The Importance of Ms. Marvel as Immigrant Literature

I can think of no better way to introduce this subject than with Stephen Colbert’s reaction to the news:

<this is where I would embed the video, if Comedy Central, Yahoo Video, and WordPress would just get along already>

Before I continue I want to point out that the original Captain Marvel was a Kree alien who actually went by the name “Mar-Vell”, and when taking that into account Darlene Rodriguez’s pronunciation actually has a fair amount of validity.

With that out of the way, let’s take a more in-depth look at the young Kamala Khan.

Easily one of the most fascinating aspects about this new character, at least from a writer’s perspective, is how she came into existence. It all began when Marvel editor Sana Amanat, who grew up as a Muslim, began recounting stories of her childhood with fellow editor Steve Wacker. The two moved forward from there, “[noting] the dearth of female superhero series and, even more so, of comics with cultural specificity.”

If you were listening closely to Rodriguez, you’ll notice she said that Kamala is “among the first to be both female and Muslim” [emphasis added]. True enough, the mutant Dust [Sooraya Qadir] and the current Excalibur [Faiza Hussain] fit both those categories, but neither have been anywhere close to headlining their own title. Not only that but, in spite of them being well-rounded characters in their respective rights, there was never a very close look at who either of them were on a deeper level.

There are few easier ways to find out who a person is than by beginning with their family.

Look, I love comics. I am all about the fact that Wolverine has an adamantium skeleton and that metal that would otherwise poison his body is offset by his healing factor. That is all great stuff. Honestly, though, I could not care less that Kamala has shapeshifting powers; what I’m really interested in is the fact that she is the child of Pakistani immigrants. What I find really exciting is the fact that she looks up to Captain Marvel [Carol Danvers, not Mar-Vell; he’s dead] because “she’s strong, beautiful and doesn’t have any of the baggage of being Pakistani and ‘different.’” I am a child of immigrants and that resounds with me like nothing else.

“Her brother is extremely conservative. Her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant. Her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.” – Sana Amanat

A lot of the comments surrounding this new title have focused on Kamala being a Muslim, including Colbert’s above, and it will most definitely be a very important facet of who she is with series writer G. Willow Wilson stating that it is “really important for [her] to portray Kamala as someone who is struggling with her faith.” A Muslim herself, Wilson has come under some criticism, with the following comment on the Bleeding Cool news release summing up one complaint [censored for your sensitive eyes by yours truly]:

“Also I love how they went out and got the whitest Muslim they could find. Not anyone born a Muslim but someone that converted to the faith but before that she was a white girl from New Jersey that found the religion in college. Give. Me. A. F-cking. Break. Marvel.”

I have a number of responses to this:

  1. You aren’t “born a Muslim” anymore than you are “born a Buddhist”; you are raised in a certain faith.
  2.  Converting to a particular religion does not make you any more or less a member of that religion; it’s about how strongly you own your beliefs.
  3. Whether or not G. Willow Wilson can portray a Muslim character pales in importance compared to how well she can portray a Pakistani-American.

Just thinking about Patty and Joe on TVOKids brings on a reminiscence wave like nothing else.

The first two of my responses are facts and I will not back down from them. The third is highly subjective. As I mentioned above, my parents were immigrants, to Canada from the Philippines and Malaysia respectively, and that had an enormous impact on my childhood. It was a big moment for me when I was four-years-old or so and saw Patty on TVO interviewing someone on Canada Day, saying something along the lines of, “living here makes you a Canadian.”

Clearly it was and is much more complex than that, but regardless it still blew me away. “I am Canadian,” I thought, sounding like a commercial for Molson Canadian. Even though I didn’t look like most of the people I saw on TV and walking around downtown I was Canadian, I was just like everyone else. Figuring out how you belong is difficult for adolescents everywhere, but coming from an immigrant family adds just one more layer to work through, and an extremely complex one at that.

It feels like I’ve gotten a little bit offtrack with all of this, but what I’m trying to push is the fact that in a lot of ways the new Ms. Marvel book is immigrant literature. It promises to explore what it feels like to have parents who didn’t grow up in North America and who have their own ways of doing things, hanging on to the culture of wherever they came from. It appears to touch on finding out who you’re supposed to be as a teenager and as an American.

Fanart by tumblr user doktorvondoom.

Ms. Marvel is going to be edited by Sana Amanat, who lived a life much like Kamala will be living. It will be written by G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim female writer. Adrian Alphona is on art duties, and his work on Runaways proves he’s more than up for the task. This is a fantastic, talented team and they are going to be creating the first ever mainstream comic book title headlined by a Muslim female super hero.

Ms. Marvel #1 hits comic book stores everywhere February of next year. I’m going to be picking up a copy for a book that offers a distinctly different perspective from everything else on the stands, and that paints a picture of what it feels like to be an adolescent, a female, a Muslim, a minority, and a child of immigrants. Honestly, the superheroics are just a bonus.

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5 responses to “The Importance of Ms. Marvel as Immigrant Literature

  1. I knew Kamala would be Muslim, but I didn’t know she would be the daughter of immigrants. As someone looking to work in refugee and immigrant communities, this really is huge. Schools have already started using comic books to help ELLs (English language learners) and their English-speaking classmates talk about critical issues. “Maus” has been used pretty heavily, but in general the format allows kids with limited English to engage with text and take equal part in discussions.

    Now, having a comic that speaks to the reality of many ELLs, I’m genuinely excited for the types of discussions a book like this could foster in a mixed classroom. As you mentioned, it’s incredibly affirming for kids who can relate to Kamala, but I think beyond that it opens the door to kids who know nothing about life for immigrants, refugees, and religious minorities.

    Great post, Evan.

  2. Awesome post.

  3. This was great, Evan. I had not seen that video. Absolutely, marvel-ous.

  4. Wow, I hadn’t even thought about that Roxanne. My students are starting Persepolis but this new comic story might be a great supplementary text for them to begin to grapple with American culture as well. Great write-up Evan. I’m really interested to see how this plays out!

  5. Pingback: Ms. Marvel, #1: A Comic Book Review | Culture War Reporters

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