Race + Comics: On Ms. Marvel And Protecting Young Superheroes

By Arturo R. García

There’s a lot to root for in Marvel’s new Ms. Marvel series, which is already garnering buzz for starring a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager in her own solo series.

But, the book won’t formally launch until February 2014, which opens it up to a recurring problem with Marvel: history shows that the company’s efforts stop at gathering that buzz when it comes to its young superheroes — particularly those of color.

The problem is not that the book will be penned by a Muslim, G. Willow Wilson, or that it will also be edited by a Muslim in Sana Amanat. The problem is that Marvel has protected and promoted its existing Muslim superheroines so well that some media outlets believed the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is the company’s first.

Remember Dust? Or Monet St. Croix? Or Faiza Hussain? The Mirror sure didn’t, and it’s not as simple a matter as a journalist skimping on the research. As gaming blogger Muaz Zekeria told NPR’s Gene Demby:

We’re not portrayed positively in most media, so comics can’t be expected to be much different. … Any Muslim superheroes I’ve seen introduced goes through the same cycle: introduced; heavily featured in one book; book either gets cancelled or wraps up; character fades into the background; and is rarely, if ever, heard from or featured again. This also goes for most minority characters. I think Luke Cage, Black Panther, Cyborg, and John Stewart are the only ones who have bucked this trend and even they don’t get as much attention as your Iron Man, Captain America, Batman, Superman, etc.

Zekeria’s critique especially rings true in light of the similar hoopla Marvel attracted for debuting Latin@ heroes Araña in 2005 and Miles Morales — who took over the mantle of Spider-Man in the Ultimate Comics line — just two years ago. In each case, the company patted itself on the back for its stabs at diversity, while conveniently forgetting to give each character equity in its larger plans. Because even if Miles had the benefit of Brian Michael Bendis writing his adventures, the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series still had Peter Parker under the mask. And let’s not forget the company’s attempt to shed the spotlight on longtime gay Mutant hero Northstar last year by devoting an issue of Astonishing X-Men to his wedding to his POC partner. Since then the company has turned right around to building entire storylines around hauling the same five white cis-het X-Men who started the team from the ’60s into the present day. (This, of course, on top of their other diversity-related X-fails.)

Again, the blame for this shouldn’t be pinned on Amanat and Wilson, but on an industry model that will often shove characters like Kamala into a marketplace built more than ever on “events” and comics tailored to fit the television and movie marketplaces. While Amanat should be lauded for starting the #KamalaKorps tag to rally the new character’s fanbase online, William B. West makes the case over at the Nerds of Color that this series calls for a more creative publishing approach:

I don’t get why this has to be an ongoing. If they wanted to be groundbreaking, they’d announce this as a maxi-series, give it the 12 issues it would normally have, and commit to actually releasing all 12 issues. Test the waters a bit. Nobody wants a Ms. Marvel comic, let alone a Muslim one. That’s not the desire of the core, comic-buying audience. By doing it this way, it lets Marvel off the hook with a “well, at least we tried,” which simply isn’t good enough. Ms. Marvel always feels like Wonder Woman, in that they have to publish a series every so often just to keep the trademark. I don’t know anyone who has ever said, “Man, what’s Ms. Marvel been up to? I used to LOVE that book!”

I do disagree with West’s point regarding Kamala’s predecessor and inspiration, Carol Danvers; as we have mentioned in the past, Danvers was the beneficiary of years’ worth of protection, enough so that she should be in line for an appearance in the company’s movie series. While Danvers getting the nod over Monica Rambeau can be traced at least partially to the company’s desire for yet another white headliner in a stunningly non-diverse Avengers film franchise, it also speaks to the existence of a very real Carol Corps.

However, how do we know that Marvel will pay the same kind of attention to the Kamala Korps, even on Twitter? Will the new Ms. Marvel get her own curated t-shirt line? (For that matter, how does Rambeau’s stunning new costume design not have a shirt yet?) And what happens after, say, the first year of Kamala’s series? Will she be allowed to grow both in terms of her personal development and profile within the Marvel hero community, or will she be shunted off to be a side player like Araña in another Young Allies relaunch? (I’d mention Miss America and the recent Young Avengers series, but history might well remember it as the vessel through which the Tom Hiddleston fanbase received its own comic, and that’s just sad.)

Again, this new series is worth rooting for and supporting, if only so it means we can rub Conan O’Brien’s nose in this Islamophobic joke forever:

Sorry, #TeamCoco, but the Internet is forever.

But it’s not enough anymore for Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso to compare Kamala Khan’s experiences to those of Peter Parker; the company needs to show that it cares about her brand just as much as it does Peter’s, without resorting to hostage-note marketing tactics (Buy this book or diversity gets it!). Otherwise she may end up being a footnote during the next round of self-celebratory press.

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • mooreworthy

    It frustrating and odd with todays multicultural, social media age that Marvel is so behind compared to other forms of entertainment in regards to the topic of diversity, even with the quasi relaunch.

  • http://www.culturewarreporters.com/ CultureWarReporterEvan

    That Conan O’Brien joke . . . oof . . .

    I want nothing but the adventures of Kamala Khan to be long and popular, but I also don’t mind her being given even footing alongside other female-led titles like Elektra and She-Hulk [r:. the suggestion that she be given a maxi-series]. Comic fans both old and [hopefully] new need to prove to Marvel that this is what we’ve been looking forward to and that it can sustain moderate sales numbers.

    That’s not to say that they shouldn’t do everything they can to advertise and promote the book, of course, they absolutely should.

    • aboynamedart

      I agree with your sentiment, while pointing out that white characters do not have this kind of onus. Carol Danvers had four series cancelled before her most recent relaunch, while being kept in the orbit of the Avengers.

      Compare that, again, to Rambeau. The closest WOC analogues here is Misty Knight, yet there’s no indication that the company will ever give her a multimedia presence.

      Rocket Raccoon and Groot, though? All good for Hollywood.

      • http://www.culturewarreporters.com/ CultureWarReporterEvan

        Guardians of the Galaxy have really become this go-to argument for people, haven’t they? I mean, in terms of Wonder Woman in particular.

        I totally get that Carol Danvers had four series cancelled, but so did Black Panther. DeConnick was the one who ran that entire venture of “upgrading” her to Captain, so that certainly should be taken into account.

        Really, though, I am trying to play devil’s advocate here. It’s true that comic book companies in general have not done what they could to promote people of colour in their books, even when they’ve been longstanding ones like, as you said, Monica Rambeau. That being said, I think that they’re making efforts now and that hopefully they’ll turn out for the best.

        • aboynamedart

          And the entire point of this post is that, no, they mostly do not making the same kind of effort for characters of color that they do for white characters. If that were the case, it wouldn’t have taken this long for Luke Cage to get on another platform, despite the gains made for the character under Brian Michael Bendis’ pen.

          And yes, do feel free to justify a talking tree from a C-level team getting a movie ahead of the Black Panther.

          • http://www.culturewarreporters.com/ CultureWarReporterEvan

            Oh, I’m not saying the complaint isn’t justified, I’m just pointing out how it’s become such a focal point for the “we have ___ why can’t we have ___” discussion.

            And if Shang-Chi appears in almost any capacity in the upcoming Netflix Marvel shows you can consider me a happy man.

    • kkjjxl

      m-maybe an intern wrote the tweet.

  • retconning

    I checked out of Young Avengers an issue or two after I realized that America Chavez’s character development was limited to “punches stuff, has two moms, gets angry, kicks stuff.”

  • springaldjack

    I’m not saying that Marvel has done right by Miles Morales when I say this, but he has not dissapeared. The Cartoon may have Peter Parker. But two plus years in “Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man” staring Miles Morales continues to be published monthly. He also has been part of those “events” which are set in the alternate “Ultimate” universe. He doesn’t get ongoing comic “Buzz” and that’s unfortunate, and may hurt the long term prospects of the character, but with a still ongoing solo title he certainly hasn’t faded away, yet.

    Again not so much defending Marvel, as saying “Miles is still there, read his comic, it’s pretty good overall.”

    • aboynamedart

      Sure, Miles’ comic is still there, but it’s pretty much the only redeeming thing in an Ultimate line that has been on the decline for years and is likely not long for the shelves.

      And if that comes to pass and Miles is moved to the “proper” Marvel U., what are his chances for being spotlighted, given that there’s a Peter Parker movie on the way and the company has to usher him back into his body in time for that?

  • https://riceballmommy.wordpress.com/ riceballmommy

    I’m very excited for the new Ms Marvel as a comic fan. I’m excited to see someone new take up the mantel. Though I have to say I’m annoyed that I missed the Monica Rambeau costume change. I loved her appearance in Captain Marvel and was thinking that she really needed her own title comic.

    • aboynamedart

      She’s currently part of the team in Mighty Avengers, which may or may not get a boost from the Netflix deal involving Luke Cage.

      • https://riceballmommy.wordpress.com/ riceballmommy

        Thanks I just found that and bought the first 3 issues digitally. I’m looking forward to the next one.