The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

How a Pakistani-American Girl Superhero is Saving Her World--And Ours.

Gender Equality Overall, SeattleMartha BurwellComment

Kamala Khan is a teenage Pakistani-American living in Jersey City, and she’s out to save the world. 

Until recently, Kamala Khan lived a perfectly normal life.  But everything changed when she suddenly acquired super powers, and weird things started happening in her neighborhood.  Now she has to battle villains, investigate the mysterious force that's poised to take over the earth, and figure out how to use her new powers.  All on top of dealing with the normal teenage stuff like overprotective parents, new feelings, and complex friendships.  Though her friends know her as Kamala, when she puts on her homemade superhero outfit (a modified shalwar kameez) you may call her Ms. Marvel.

While Ms. Marvel is saving her world from villians, she’s also saving our real-life world a little at a time by busting down stereotypes and showing us that a hero can be a girl, a hero can be muslim, a hero can be real and imperfect and a little bit awkward. 

When the first Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel was released in October 2014, it was an instant best seller.  Since then, more episodes have been released, each of which has built on the initial popularity.

Part of this popularity can be attributed to the fact that Kamala takes on real topics that lots of people can relate to.  Topics like what consent and victim-blaming mean, what it’s like being a second-generation immigrant, and how tough it is to resist bacon (‘delicious, delicious infidel meat’).  

We see the exploration of unfamiliar gender roles, where men are allowed to have heart-to-heart conversations with each other, and Kamala is more often the one saving the guy, rather than the other way around.  We learn about Pakistani culture through Kamala’s interactions with her family and friends.  We even learn a little bit of a new language via Kamala's conversations and when Captain Marvel (aka Carol Danvers, the original blonde-haired, blue-eyed, big chested Ms. Marvel) appears in a dream-like state to Kamala and recites a poem by a 13th century Sufi poet—in Urdu.   But most of all, we see a teenage girl figuring out that despite all the pressure to try to be someone else, it’s best to just be herself— imperfections included.   

To find out more about how Ms. Marvel has been received, I went to Comics Dungeon, a Seattle comic store that has been a staple for comic lovers since 1992.  I had a chance to ask a few questions to Nicole Lamb, a long-time employee, comic insider, and author of the article series "Hardcore Lady Types," that explores female comic heroes. 

Me: What is your overall opinion of the new Ms. Marvel series with Kamala Khan? 

Nicole: Before the series came out I thought Marvel was forcing a new character and was skeptical how it would be executed. Since it's release it has shown that it's not only an excellent story and with great art, but exactly what the community of comic lovers has needed. This representation in both Kamala being a Pakistani Muslim American, but also a young woman navigating through high school, relationships and parental expectations, hits just what the mainstream industry had been missing.

How have comic readers responded?

They have responded positively, in a “must have more Kamala” kind of way… So there's an acknowledgement that this is hitting specific demographics, like families, women (of all ages), or any gender who like their superhero stories to be fun and endearing. It's a big demographic, it's just not all of it. Overall, Ms. Marvel stays at the top of our sales, near the likes of Saga.

What is one of the most interesting or important aspects of the new Ms. Marvel? 

The most exciting moment I've had with sharing Ms Marvel was when I went to a school in west Seattle to give a presentation about the history of comics. Towards the end I made mention of some of the recent series being released and said there's a Pakistani Muslim American superhero named Ms. Marvel and heard gasps in the crowd. That shock and awe shows me that Khamala's heritage is an important aspect and a sorely needed voice in our country. My hope is that this sets a precedent.  I'd like our future to be filled with great stories that won't create a shock because there will be so much diversity that whoever reads comics can see their reflection in the characters.

What would Kamala say about the current presidential elections?

I think she'd be frustrated that there is such immaturity on a presidential level and mad that there is a perpetual anti-Muslim rhetoric on one side. Perhaps though, on another side, she'd be hopeful there might be a President of integrity. 

What are your thoughts on how Marvel has handled gender and ethnicity in this new series? 

I think they asked the right people to be involved. Because of that, Kamala was able to have a strong voice and strength of character that is consistent throughout. I don't think you have to pair like with like though. For instance, having Brian Michael Bendis write Miles Morales Spider-man has worked even though he is white. If you get people who care about what they're doing and who they are writing (or drawing), you'll get good stories. 

What do you think the next big hit will be?

 Nicole Lamb of Comics Dungeon  (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lamb)

Nicole Lamb of Comics Dungeon (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lamb)

My thoughts are to mainstream companies: you have to diversify your line, have characters of different genders, sexuality, religions, have different types of stories, dark and gritty, fun and light, have all-age tales. Try different things and see what sticks. I see the market as always changing and the demographics are shifting. Ultimately, if you tell a wide variety of stories you'll have a wider fanbase because one size doesn't fit all in comics. When Marvel put out Khamala Khan Ms. Marvel, they did something no one had done before and it was wildly successful.

That's not to say do a cookie cutter version of this. 

Find voices that are not being heard or written about and tell those stories, such as gay men, transfolk and people of color. I hear time and time again from our community, where are the brown superheros? People want to see themselves in stories, especially those where the characters are being strong and are victorious. 

In closing, I'll mention one of my favorite moments of Ms. Marvel, which takes place in the most recent episode.  The world is about to end, and Kamala's best friend Bruno finally tells her that he has feelings for her. Her response?  She gently says to him: "Being Ms. Marvel--it's filled up my heart and my life in a way that nothing else I've done ever has...I'm not ready to be anything else, to anyone else.  I need to give this everything I've got."  In essence, she's choosing personal development and growth over the attention of a boy.  

This seems like a small thing, but it's incredibly important.  Far too often, we see teenage girl characters in pop culture defining themselves mainly in relation to a boy or man.  It was refreshing to see a young female lead defining her worth through her own strength and individuality.  And the most important part: she defined it for herself.

Next, I hope she gets to battle some more of our real world villians—racism, sexism, perhaps Donald Trump?  Find out in the next volume, to be released on June 14th.  

This interview has been lightly edited. 

For more posts on gender and diversity, see the "It's All Connected" intersectionality series.