most devoted fans initially thought she would be a short-lived addition to Marvel’s C-list superheroes, perhaps gaining recognition for being Marvel’s first Muslim character with a solo series, but not necessarily gaining a large following in her own right.
She was the character meant to metaphorically kick down the door, so that other character in the future could hopefully gain the stature that she might not have had, if things had gone differently. Her popularity (due to the creative team, a young fan base of new comic readers, and support form the Carol Corps) and subsequent addition to multiple superhero teams came as a surprise. Kamala’s 50th issue got me thinking yet again on the longevity of characters’ stories – how unusual it is for characters to stay around and how impactful it is when they do.
The superhero multiverses of the Big Two are dominated by a pantheon of heroes who are known for many things, not least of which is how long they’ve been around. The creations have outlasted their creators and have become classics in our media.
Even the canon recognizes this: Action Comics #1000 recently had variant covers from each of the eight decades that Superman has been in stories, and one of the stories in the issue had a moment acknowledging that the other superheroes wouldn’t be here without him.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers and Captain America films have had joking acknowledgements of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’ ages. These types of acknowledgment are moving and funny for fans, but the other side of the story is the characters who can rarely get enough page time to come out from the long shadows cast by the A-List characters.
This is why, when Kamala was introduced, even those of us who were excited about her initial story arc were skeptical about whether her story would continue. Certain characters get hundreds or even thousands of chapters; most only get a small handful.
Why does this make a difference?
The longevity of characters provides a lot more content in which fans can find stories that they enjoy. Part of the reason certain characters become cultural icons is that a wide range of fans can find something in the characters’ story that they enjoy or relate to, and if you ask fans what they like about these long-lived characters, you’ll get varying answers.
One of the really fun things about reading Ms. Marvel has been being able to have such conversations about opinions on individual story arcs, which is only possible when the character actually stays around for more than one. There are so many stories that would not have happened if Ms. Marvel had ended after a couple of story arcs; we wouldn’t have gotten to read the stories addressing Millennial/Generation Y’s intergenerational relationships and misunderstandings; the friendship between a reformed former bully and the classmate she previously looked down on; the experience of a teenager realizing their heroes can also let them down; the breaking up and mending of long friendships; and many other topics.
Other obvious characters I can think of who demonstrate this premise are the classic X-Men, especially those who debuted in the Silver and Bronze Ages. Throughout my life, I’ve now read and watched so many stories with so many versions of these characters, and there is often some different angle or aspect of each character that gets added to my view of them each time.
Long-running stories like X-Men have thousands of issues and dozens of characters, and this is why there can be so much conversation on different fans’ favorite eras. I think one of the best things about discussing characters with other fans is realizing how differently they might see the character in their own mind’s eye, because we each might be creating a version of the character based on the storylines that made the biggest impression on us when reading the story. We get to know these individualized specific versions of them so well that we can even imagine what we think they’d do in a variety of situations.
Related to this is the fact that long-running stories also offer the opportunity to place a well-known character into different circumstances and ask how that character or that character’s story premise would address a certain challenge. What would Superman do? becomes an interesting question to ask, and with an ongoing series, many creators can tell stories of what they think Superman would do in a particular scenario. A broad range of topics have been brought up in these stories, and that serves the dual purpose of further developing the characters while also building them up as a cultural icons as their stories addresses issues relevant to people’s lives and current events.
For a new character like Kamala to gain a place in the pantheon with the older characters, it helps to have these types of stories added to her canon. We’ve already seen the stories addressing real-world situations that reflect current times, including profiling and harassment. There are already discussions in fandom regarding how Kamala would address bigotry in our societies, as she has been taken on as a symbol of supporting religious minorities such as Muslims and immigrants against discrimination.
Seeing this new character so quickly gain this iconic status has been incredibly moving, and seeing stories added to her canon will only add to this, as she survives as a living symbol rather than one relegated to the past.
There are any number of characters in the superhero pantheon and other stories who no one could have known would become as iconic as they have become over the years, and their ongoing stories changed over the years to address current times. A lot of stories from the past are still relevant to today, but the ongoing efforts to keep telling new stories is a reminder that we can always improve.
There are opportunities to add diversity to address the lack of inclusion in the past. We can take what we know and apply it to new-but-similar situations happening today. It’s a reminder to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and make sure that we keep learning – both regarding storytelling and regarding the real situations that these stories often metaphorically represent.
When we discuss representation and the value of seeing characters like oneself in stories in particular, aspects of the character’s story and experiences can play an even bigger role than just the demographics alone in getting fans to relate to the character. This is why fans who are from the same demographic will often disagree over the same characters regarding how realistic or well-done the representation was in a particular story; with the varied experiences of our lives, there are different stories that we can relate to. There is as much debate among people of the same demographic about stories as there is between people of different demographics.
Contrary to accusations that are made of those who advocate greater diversity, these fans don’t tend to judge stories with minority characters with a lower standard; instead, these characters and their creators are often judged more harshly, because the characters have the pressure to represent everyone in their demographic. While the demographics might get a reader to try out a story, especially if that reader has not often seen stories with characters like themselves, the book is still judged based on its merits and the readers’ personal preferences.
The longevity of the story can help develop the characters’ specific experience; rather than being held up to an impossible standard of trying to represent everyone of a particular demographic by being vague, it rather offers a chance to develop the character in a more specific way. It also provides something based on which a reader can recommend it to others with similar story preferences.
Kamala is a Muslim teenage girl character, and she is also her own specific character, with a life whose aspects will be unique. From her relationship with her family, her interactions with her friend, her practice of her faith, to her hobbies and interests, Kamala is unique just like every one of her readers – and more stories about her mean that more fans can relate to different parts of her life and also see that someone can have experiences that they might not have had.
There’s value in reading about characters whose stories have both similarities and differences from ourselves. Both people from different demographics and people from the same demographic can find something similar and different in these characters’ stories.
Among the newer stories whose longevity has helped to develop the characters is Runaways. A book with multiple female, people of color, and queer characters, the story developed the specifics of the characters’ stories in ways that let the reader get to know them as individuals. I think this is one of the reasons why the series has become so well-known and popular among fans; when we can get to know the characters, readers become invested in the story and want to continue reader beyond the initial curiosity. The series contains friendship, romance, time travel, and hero-villain fights. The characters have individual character traits, beliefs, and struggles.
While reading the series, there were parts of each character’s experiences that I could either understand or relate to. These characters themselves are different from each other but have found themselves together and able to relate to each other as well. Because the series moved forward beyond the initial story, we got to know more about the original team and meet new teammates that we would not have known otherwise.
When a character is new, keeping the character around can be even more critical to giving the character enough time to develop. I’m usually a superhero fan who will steadfastly defend the merit of origin stories, but for most characters to gain traction, they require more than an origin story. Some creators, talented and diligent as they are, manage to make series compelling from the start, but the characters have to stick around for more readers to have a chance to read the series and become invested in the story.
Recently, there was a spate of cancellations of Marvel books with characters from marginalized demographics. It was yet another addition to the long list of bad news marring Marvel’s reputation. In addition to being upsetting due to the demographics of the characters, the move was also upsetting because (as many fans pointed out) the publisher had cancelled these books before there had even been time for trade readers to try the books.
This made me think about how different this bad news was from the positive impression I’d gotten of diversity in comics when I started following comics monthly in 2014.
When Kamala’s series was first released, there had been an increase in the numbers of comics with female characters, and I felt like there were so many stories to try out and choose from. These longer-running series allowed for female fans to have a choice of what to read. During that time, I found my frustration with a lack of female representation in superhero comics decreasing and my hope increasing, because I didn’t have just one option for what to read.
Having stories that I enjoyed reminded me to being understanding of how stories with female characters that might not be for me might still be enjoyed by another fan. As more and more characters got new series, I was excited to explore their stories. In addition to Ms. Marvel, I remember reading A-Force, America, Angela, Iceman Silk, Spider-Gwen, Squirrel Girl, Storm, Thor (Jane Foster), and All-New Wolverine (Laura Kinney).
Four years after Kamala’s debut, I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that she is one of the few whose series is still ongoing. I enjoy reading her stories, but I’m also aware that new characters have an uphill battle when trying to join established universes or canons. I’d like to think that Kamala, superhero that she is, would want the others to share this triumph with her.
The pantheon needs some new membership, and I would think that the older superheroes would be open to the next generation. It makes me happy to see that Kamala has gained a fanbase and therefore has a chance of becoming one of the characters whose stories will be developed enough to become a classic with enough canon to inspire discussion well into the future.
Happy 50th Kamala Khan! Here’s to many more.