Marvel Comics has had a unique variety of female superheroes among its ranks, but the iconic persona of Ms. Marvel has been one with a unique history going back to the late 60s.
Originally, Ms. Marvel was a persona that was adopted by Carol Danvers, a U.S. Air Force officer. While Danvers and her title as Ms. Marvel, a superhero whose powers include super strength, stamina, and the ability to fly at will, has been in some form of publication for almost forty years, it is perhaps no stretch to say that the image of the character has perhaps never before been more popular thanks to writer G. Willow Wilson.
While there is a long publication history behind the fact that Carol Danvers started as Ms. Marvel and (as of 2012) is now known as Captain Marvel, I’ll be referencing Carol’s foundational 1968 role as Ms. Marvel to better parallel the importance of Kamala Khan’s incarnation of the character and why the title matters. So, while Ms. Marvel started out as a white, blonde U.S. military officer, the role is now filled by Kamala, a teenage Muslim-American of Pakistani descent.
This article explores Kamala’s impact on diversity in comics, how her creation has changed the comic landscape as a whole, and what aspects of her creation in 2013 should be understood by critics and fans of Marvel content going into 2017.
I am not going to be saying much that is new when I comment that, as has been established almost everywhere, Ms. Marvel, as embodied by Kamala Khan, is a pretty big deal. Her role in comics has become so popular that her premiere 2013 series, Ms. Marvel, received reprint requests that pushed her sales numbers up into the realm of 200,000 or more copies.
While this might not seem like a big deal to some readers who might not keep themselves up to date on publication history and numerics, Aja Romano of the Daily Dot provides some perspective in the 2014 article “What Ms Marvel’s rare 6th printing means for diversity in comics.” Romano explains that “Spider-Man Issue #583, the one with President Obama on the cover, only made it to a fifth printing despite making international headlines.”
But so what? Why do Ms. Marvel’s comic numbers matter? Simply put, foundationally, a comic that does not sell well is cancelled, and cancelled comics seldom matter unless they present a fantastic novelty in terms of character, story, art, or some combination of the three.
Remember how I commented earlier that my intention was to explore Kamala’s impact on the issue of diversity and how her role has adjusted comics as a whole? It should be understood before I even touch those subjects that, as a comic title, Kamala Khan’s comic make money. This is not a title that did not see a lot of traction, yet was popular because of Tumblr, Twitter, or word of mouth alone. Ms. Marvel captured a zeitgeist movement that, unlike some others within the comic industry, had money behind it from the start.
But what matters about the numerics? How does this connect to diversity, or even what Kamala means? Simply put, comic sales have become one of the prime reasons to discount diversity initiatives in comics, or at the very least they are numerical barometer that some believe predicts that will or will not help the comic market in 2017 thrive.
In his 2016 article “Comics: You’ve Got Your Diversity, So Why Don’t You Buy Them?,” writer Adam Frey comments that, despite “ … ‘diversity’ [being] the watchword in comics for quite some time now,” comics themselves has a numbers problem. Frey submits his belief that it is “you, the readers” who are to blame for diversity initiatives in comics failing, yet he believes that who find support with high sales will remain and should do so.
Given Ms. Marvel’s high-profile foundation, and the fact that her foundational comic clearly was in high demand, does this mean then that Kamala and Ms. Marvel are the success story that diversity initiatives in comics has been looking for? Is Ms. Marvel a book that has captured a formula for success which can then be replicated across other books? Unfortunately, no; however, the reason for this is actually one of the things that makes Ms. Marvel such an important comic.
So, if you’re following me so far, I know I am going to sound crazy: Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan incarnation clearly sells like hotcakes, and numbers are important, but they’re not the only important thing. Nor do Ms. Marvel’s sales numbers mean that Marvel Comics has found the recipe for how diversity can be replicated in other titles.
Sales are indeed important, and it is Lars Hindley who says it best in his 2015 article “Marvel Imposes Affirmative Action Avengers on Free Comic Book Day.” Hindley says, “the fact is Marvel’s elite want controversy in order to increase sales and they know by creating a super hero affirmative action program, they can appear to have taken the high ground while everyone argues the point. All the while, sales go up” [emphasis by author].
Hindley’s comment is important because he stipulates that sales are directly linked with controversy and ideas about “affirmative action.” In the end, is this what Kamala’s importance is? Being a high-sales incarnation of a companies lust for profits, profits siphoned off the controversy and internet flame wars?
I argue, strongly and loudly, that Kamala’s dynamic introduction to the comic landscape was indeed built upon a metric that is important to those who both love and dislike diversity. Sales are often the thing that justifies, to pro-diversity readers, how important a particular comic is, while at the same time proving examples for non-diversity invested readers to point to when a comic subsequently is cancelled.
But, just like in life, the important things are seldom black and white. They are complicated. Kamala’s Ms. Marvel comic is important for more than her sixth-print run introduction, although I suspect that you might wonder then why I lead with it. There is truth to claims by Hindley and Frey: poor comics get cancelled and the easiest way to spot a failed comic is to highlight its initial sales.
But this newest volume of Ms. Marvel is now almost a year into its publication run and it remains, as a new comic without a strong element of popularity to boost it, as is the case with Batman or Superman, one of the top upper 100 comic titles in print across all publications. My source for this is drawn from the September 2016 comic publications numbers provided by comichron.com. So, if Ms. Marvel is staying afloat, what else really matters? What else makes her comic important for diversity? In one word: character.
While Hindley speculates that sales drive the mechanics of diversity initiatives at Marvel, his argument omits the fact that people who buy comics are buying narrative materials. The “sales” he is commenting on are sales of stories and sequential art, therefore, regardless of anything else a comic has going for it (even an agenda), there has to be a story to package it with. Nobody buys an empty comic for any reason, let alone diversity.
I argue that two things have made Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan important to both the comic landscape and diversity initiatives: innovation and awards. Yes, Ms. Marvel sells, but what made her comic sell was innovation, the innovation that had G. Willow Wilson, the author of Ms. Marvel, create a character who was both a Muslim-American and the titular hero behind her comic all in one.
Latonya Pennington points out in her 2016 article “Why Other Superhero Comics Should Be Like Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel,” “ … Ms. Marvel sets an example that hasn’t been seen in years with a diverse creative team, a diverse lead character, and diverse stories” [emphasis by author]. As was mentioned at the article’s start, Ms. Marvel, as a character, started as a white, blonde U.S. military woman who gained the power to fight crime as a super-strong, flying hero.
G. Willow Wilson changed the dynamic by re-framing Ms. Marvel as an ordinary young girl from Jersey City, New Jersey. This approach was specifically to make Kamala “broadly appealing,” as Pennington puts it, so that her character, regardless of anything else included in the fact that she is carrying on the legacy of Ms. Marvel, could be readable. Kamala had to be able to get her comic to a sixth print run somehow, and I suspect that this wasn’t entirely going to be because of any ties the Ms. Marvel name had to Carol Danvers (although, it should be said, fans of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s take on the Captain Marvel comic were likely a built in audience for Wilson).
What helped sustain Ms. Marvel’s initial print success was the fact that Kamala was both the first of her kind (she is the first Muslim-American girl to star as the head of her own comic) and that she is a thoroughly charming character. Like Spider-Man before her, Kamala is a character whose struggles are about more than just “how did I deal with the fact I have acquired super powers and how do I use them?”
Kamala’s issues are ones of family, responsibility and friendship. Kamala has parents who are very traditional even while they also embrace various American norms. Kamala has studies and lessons at her local mosque, yet she also has school and friends and uses social media. Recall earlier my statement that Marvel had found a positive sales angle, yet it was one that could not work for ever book? Few new Marvel characters, or any comic character for that matter these days, starts off as a teenager.
Traditionally, many new comic characters are actually older comic characters who come into new powers or responsibilities, or they are built upon established older characters through family ties. While this is not always the case, it is true that Kamala Khan, alongside Sam Alexander’s Nova, is one of the few young hero characters that came onto the comic landscape a few years ago.
Click HERE for Part 2 of our look at Ms. Marvel: Reflecting on Kamala Khan.