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Kamala Khan, and the new Marvel universe

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 15, 2018 Published on June 15, 2018

We hear you: At the end of every issue of Ms. Marvel, editor Sana Amanat fields questions from readers, in the ‘[email protected]’ section comics

A Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City is set to become the superhero of a Hollywood mega production

Earlier last month, Twitter erupted into fanboy/girl paroxysms after Marvel boss Kevin Feige, producer of Avengers: Infinity War, announced the latest superhero confirmed to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Given the noises Marvel has been making for the past couple of years — as well as the success of 21-year-old Tom Holland as the new Spider-Man — it was always going to be a youthful character.

As it turns out, Feige and Marvel have played a masterstroke, for the MCU’s latest entrant is Ms Marvel aka Kamala (pronounced ‘come-aa-laa’) Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American from Jersey City.

Kamala lives with her conservative immigrant parents, and her ultra-religious elder brother Aamir. She took the Ms. Marvel name from Carol Danvers, who used the moniker before she came to be known as Captain Marvel (Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel  is the next big standalone MCU movie; she is also confirmed to be a part of the Infinity Wars sequel). Her latent powers — shape-shifting as well as healing — are triggered after she is exposed to a “Terrigen mist”, as part of the Marvel-wide Inhumanity storyline (the Inhumans are a part-alien race of superhuman beings).

Kamala is a shape-shifter, but in scale, not appearance: she can “embiggen” her fists (“embiggen” is now a word in both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) to smash villains into pulp, she can be as small as a speck of dust, leaving them puzzled in her wake. Oh, and she can’t get hurt: like Wolverine, she has superhuman healing powers.

After a movie with an all-black cast (apart from cameos by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, the ‘Tolkien white guys’) became their highest-grossing property last year, Marvel is now ready to unleash a female, Muslim, Pakistani-American superhero upon us.

[email protected]

Comedians like Ali Wong and Hasan Minhaj — to name just a couple of the more popular ones right now — have grown in stature immensely these last few years. Their compassionate, smartly-written material draws from their childhood, replete with gently funny episodes involving immigrant parents, even as immigration policy becomes more and more of a hot-button issue with every passing day.

Kamala was created after a conversation in 2013, between Marvel editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker. Amanat was telling Wacker stories from her childhood in New Jersey, where she was born to Pakistani Muslim immigrants. As she revealed in a 2016 Washington Post interview, fitting in was difficult, to the point where she found herself wanting to be white, idealising blonde white women in particular (this is echoed in Kamala’s hero worship of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, the archetypal blonde, statuesque, all-American beauty).

Amanat (who heads content and character development at Marvel now) and Acker eventually decided to create a Muslim-American diasporic character. Once this basic concept was off the ground, the duo roped in author Gwendolyn Willow Wilson, who co-created the character and was announced as the series writer.

Wilson, a versatile writer blessed with comic timing and pop culture pyrotechnics, brought her unique experiences to the table. Born to atheist parents, Wilson turned to religion in college after a persistent, painful adrenal condition. She studied several religions (while pursuing a degree in history) extensively before converting to Islam in 2003, on a flight to Cairo, where she had decided to teach English. Wilson has said, in the past, that before living in Egypt during her twenties, she had no actual working knowledge of gender dynamics within Islam.

This comes across beautifully in Kamala’s character — as well as her relationship with Nakia, her best friend, an intelligent, headscarf-wearing girl who is clear about her choices. In the very first issue of Ms. Marvel, we meet Zoe, Nakia’s oblivious, tone-deaf white classmate in high school. Zoe, part of what Nakia terms the “concern police”, puts on a show of being kind towards the Muslim girl, couching her bigotry in acceptable, ‘I-only-ask-because-I-worry’ terms.

“Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki! I love that color. But… I mean nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody? Nobody is going to like, honor kill you? I’m just concerned.”

At the end of every issue of Ms. Marvel, Amanat fields questions from readers, in the ‘[email protected]’ section. It’s beautiful, the way readers have embraced Kamala, and how she has encouraged Asian-American kids in particular to manage and overcome their anxieties. Readers often compare Kamala to Spider-Man. The parallels are not difficult to spot, what with Kamala’s adorable World of Warcraft geekiness, and an almost-romance with her childhood friend Bruno. Sure enough, in 2016, Kamala made a guest appearance in one of Spider-Man’s adventures.

Kamala and Spidey are, in a sense, the perfect teenage underdogs: awkward, precocious, nerdy kids trying to make something of themselves in a world full of surly, humourless grown-ups — like half of the current Avengers line-up.

Why the world needs Ms. Marvel

As both Wilson and Amanat have said repeatedly, Kamala being a Jersey City (often derisively called New York City’s “sixth borough”) girl is a big part of her identity. Just like Spidey, being your “friendly neighbourhood” vigilante, typically fought low-to-mid-level crime bosses, Kamala, too has to contend with second-tier villains in a second-tier town.

This is just one of the many axes of discrimination that Kamala has confronted as Ms Marvel — while bashing up a mutant baddie, she asks him to “take his BS to New York, where it belongs”.

Then there was the very first villain that she took down, a lab-engineered clone of Thomas Alva Edison, the famous — and famously unscrupulous — inventor. The Edison-clone was convinced that the only sustainable way forward for the planet was if its teenagers, referred to as an “extra generation”, were converted into biochemical energy sources, tucked away in cocoons a la The Matrix. And he had raised an army to achieve precisely that.

During Kamala’s inevitable — and immensely entertaining — smackdown of the Edison-clone, she delivers a mini-lecture on how blatantly ageist today’s world can be. This can also be read as a rant against pop cultural depictions, most of which show teens to be vacuous and celebrity-obsessed, objects of scorn and vessels for condescension.

Another reason why Ms. Marvel is so very unusual for a superhero comicbook is the way it draws parallels — and solidarity — between people affected by various kinds of discrimination. In one of the loveliest scenes in Ms. Marvel’s 2014 19-issue run (it has had a second run since, in 2016), we see Nakia hugging and comforting the now-chastened Zoe, who has anxiety issues. Being Queen Bee of high school comes with distinct pressures: you have to be the coolest, prettiest, shiniest girl in the canteen. Even if you do that, you will still be treated like a girl, i.e. like someone clearly inferior to boys, let alone men.

Nakia is not rude to her (despite having been at the receiving end of Zoe’s rudeness). Instead, she hugs Zoe and tells her that growing up in an immigrant family, everybody expected her to be great at academics and co-curricular activities — anything less was an abomination. This, in turn, was of course guided by the pressure immigrants feel to constantly “contribute” to their new society, so that one day, they are valued as citizens.

That hug united two people suffering the oppression-axes of gender and ethnicity, respectively. And I’d bet good money that this scene teaches teenagers the concept of intersectionality better than most academic tomes. For the longest time, mainstream comics have received a bad rap for objectifying women, glorifying machismo and generally contributing to a hyper-masculine pop cultural landscape. Titles like Ms. Marvel can go a long way in amending this situation.

I’m 16 and I like it

Kamala and the team behind Ms. Marvel may soon find themselves on the frontlines of this, the latest chapter in the perennial Marvel vs DC battle. The DC movie universe has suffered a hat-trick of setbacks with Justice League, Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad. Marvel, riding high after Infinity Wars’s blockbuster outing, has to confront a sticky situation yet — the passing of the guard from old heroes like Steve Rogers, Thor and Tony Stark. And that’s where Kamala, Spidey and the rest of Marvel’s teenaged heroes come in.

Going into the new decade, Marvel has made it clear that it wants diversity on its roster — and not just the kind that looks good in photo-ops. Thanks to creatives like Amanat, Marvel storylines are challenging its own canonical missteps.

Consider what Kamala has been up to in her most recent storylines — going up against her idol Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, as part of the Marvel-wide Civil War II storyline (a kind of sequel to the Captain America vs Iron Man Civil War arc, which was adapted for the Russo Brothers film Captain America: Civil War). She, along with Spidey and the others, decide to break away from the Avengers altogether, and form their own all-star team-up.

At the literal and metaphorical levels, this signals Marvel’s willingness to engage with a new kind of superhero playbook. After years of lip service, we finally have Kamala Khan with us. As Wilson wrote, memorably, in the pages of Ms. Marvel, “Good is not a thing you are. It is a thing you do.”

(Views expressed are personal)

Aditya Mani Jha works at Penguin Random House India

Published on June 15, 2018
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