Comic Love: Being a New Fan and Reading Kamala Khan

“Sana [Amanat] and I initially had very modest expectations for this book. Our goal was to get to ten issues. It was going to be a fun side project—a young adult Muslim super hero! At Marvel!—that would have the lifespan of fun side projects. I budgeted a year for it. But by the time the first trade paperback hit the New York Times Graphic Books best-seller list, I realized Kamala was quickly becoming the center of my life.”

– G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel Vol. 4 #38 letter column

February 2019’s issue of Ms. Marvel was the last one for Kamala Khan’s original creative team. The writer, line artists, and editor have left the book after a substantial run that brought this character from her origin story to great fame and acclaim. Of course, there were detractors, too, but as G. Willow Wilson says in the letters column in her last issue, the series’ popularity and success surprised even its creators.

I was one of a number of fans who started reading monthly comics issues partly because of this series. A lifelong fan of super-heroes due to Saturday morning cartoon shows and films, I had long wanted to try the original material but had no way of knowing where to start. Ms. Marvel provided a way to step through the door, with a significant amount of help from other fans who shared reading recommendations. As I think back on the past five years, as clear as the feelings about the stories themselves are the feelings about how her story gave a way to enter super-hero comics to new readers — and subsequent realizations regarding the Big 2 heavy hitters in the comics industry and the long-standing comics fandom.

Cover art by Sara Pichelli

The obvious part is that Kamala, being a new character, provided an opportunity to start at the beginning of the series in a way that’s much more difficult with series that have been going on for decades. The way she was introduced made a big impression because she had her own series. She wasn’t an afterthought in someone else’s story, and there was sufficient time to develop her story apart from the universe-spanning events. I think that a big part of why Kamala made the impression she did is that her story was treated as relevant and interesting one, with a creative team that did wonderful work and had a chance to treat her story as important to the story universe.

Even when the more-famous superheroes were introduced in Kamala’s story, it was done in a way that still kept her as the main character, which was refreshing to see.

One of the disheartening things about being a fan of a new super-hero is that there can be an expectation that readers already know the character from minor appearances or that readers will be indifferent to newer characters, because they must be reading the series for another already-famous one.

Kamala’s stories included more-famous superheroes from the beginning. In her first full issue, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Iron Man recited Urdu poetry when Kamala got her powers via Terrigen Mist – but it was always clear that they were guests in her story, not the other way around. Though universe-spanning events can often derail character development for new characters, the creative team managed to use the space in Kamala’s tie-ins to Civil War II to tell a story about a teen losing their trust in one of their heroes and about profiling. The series even managed the impressive feat of including the X-Men character Logan (Wolverine) in the book without making the story about him.

Interior art by Nico Leon

Kamala’s family and friends have major roles in her story throughout the two previous volumes: they help to develop her world — meaning that Kamala has her own corner of the Marvel Multiverse, rather than being a minor player in someone else’s corner. There were several times in the previous run in which Kamala’s friendships were affected by her super-heroing, but the series also addressed the long-standing trope of the hero hiding their identity by having Kamala’s mother and friends figure out that she’s Ms. Marvel before she tells them. The last two issues of the series focused heavily on her friends and family, which felt like a a fitting conclusion to the first portion of her story.

For all her success, Kamala had a lot on her shoulders – or her creative team did, more accurately. It’s ever easy being the first, because to represent everyone in one’s own demographic is impossible for any human being. Kamala’s story is one of many that have shown (again and again) that stories with minority characters can and do succeed and gain fans.

Interior art by Nico Leon

It also shows the need for further increasing diversity both in the creative teams and characters. Everyone wants to read what they want to read, and when accounting for the wide variety of personal experiences and story preferences, the only way for stories to be a mirror for the world is for there to be many stories.

What helped Kamala’s story be specific to her, even though many fans can relate to it, was the fact that her supporting cast included several other Muslim and female characters. At least in her own book, she didn’t have to portray the one way to be Muslim or the one way to be a teenage girl, because there is no one way and there were others to show that.

Diversity within minority groups is something that I think goes unnoticed or underappreciated, even among circles calling for more diversity within comics or other media. For several years, I read as commentators who were fellow fans of Ms. Marvel didn’t understand when a passage of Ms. Marvel portrayed a dynamic or difference of experience among Muslims — or missed the mark in this regard. There were commentators who misunderstood the importance of certain arcs that meant a lot to me and praised arcs that I felt could have been done differently to give a more well-developed portrayal to some non-Muslim characters from different minority groups. There will always, of course, be differences of opinion on stories, but at least some of these opinions seemed based on ignorance or very 101 understanding about the issues being portrayed.

Interior art by Takeshi Miyazawa

In the last five years, I’ve been reminded many times of when I started reading monthly comics and what it felt like to find multiple series with female main characters. There was a feeling of appreciation for the series that weren’t for me, because others enjoyed them and there were series that I enjoyed. There wasn’t a feeling of losing something if a story wasn’t for me, because there wasn’t a feeling that there would only be a few.

Perhaps I got a rosy picture of the diversity in comics because I received a lot of diverse recommendations when I started reading, but then realized that this medium had the same issues as the prose novels I had read for years. As I followed some of these female characters’ series (many of which ended after few issues compared to their male counterparts’) and as I heard the stories of creators experiencing discrimination within the industry, it was clear that the contingent which advocated for inclusion was part of long fight, as in many other industries.

Now that Kamala has moved to another creative team, there’s a part of me that regrets there isn’t another women of either minority religion or ethnicity on the team. While I very much believe that creators can portray characters who are different from themselves well – it’s a necessity when writing or drawing fiction, rather than autobiography – the overall lack of women from minority religions and ethnicities in mainstream entertainment is still a point of frustration.

Interior art by Takeshi Miyazawa

It also illustrates another point regarding what inclusion conversations can be like for fans who are from multiple minority groups. For the industry and society in general, men of color getting a job writing a famous character is a step in the right direction, and for white Christian readers, it could be one of their few times reading a book by men of color. However, many women of color have spent their whole lives hearing the views of men of color regarding women of color. It’s frustrating that the one mainstream long-running superhero book about a teenage Muslim girl of color wasn’t given to another Muslim woman or woman of color for her take on the character. Kamala having no women among the writers and artists feels somewhat similar to the recent announcement about The Unstoppable Wasp’s new creative team or the fact that Jane Foster has now been written and drawn by men for years.

Marvel goes through these phases where they get credit for improving on diversity, but then are quick to take that away, for many marginalized and under-represented demographics. This is something that may or may not be noticeable to new fans, but after reading comics for a few years and noticing the pattern of cancellations and creative teams announcements, it becomes apparent.

Kamala and her creative team certainly aren’t the only ones about whom this can be said, and her series has been better than most on this front. But she is one of the few new characters who has reached a level of popularity that means she might actually stay around, which is part of the point here: she’s the illustration of what can be and what has not yet been accomplished, both among the creative talent hired and the stories portrayed on the page.

Cover art by Jamie McKelvie

Looking towards the future, what I think of is the desire for new creators, new characters, and new stories on the part of fans who like the old tropes and want to see them retold.

Kamala’s debut was at the right time, because she represented an increase in diversity and a callback to old superhero tropes right at the time when there was an increase in discussions about diversity and an increased interest in superheroes due to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and creators who care about diversity. Kamala’s debut was six years after the Iron Man film that in 2008 started the MCU, and just two years after the 2012 Avengers film and the Captain Marvel comics series that promoted her namesake to Captain. Her series arrived just as bookstores were stocking more trade paperbacks and just as book reviewers were reading and reviewing more comics, allowing fans of prose fiction like me to hear about comics series even when we weren’t following comics news at the time — and then go pick up the books more easily than we could in the past few decades.

Kamala is similar to the many superhero adaptations that many fans grew up with, meant to introduce the superheroes to new fans in a way that takes them seriously enough that the stories have meaning while avoiding the grimdark which for many childhood super-hero fans seemed to not match what they loved about the genre and what they go to it for.

Part of what makes Kamala so endearing is that she’s the teen superhero who is also a fan. She’s going through the various parts of growing up and teen super-hero tropes at the same time in a way that simultaneously feels classic and unique. Marvel seems to advertise many of its new series as being simultaneously classic and new, but Kamala’s is one of the few stories that fit the description well. She’s been compared to both Peter Parker and Kitty Pryde and she seems to potentially have their staying power.

In a field filled with a pantheon of heroes, it’s difficult for new heroes to break through and join the ranks for any long duration of time, let alone gain the fame of the most well-known.

There had seemed a lack that Kamala filled: a new story for a new age with the sincerity we remember from youth. Rather than being a departure from the past, she felt like its necessary successor, the next generation for whom the likes of Captain Marvel and Captain America would certainly cheer – making her detractors seem ridiculous to the fans who clearly saw she is an heir to the best of the genre.

I’m glad Kamala is part of the next generation of heroes taking on the mantle. May she kick down the door for many more.


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