Marvel Comics recently said that it is reimagining Ms. Marvel, one of its superheroines, as an American teenager named Kamala Khan. But the news has gotten so much attention because Khan is Muslim.
Some quick background: The old Ms. Marvel was a blond military pilot who could fly, shrug off bullets, and shoot energy blasts from her hands. (Because aliens or something.) But Khan is a teenager from New Jersey who will be able to grow and shrink different parts of her body, and eventually she'll be able to shape-shift.
"Kamala has all of her opportunities in front her, and she is loaded with potential, but her parents' high expectations come with tons of pressure," Marvel said in a press release. "When Kamala suddenly gets powers that give her the opportunity to be just like her idol, Captain Marvel, it challenges the very core of her conservative values."
Notably, the new Ms. Marvel will be edited by Sana Amanat, herself a Muslim.
We decided to pick the brains of a few Muslim comics fans to see what this might augur for the future of Muslim representations in comics. Mariam Asad is a doctoral candidate in digital media at Georgia Tech. Zainab Akhtar blogs about comics at Comics & Cola. Muaz Zekeria runs the gaming blog Twinfinite.
Here are some highlights from our exchange.
Gene Demby: How do you think Muslims and Islam are represented in comics now? Are there any depictions that you think are done especially well?
Zainab Akhtar: Awww, man. Are we talking all comics and not just mainstream comics?
Demby: We are!
Akhtar: Well, I would say it's rarely represented unless it's represented negatively. There was, for example, this recent gem of an example, in the small press/independent comics scene of which I'm more familiar, in which the author claimed to be riffing on B-movies of the action and gross-out vein, with the "good white guys" killing brown bearded men who spoke gibberish and yelled things like "Allahu Akbar." The subsequent comments thread was very interesting. There was some vague explanation about it being satire, but lazy satire which has no point still has the ability to be racist and Islamaphobic. There's a lot of that going around, to varying degrees.
I was actually talking about this the other day with a friend, and my own views on it are ever-shifting, but representation of other cultures, races and religions by the best-intentioned people who are not from those groups lack the ability to capture the nuance and subtleties and understanding of what they're portraying. Craig Thompson's Habibi, is a beautiful, beautiful book, and I love that the clear admiration and respect he has for the language and script — but there were parts of it which fetishised and emphasized the exoticness of Arab culture, and the distinctions between culture and religion were not always made. ... People who aren't aware of those cultures and religions then read these depictions as given. I'm all for representation, but the way to get it right is to allow those people to tell their own stories, which simply doesn't happen, due to a white, middle-class hegemony of the literary establishment, which extends to comics to a significant degree.
The way people of colour, or religion, or anything else should be written shouldn't be what defines them. Character comes first. ... I'm a person, you know, I like comics, crap food, crappier music, and I also happen to be Muslim. It's a huge part of me, but it's not the way I introduce myself, or the way I want to be perceived necessarily. I want people to think of me as a person, not as a Muslim and, let's be honest, all the negative connotations that carries in society today.
With Ms. Marvel, I'm a little more hopeful, due to the fact that two Muslim ladies are in charge of it. I can see why her being Muslim is such a big deal, even as I wish she weren't marketed as such.
Muaz Zekeria: We're not portrayed positively in most media, so comics can't be expected to be much different. ... Any Muslim superheroes I've seen introduced goes through the same cycle: introduced; heavily featured in one book; book either gets canceled or wraps up; character fades into the background; and is rarely, if ever, heard from or featured again. This also goes for most minority characters. I think Luke Cage, Black Panther, Cyborg and John Stewart are the only ones who have bucked this trend, and even they don't get as much attention as your Iron Man, Captain America, Batman, Superman, etc.
Mariam Asad: The 99 is my favourite representation of Muslims in comics so far. I think Zainab hit the nail on the head: A "good" depiction for me — not just of Islam, but any religion or culture or character — is one that is nuanced and multifaceted. It's not about creating an archetype to represent an entire group, it's not about "getting" or understanding them. That, to me, makes a representation or a depiction feel cheap and exploitative, like it's a static platitude to be consumed and never considered again. That's not what any kind of identity is about, right? People are complex, and being Muslim is just one part of that complexity, and The 99 I feel does that justice. It's not to downplay being Muslim, of course, or to dismiss it, but instead it's more like incorporating religion into the larger, more holistic representation of what it is to be a person: you're a human being first, and Muslim second (or third, or fourth, or ninth, or whatever).
Demby: Could you give us some examples of those negative depictions?
Akhtar: One of Batman's staunchest villains has been Muslim, although his religion is rarely discussed. I'm talking about Ra's Al Ghul which translates from Arabic to "Demon's head." I don't mind that he's a villain at all, because he's consistently portrayed as a smart, intelligent, genius-level guy, who while wanting to cleanse the world of evil, obviously goes about it the wrong way. So of course, in Batman Begins he was played by... Liam Neeson. Couldn't possibly have a smart, elegant, Arab dude be a reasonable-ish villain now! (Same thing happened with Khan in Star Trek.)
Zekeria: Has Ra's ever actually been portrayed as a Muslim? I haven't been following DC for that long so I genuinely don't know. The only thing I know of his portrayals is that he's the Orientalist idea of an exotic Middle Eastern villain.
I've never actually seen Muslims portrayed in comics as villains. It seems Marvel and DC are very careful as to never show them as Muslim bad guys, just Middle Eastern bad guys or insurgents.
The closest I think either have come to saying "This is a Muslim villain," was during The Ultimates 2. The leader of the Ultimates' counterpart, the Liberators, is Colonel Abdul al-Rahman who is the Captain America equivalent. There was also a Syrian mutant named Swarm, who was The Wasp's counterpart.
Akhtar: Ra's isn't religious and sort of views himself as a god, but I've always assumed back when he was a man he was a Muslim — that's the reading I got — could be wrong, of course!
Asad: Oh man. I'm actually less familiar with negative depictions. Whenever I'd see news or articles or whatever about Muslim superheroes, I'd intentionally avoid reading them if they weren't about something positive. I feel like I read enough about negative portrayals of Muslims in other media (the Coachella Valley mascot, anyone?). Though I do remember one of the Arabian Knights being super awful, like wearing-a-turban-wielding-a-scimitar-on-a-magic-flying-carpet awful. That was Marvel, right? [Ed. note: Yes, in fact. There was a turban-clad Marvel character named the Arabian Knight who wielded a mystical scimitar and rode an indestructible flying carpet.]
Demby: Real quick: Could you rattle off some other Muslim superheroes? I've been trying to think of other characters whose religions have been a big part of their stories at all. So far I can only remember two X-Men: Nightcrawler, a devout Catholic; and Dust, the Muslim X-man who turns into sand. (This reminds me of Jubilee, the Chinese-American member of the X-Men whose initial power was fireworks. #headdesk.)
Akhtar: The only other Muslim heroes I can think of are Faiza Hussain, created by Paul Cornell for Marvel, in consultation with a group of Muslim women; she operates under the code name Excalibur (again with the sword thing — generally an "Eastern" icon/weapon), is a medical doctor, and also briefly became Captain Britain for a time (the comic she appeared in), and her portrayal is well-done.
There was also the Muslim "Batman," aka Nightrunner, aka Bilala Asselah, an Algerian French black Sunni Muslim. He was recruited by Bruce Wayne in the "Incorporated" storyline, where Batman wanted to go global and for there to be a Batman in each country in the world. It was a very well-written storyline, and nicely characterized, more contemporary and contextual, taking in French politics, and attitudes towards Muslims, etc.
Both are fringe characters, though, only appearing in the comics intermittently.
Zekeria: Other than the aforementioned heroes, I can really only remember two. Simon Baz, who is the new(-est) Green Lantern. He's from Dearborn, Mich., which has the country's highest population of Arab-Americans. He's also the son of immigrants, and when DC was introducing and setting up the character, they made a point of touching on how he has to balance his two identities before ever having put on the ring. An interesting little tidbit that stood out to me was a scene when Simon is mistakenly arrested for a terrorist plot, and one of the interrogating federal agents pointing out a tattoo Simon has on his arm that reads "Courage" in Arabic, and asking why Simon had the tattoo if they are forbidden in Islam. While to the average reader that may seem like just regular knowledge, I was impressed since it showed that not only was DC making an Arab-American superhero, but they were also doing research into the religion instead of just going off what people think they know about Islam, most of which is inaccurate.
The second super is Monet St. Croix, a mutant member of X-Force. The character has long been established as having a half Algerian, half Afro-European heritage. For the longest time, that was about all that I knew of her background, but in a recent issue (I want to say the past 12-18 issues but I can't find my copy right now) she revealed that she self-identifies as a Muslim. I don't think that it has been mentioned since, but the series ended last month or the month before so I don't know if that was something the writer, Peter David, meant to expand upon in the future.
Just to touch on what Zainab was talking about, Faiza Hussein actually wields Excalibur, so it's not so much a rehashing of the "Eastern weapon" iconography but more of a meshing of the East and West. She also had to deal with more conservative parents and balancing her British, Muslim, superhero and doctor identities.
Asad: Yeah, Dust is the first hero that I think of and, I mean, enough said, right? The other superhero that comes to mind is Ibn al Xu'ffasch from the Kingdom Come series, who's the son of Batman and Talia al Ghul in an alternate universe. (I warned you I was more of a DC lady!) I don't know that he's canon though, and I'm pretty sure he's never actually identified as Muslim.
When I think of Muslim superheros, I think of The 99 series. It's published by a Kuwaiti publisher, and I remember it got lots of coverage, like a TED talk, and I think President Obama gave it a shout-out at one point. The 99 is a reference to the 99 names of God (which are also characteristics of God, if my summer school memories serve me right), which is fairly prominent in Muslim tradition. I was really happy to see The 99 come out because it wasn't on-the-nose religious, but a subtle, more complex perspective of Islam; the series dealt with virtues, not dogmas.
Demby: Does being Muslim complicate your fandom?
Asad: It doesn't really play a role for me at all. I mean, my being Muslim impacts how I consume some television shows or movies or video games, but somehow I've given comics a pass? It might have something to do with the time in my life when I was really heavy into comics — it was more in my earlier teenage years when I wasn't really interrogating my cultural or ethnic identities too much, so maybe it's just bad timing?
Akhtar: Yeah, it doesn't really affect the things I read or consume. That's down to taste and preference. Actually, I guess I actively tend to avoid things [that tackle] overtly Islamic issues; I've never watched Homeland for that purpose; I have no desire to see yet another rehashing of all those themes. I'm tired of it all.
Zekeria: Honestly, it doesn't affect it at all. The only way these two ever intersect is when dealing with the "gods" in comics such as Thor or the Greek pantheon in DC comics. One of the main creeds of Islam, as in all other monotheistic religions, is that there is only one God. But, obviously they are fictitious characters in fictitious universes in comic books, so it doesn't affect me. I mean, I even still consider Thor my favorite superhero. ...
I don't really find myself avoiding media that focuses on Islam, but I've come to expect at best an inaccurate depiction, and at worst a portrayal of Muslims as ignorant, bloodthirsty, violent savages. I'm looking forward to seeing what Marvel does with Kamala, but I feel like this is more of a short-term thing than the establishment of a character that we'll be seeing and talking about for the next 10, 20, 30-plus years. I'd love to be wrong, but I'm not that hopeful.