And yet, the creators involved keep assuring the public that Ms. Marvel, known in her civilian life as teenager Kamala Khan of Jersey City, will wrestle with the same identity issues and familial struggles that every teenager endures. After reading numerous interviews where that universality was highlighted, I began to wonder, why all the reassurance that this tale will be more frazzled Peter Parker than second generation Pakistani-American tale? Shouldn't we embrace the specificity of Kamala's experience, see through new, non-white, non-homogenized eyes for a change? Shouldn't that be as exciting as Ms. Marvel herself?
And I realized, Marvel Comics is hedging its bets, working not to alienate the current audience, while prepping for a new, likely female, one. As much as I welcome Kamala Khan, others might disagree with my enthusiasm. Of course, Stephen Colbert is joking in that clip; others in certain comments section really aren't. The main criticism I see popping up (even in the comments sections of pop culture sites I like) is that the inclusion of such a high-profile character indicates tokenism on Marvel's part, that the choice to include a Muslim-American character in its roster is somehow pandering and audience-grabbing, and therefore, is devoid of any narrative value. Quite frankly, these thoughts read as cover for the ignorant fanboys' real worry: that their clubhouse is being invaded by women and people who aren't white.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this reaction. People came out in droves to protest a biracial Spider-man replacing the white one back in 2011; why wouldn't there be beef here? The comics industry is one of the most, if not the most exclusionary, art form I can think of; I often wonder why I continue to support it at all, when my other love -- theatre -- is all about building communities and giving everyone a voice within an artistic process. Sure, it's not a perfect discipline, and it can be exclusionary, in terms of race, gender, and class, like any field (there's many ways to look at the RSC's current all-male productions of Shakespeare plays, for instance). But I know few in the theatre who would openly oppose the creation of a character with a little-explored background. Most theatre artists I know would embrace building an open world, one that draws audiences into experiencing a new perspective. Why wouldn't comics companies want to do the same, unabashedly? And why would comics fans be so instantly skeptical about the provision of a hero to inspire young women and young Muslims? What, precisely, is not worth celebrating with Ms. Marvel, whose previous incarnation left a LOT to be desired?
I think my befuddlement can be answered by confronting the accepted aspirational model. Aspirational tales have been around since the days of Greek myth, probably since long before that, in some form of cave drawing. And again and again, people have been told that a hero is Theseus, Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts. In short, guys. Guys who worship the appropriate gods, who win glory through grit and determination. In more contemporary times, people might fantasize about being Indiana Jones, or John McClain, or Batman. The victors are always men. We are told repeatedly in American society that we should aspire to be strong, and smart, and physically imposing, like white dudes. (Captain Marvel's current writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick has been kicking this assumption's butt all over the place by building a faster, smarter, more iconic Carol Danvers.) So what could be more daring than to ask us to aspire to be a young Muslim-American teenager, who struggles to reconcile her cultural life with her superhero one? Of course, Spider-man also wrestles with his acts of derring-do, but he gets to date a never-ending series of attractive women, so there's still wish fulfillment there. In this new Ms. Marvel, we will be asked to identify with someone we might not interact with every day, but who is nevertheless all around us, all the time. We will be asked to take what might be an assumed minority as its opposite, as majority. We will be asked to accept that women and people of color love comics, too, and have their own stories to tell. I really can't think of anything more momentous and meaningful than making the world, narrative or otherwise, a little bit bigger. Here's to you, Marvel Comics, and to your upcoming Ms. Marvel!
Ms. Marvel #1: Sara Pichelli, cover artist.