By Victoria Rahbar
Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan is arguing with her mother because “What project requires a burkini at 10pm on a school night?” (Figure 2) (Wilson et al., Issue 4). No procrastinated-until-10-pm school project requires swimwear, and so the comic reader laughs. Ms. Marvel’s superpower is her polymorphism: embiggening or shrinking as needed. Kamala Khan’s superpower? She makes you laugh as her life as a superhero is just too relatable, and this power caused her story to sell out in comic book stores and enter the classroom. Jessica Baldanzi and Hussein Rashid examine Khan’s power in the interdisciplinary essay collection Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal (Figure 1). While previous scholarship (Anderson) emphasizes Khan’s religiosity, this essay collection reflects pedagogical needs for scholarship about intersectional superheroes. Readers cannot forget that Khan is a proud New Jerseyan Pakistani Muslima Inhuman high school student who happens to be a second-generation immigrant nerd who succeeds the previous Ms. Marvel, blond-haired blue-eyed Human/Kree hybrid Carol Danvers. This essay collection is shaped by Khan’s intersectionality, as well as interdisciplinary comic studies scholarship that employs “diverse methods to match the growing diversity within comics themselves“ (vii). By limiting analysis to the first volume of Ms. Marvel (issues one through nineteen), Baldanzi and Rashid ensure that the interdisciplinary essay collection will be broadly applicable while also encouraging its “authors to delve more deeply into the genesis of the series, before Khan’s appearances extended” (x). Structurally, the anthology contains eleven essays spread across four sections: Part One: Precursors; Part Two: Nation and Religion, Identity and Community; Part Three: Pedagogy and Resistance; and Part Four: Fangirls, Fanboys, and the Culture of Fandom. The collection ends with a coda titled “Conversations” featuring an original comic, as well as an interview between anthropologist Shabana Mir and Ms. Marvel co-creator G. Willow Wilson. While the essays all address the same Ms. Marvel comic, they are not in direct dialogue with each other, and so my review must discuss each essay separately rather than together.
In the superhero world, we must honor those who came before. The first two essays in this collection serve this purpose. J. Richard Stevens’ essay, “Mentoring Ms. Marvel: Marvel’s Kamala Khan and the Reconstitution of Carol Danvers,” focuses on Kamala Khan as the successor to Carol Danvers. Stevens provides an overview of the literary and personal history of Carol Danvers. By comparing the two Ms. Marvels, Stevens reveals what Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan represents to new readers. Martin Lund’s essay, “Placing Ms. Marvel and Dust: Marvel Comics, the New York Metro Area, and the ‘Muslim Problem,’” contrasts the present New Jerseyan Khan against the past of Afghan superhero Sooraya Qadir, also known as Dust. Lund further signifies Khan’s Jersey City sense of place. New York City is the superhero homeland, and Khan observes it daily from the other side of the Hudson. She is secure here, something not offered to Dust during her earlier run in post-9/11 New York City. Yet, Dust is “her most prominent Muslim superhero precursor” (xii). Lund ends in a similar place as the first essay, writing, “None of Dust’s writers, it seems, could imagine a Muslima who went beyond the fiction of an American national ideal. … [a] stereotype” (36). How could Kamala Khan arise out of these past depictions of Ms. Marvel and Muslima superheroes? The writers of Ms. Marvel are Muslimas, and they write for inclusive readers who do not live for a fictional world of stereotypes – just one where people can polymorph themselves into sofas (Wilson et al., Issue 6), as illustrated in Figure 3.
Superhero comics allow us to explore ideas of hybridity and the inability to be limited to one identity, for often a superhero lives two lives that are in conflict with each other. Hussein Rashid’s essay, “Ms. Marvel is an Immigrant,” begins Part Two. Khan’s characterization is linked to her refusal to be shoved into one single identity box. Rashid writes, “[How Khan] exhibits her second-generation identity is a particular case study in how immigrants of any generation, unless phenotypically white, are not normal” (47). Theories around hybridity are further employed to better understand Khan, the teen behind the mask. Rashid also establishes a central argument to this essay collection: Khan is not a Muslima superhero, but she is a superhero who happens to be Muslim (61). By contrast, Sika A. Dagbovie-Mullins and Eric Berlatsky differ from Rashid in conceptualizing Khan in their essay, “‘The Only Nerdy Pakistani-American-slash-Inhuman in the Entire universe’ Postracialism and Politics in the New Ms. Marvel.” For Dagbovie-Mullins and Berlatsky, Ms. Marvel is mixed in a post-racial world (66). On her apolitical images, Dagbovie-Mullins and Berlatsky argue that “there is a limit to how political, or how controversial, corporate superhero comics can, or will, be” (83) in their quest to sell the character to the media mix at the cost of representation.
Jessica Baldanzi’s essay, “‘I would rather be a cyborg’ Both/And Technoculture and the New Ms. Marvel,” provides another reason for Ms. Marvel’s popularity: the particularity of it all (92). Returning to Rashid’s argument that Khan is a superhero who happens to be Muslim rather than a Muslima superhero, Baldanzi contends that Khan a cyborg who fits into past and present ideas around technoculture. This interpretation is only possible due to her characterization not being a caricature (92). How does Khan feel about being a cyborg? In Figure 4 above, she tells comic readers, “For a while, I just kind of felt weird and gross. Now I feel weird and awesome!” (Wilson et. al., Issue 18). Keeping with past scholarship on Khan’s religiosity in identity formation, the final essay of this section is rich in everyday phrases in use by the ummah, as well as Islamic terminology. A. David Lewis’ essay, “Hope and the Sa’a of Ms. Marvel,” addresses Khan the Muslima who has hope during the apocalypse. The world is ending, so the superhero must fly over to Manhattan to battle, right? Lewis argues that is not Khan’s path, because her home is Jersey City, and the apocalypse was foretold (121). The religious teachings she received from her parents and Sheikh Abdullah’s khutbahs are important to her ability to center herself, but Lewis argues also for her marginality. He writes, “From her position outside the center, from her identities along the margins, Khan can maintain her core principles” (122). This essay also features descriptions of other Muslima characters witnessing the end. With the inclusion of New Yorker Soraya Khorasani and Pakistani-British Faiza Hussain aka Excalibur (123), the essay collection’s analysis of Khan against other Muslimas in Marvel comics grows beyond Dust.
As the field of comic studies expands, so too must our approaches to teaching comics. The third section of the essay collection moves Ms. Marvel from a comic to be studied to one to be taught. Peter E. Carlson and Antero Garcia’s essay, “The Transformational Resistance of Ms. Marvel in America,” employ critical race theory with a conceptional framework born from ideas around transformative resistance. Khan’s intersectionality brings her power and entitlement, yet “more often [these qualities] conflict with each other” (133). Carlson and Garcia put forth education when investigating “how the contemporary Ms. Marvel comic provides lessons and models for youth civic engagement” (133). Their analysis concludes that while Khan eventually does meander over to transformative resistance, she also goes back and forth to conformist resistance, reactionary behavior, and self-defeating resistance. Carlson and Garcia see this as an asset to their conceptional framework as youth engagement with social justice is non-linear (136). Carlson and Garcia state, “Her intersectional identity is a crucial aspect of how and why her transformational resistance is so necessary for young people to read and bear witness to” (151). In the following essay, “Classroom Heroes: Ms. Marvel and Feminist, Antiracist Pedagogy,” Winona Landis “explore[s] the use of comics beyond the writing classroom… [to] interdisciplinary courses such as gender and ethnic studies” (152). When teaching Ms. Marvel, Landis contends that educators should “highlight the feminist and antiracist qualities of Ms. Marvel, [and] students should be encouraged to reflect on how to connect and comprehend across difference” (159). Her own experience, that of other educators, and student voices are found throughout this essay (160, 164-167) for the purpose of showing how this valuable work can be performed. Suitably, Landis ends her essay with a fan letter written by a fellow educator teaching Ms. Marvel (167).
Kristin M. Peterson’s essay, “More Than a Mask, Burkini, and Tights: Fighting Misrepresentations through Ms. Marvel’s Costume,” ends this third section and must be spoken of alone due to its strength in analyzing image and text, as well as its nuanced exploration of life in America for hijabis and non-hijabis. Peterson furthers the argument that Khan’s place in the classroom is one of resistance. Peterson addresses her as “a multidimensional character who is positively influenced by Islam but not reduced to it” (186). Peterson also argues that “Ms. Marvel does important political work to shift public perceptions of Muslim Americans” (171). The graphic nature of comics lends itself to this important work in both our world and that of Ms. Marvel. Peterson elects to “focus on her image and her fashion not only because of their uniqueness but also because of how fans have used her image in cosplay, fan art, and posters to represent her positive values” (171). Khan faces the same pressure all Muslim women experience in America, regardless of whether or not they observe hijab. Peterson expands this to Khan as Ms. Marvel when she writes, “A character like Ms. Marvel is under constant pressure to use her clothing and visual style to represent Islam in a positive light… and to avoid portraying herself as a hypersexualized superhero” (178). This powerful image of a “strong, independent, and intelligent young woman [is] in direct opposition to the stereotype of Muslim women as voiceless victims” (183). Accordingly, Peterson is not surprised when fans of Ms. Marvel bring her costume into our world in the form of cosplay (184). Rather, she reflects on how Khan’s intersectionality and relatability empowered both those cosplayers and other political action against Islamophobic Muni bus adverts (185-186). Furthermore, Ms. Marvel the comic responds to cosplayers by providing inspiration for costume creation in cover art (Figure 5). Khan not only tells the world that cosplay is for everyone but that her fight for social justice need not be limited to her comic world either (187).
The next section begins abruptly, taking us from the classroom to the convention center, looking at fans with a critical eye and problematizing the old, dominant white male fandom against new intersectional readers. Aaron Kashtan’s essay, “‘Wow. Many Hero. Much Super. Such Girl’ Kamala Khan and the Female Comics Fandom,” reminds readers that one of Khan’s identities–the one that superfans relate to most as they don her costume for comic cons–is that of a fangirl (191). Khan’s engagement with fan culture establishes that not only is cosplay for everyone, but comics are for everyone as well (192). Kashtan writes, “As a transformational superhero fan, Khan is unusual in that she participates in a stereotypically male fandom, but she engages in [female] fan practices” (199). However, Khan as fangirl may not be as big a step as needed for representations of fans in comics, relying on stereotypical rather than critical fan engagement. And yet, Kashtan ends his essay with recognition of Ms. Marvel as an “important title… [because it] suggests that fandom is not the exclusive domain of white male fans” (203).
So, what do white male fans think of Ms. Marvel? Nicholaus Pumphrey’s essay, “Kamala Khan, Miles Morales, and Marvel NOW! Challenging the Traditional White Male Fan,” addresses this category of readers. Pumphrey’s essay focuses on toxicity propagated by “anyone operating outside of the context of cisgender heterosexual, white, and Christian male” (208). While this racism and sexism (207) is experienced by many of the Marvel NOW! characters, Pumphrey limits his analysis to Khan and Puerto Rican/African-American superhero Spider-Man Miles Morales. Negative reactions to the emergence of characters like Khan and Morales are common (211). Displeased fanboys, Pumphrey argues, “feel that some discrimination has occurred, even if his side of the ratio is still well above the percentage of the world” (212). Specifically, “Khan’s starring role… forces the fanboy to deal with her identity in some form” (217). As Khan and Morales embiggen and swing across the media mix, with Khan starring in her own television miniseries in 2022, Pumphrey leaves readers with a final question. He asks if this is “real diversity or tokenism?” (221). This central question goes beyond this essay to the collection as a whole and leaves readers with no definitive answer, and so his conclusion weakens his argument. There is simply hope for this new generation of characters and readers who might rid the fan community of its inherent toxicity. Future work should consider how this toxicity may be addressed in a productive matter, now that we have scholarship acknowledging the problem.
Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal, like the first volume Ms. Marvel, centers an intersectional character whilst also highlighting the possibilities and limitations of comic studies. Comics studies scholarship should be interested in interdisciplinary approaches, welcoming scholars who utilize theoretical frameworks found in literary media studies as much as those from law (e.g., critical race theory). Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal provides a strong example of how to write interdisciplinary comic studies research succinctly. The co-editors limit their analysis to the first volume of the series, which enables students to see the disciplinary junctions and disjunctions with a level of clarity not possible when including lengthy and unwieldy story arcs. At the same time, limitations in approaching comic studies as its own field are apparent from the first essay. While Stevens employs a strong array of archival sources, he also speaks on the difficulties in conducting archival work with comics (16). Both comic studies scholars and students are limited to “the more accessible text” (17) and not always able to utilize archival sources. This essay collection, then, acts as both scholastic text and documentation itself, which students can utilize for their own work when archival research is not possible.
The other limitation for this essay collection–a frequent challenge in comic studies scholarship–relates to images. The first, third and fourth parts are image-free, except for Peterson’s essay. Part Two of the essay collection does offer a mixture of illustrations, but even here the use of images remains limited. For an essay collection on comics, this lack of visual components is unacceptable, akin to a literary analysis essay refusing to use quotes from the text. Educators teaching this essay collection will need to provide Ms. Marvel comics to their students to help them follow along with these analyses, which are difficult to interpret without the visual context. For that reason, Peterson’s essay, which demonstrates what writers can produce when they make their comic studies scholarship graphic, is even more important. The final paragraph of page 175 in the print version beautifully describes the panel Peterson is analyzing, and, once the reader flips to page 176, it is reproduced in black-and-white. Overall, the essay collection shows how comic studies scholarship is compelling when using images to support theses and weak when relying exclusively on written evidence. Additionally, this is where the lack of conversation between the essays is most prominent, for if there is a dialogue between authors, comic studies essay collections can include a section dedicated to images alone for the reader to reference. What is accessible, then, by means of this essay collection, if not images? The answer is the development of Ms. Marvel within the context of her predecessor and her current manifestations in both our world and that of Marvel. While this text was printed prior to the announcement of the television miniseries Ms. Marvel (2022), it now is a necessary text for understanding who Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan was prior to embiggening into the media mix.
Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal is needed in the classroom to teach the future scholars of comic studies how to bridge their hobbies into interdisciplinary scholarship, but in what classrooms and for what students? What about secondary and postsecondary classes focused on fashion or religion? The essay collection contributes to fashion–how we study it, what it looks like, and why it matters–in comics. Lund writes on Dust’s characterization, “In almost all niqab talk–most commonly an uneven debate between Dust and her roommate who always gets the final word–Dust is often put on the defensive about her veil” (26). Dust’s subjugation to niqab talk is all too frustrating, because interrogations focusing on attire are the lived experiences of many Muslimas both inside and outside of America. At the same time, Peterson’s essay reminds us that Muslimas should not be expected to justify their dress, and consequently Khan’s narrative is free of hyper-focused discussions on the right to observe hijab. Ms. Marvel’s characterization may still be considered tokenistic by some, but she is better than what we had before, and therein lies her use in classroom instruction over past characters who brought harm to marginalized people. It is not without complications to teach superheroes who happen to be Muslim, and educators employing this text must be careful not to propagate past stereotypes to non-Muslim students. This begs the question then, how is this essay collection useful for classrooms which are majority Muslim? Most of the essays are written for a broad audience, but Lewis’s essay is not to some degree, as it is informed by fiqh, hadith, tafsir, and other Islamic sciences in addition to secular scholarship.
Overall, Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal is a fantastic and necessary addition to any academic library, as well as college and university classrooms. Both undergraduate and graduate students will benefit from its interdisciplinary approach to research, which may inspire their own comic studies scholarship. In the end, as Landis observes, “A comic such as Ms. Marvel thus exemplifies these interdisciplinary methods and alternative objects of knowledge creation that help to rethink or even reject the academic status quo” (156). The co-editors and essay writers who made this essay collection possible “did ‘good’” (248), and future work built upon this text will continue to do good for intersectional superheroes who embody the ayah instructing us to not be divided by our diversity but to know each other.
Anderson, Brianna. Review of Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. ImageTexT, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019. https://imagetextjournal.com/review-of-muslim-superheroes-comics-islam-and-representation/.
Baldanzi, Jessica and Hussein Rashid, eds. Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal. University Press of Mississippi, 2020.
Wilson, G. Willow, Adrian Alphona, et al. Ms. Marvel. Issues 4, 6, 18, and volume 9. Marvel Comics, 2014 – 2015, 2018.