“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.”
“Who do you want to be?”
-Ms. Marvel Vol. 3, #1: No Normal
I didn’t grow up reading comics. Most of my knowledge of all the iconic characters came via television and movies. I watched Batman’s adventures on film thanks to Burton, Nolan, and, yes, Schumacher; and watched Terry McGinnis take up the cowl every Saturday morning in Batman Beyond. While I never actually read them, I remember flipping through the pages of my Wolverine-obsessed cousins’ X-Men comics as a kid, looking at the pictures. Then the film came out in 2000, and I would race home after school to learn more about the mutant heroes via reruns of the animated series. And now, like many people, I am currently obsessed with every part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
All that to say, I love the stories and mythology of superheroes, but haven’t really experienced them in their original form — comic books. I’ve read one or two here and there, (The Killing Joke comes to mind), but never followed a full story arc. As a bit of a completist, the amount of backstory I would miss by jumping in now is disheartening. Comic book characters and storylines are so intertwined; it all seems so daunting as a new reader. Because of this, I have heretofore stuck with non-superhero, non-Big Two comics/graphic novels. (For the curious: I’ve finished Scott Pilgrim and Y: The Last Man, dabbled in Fables, and am currently working my way through Saga.)
But this past year, I kept hearing about a new superhero. That is, a new person taking up the mantle of an established hero. A new character that felt different and fresh. All the reviews were glowing, and the excitement surrounding this introduction spread like wildfire. I am referring, of course, to the new Ms. Marvel. A superhero whose alter-ego is a teenage, Muslim, Pakistani-American girl from Jersey City — Kamala Khan.
I am, as a young woman who ranges from yellow to brown depending on the amount of sun I get, what you might call “a person of color.” Growing up in a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood in the suburban Midwest, that fact was sometimes easy to forget as I tried to fit in with those around me. On the other hand, it was often impossible to forget. My parents moved to the US from the Philippines when they were pretty young (my father was elementary school-age; my mother came over with her sister after graduating college), and so we (and all of my relatives) are heavily involved with the local Filipino-American community. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Where are you from?” or “What are you?”. A sassier me would love to reply, “Here.” or “A human being. Why what are you?” But I know what they mean. So instead, I say, “Filipino. Well, I was born and raised here, but my parents are from the Philippines, so…” in an inexplicably apologetic tone.
As a society, particularly via representation in the arts and media, we tend to imagine the average person as a white, heterosexual male. That is to say, unless there is some specific reason for the character to be otherwise, the standard baseline character we create is typically a caucasian man who likes women. It’s not always intentional, nor meant as a racist/sexist/homophobic statement; but it is a problem nonetheless. Even as a woman of color myself, I often fall prey to this myself as both a consumer and creator. I once read an interesting tumblr post by BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who explores this through the lens of gender in comedy. Though we are making headway, there is still a lot we can do to bring the underserved to the forefront. That’s why it is particularly exciting when we have characters like Kamala Khan, Miles Morales as Spider-Man, a female Thor, and Sam Wilson taking up the mantle as Captain America. More than that, people outside of the industry are making their voices heard through works like Hetain Patel’s “Letter to Peter Parker” or “Red, White, and Beard.”
However, it is important to note that these characters are not merely a knee-jerk attempt at political correctness. In order to be successful, they need to be holistic, well-developed characters. Though Kamala Khan struggles with her identity throughout Ms. Marvel (2014) #1, it is not solely with concerns of race and of being a Pakistani-American. Kamala’s worries are the universal ones that every teenager has — trying to fit in, trying to find out who you are, trying to figure out the right thing to do. So, yes, Kamala Khan made a splash largely because she is a brown woman on the cover of a comic book. But what ultimately makes her a great character is her journey, and how she deals with what is thrown her way. Throughout the first volume, Kamala makes mistakes, she fails. She learns that responsibility is incredibly difficult. She questions herself. That is all to say, she feels real and highly relatable.
I loved the first volume of Ms. Marvel (2014). Sure, it’s incredible to finally have a superhero that kinda looks like me; and more importantly, this title is one of the many steps in the right direction by the comics industry towards shining the spotlight on underserved people groups. But in addition to that, Kamala’s story proves that life is a difficult journey for everyone. What makes someone a hero is not how she looks, where she was born, or how old she is; there is, as the title states, “no normal.” Rather, being a hero is about being true to yourself and finding the courage and strength within.