by Aisha Saeed
It’s hard to imagine a comic book could provoke a firestorm of controversy and world-wide media attention, but in November 2013 when Marvel announced the new Ms. Marvel would be Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani American teenager from Jersey, this is exactly what happened. As a Pakistani American Muslim, I was both intrigued and concerned by the news. It’s not every day people who look like me are featured in the media in a positive light. While I felt hopeful, I still wondered: would Kamala Khan be a new spin or a rendition of the same old tired trope filled with stereotypes of Muslims at large and Pakistanis in particular? Like most everyone else, I waited until February 5, 2014, the day of its release, to find out.
As it turned out, it was a completely new spin indeed.
Many people are often hesitant to dive into comic books because of the lengthy histories of the characters and their situations. The good news is, while the Marvel universe is complex and far-reaching and while there have been other Ms. Marvels, Kamala Khan is a brand new character who we all are getting to know at the same time. Starting at this Ms. Marvel comic is a great way to begin from the start with a comic and little need for backstory.
This first comic book, like all first installments in a comic series, sets up the backstory of the protagonist. And while I am new to the world of comics, this particular comic had a very strong young-adult feel given the age of Kamala Khan. In the first panel we meet Kamala Khan, a teenager, who like many American teenagers, is balancing two cultures. We catch a glimpse into her parent’s Pakistani culture, and the American culture she longs to fit into, and how she struggles to align the two. Only towards the end of this first comic do we see the hints of the super hero challenges to come, but it is an effective, hilarious, and moving first comic.
Kamala Khan is identifiable on many different levels. Though her story is intimately relatable to a Pakistani American like myself and captures the unique aspects of that struggle to balance two cultures, Kamala’s story is also relatable to all young people because which teenager hasn’t struggled to belong? What teenager didn’t disagree with how their parents wished for things to be? This comic is effective as a glimpse into a new culture and a reminder of how much despite our different races and ethnicities we all connect on a basic human level: the need to belong. And this is what intrigued me most: By sharing the story as Marvel did, warts and all, Marvel did something few mainstream avenues have dared to do before: they shed a window into the life of one Pakistani American Girl and they helped all readers empathize into the shared universal humanity of her struggles.
As a South Asian woman who grew up battling stereotypes and misconceptions, seeing someone normal, someone who looks like me, someone who is not an evil bandit, or a belly dancer, or a snake charmer, but just a normal person—is a completely new twist for me and after seeing the controversy about Kamala, I realized it’s a new twist for American society at large too.
And that is why this comic is so important and it is heartening to see that the new characters are being met with the overwhelming support they are. Readers want diversity, and this new Ms. Marvel reflects that need. Distributors sold out of Ms. Marvel within days and the comic is entering a not-too-common second printing, which will be available on March 19.
I’m thankful Marvel is featuring women and people of color in their comics and portraying their core humanity as they engage in society without the burdens of stereotypes and clichés. Not only does such representation help defeat misconceptions others may have, but it also helps those who are part of that culture to feel visible. And when you are invisible in the media and all the public images you see, to feel visible is a powerful feeling that is difficult to put in words. Kamala Khan’s popularity gives me hope that the comic will not only succeed, but also be a harbinger of more diverse characters and stories to come. And for the sake of myself, and my sons, I couldn’t be happier.
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Aisha Saeed is a contributor to story and chai, focusing on YA books and writers. She is also a mama, lawyer, teacher, and maker and drinker of chai. She is a contributing author in the New York Times featured anthology Love Inshallah. Aisha has been blogging for a decade at her website, and her writing has also appeared in places such as The Orlando Sentinel, BlogHer, Muslim Girl Magazine, and Red Tricycle. She also writes a monthly column, Literary Mama, at LoveInshallah.com. Aisha has completed two young adult novels and is represented by Taylor Martindale at Full Circle Literary Agency.