Ms. Marvel #2: Heina Dadabhoy and I Talk Islam in Comics, and the Demise of the Spinebreaker.
Yesterday, Marvel released the second issue of Ms. Marvel, a series featuring the trials and tribulations of Kamala Khan, a Muslim of Pakistani background who finds herself suddenly a superhero. Skepchick’s own Heina Dadabhoy and I had a quite wonderful conversation about it, religion in comics, and the cross-roads of ethnicity, identity, and sexuality, which you can read below if you’re a words-minded sort, or watch here if you want to hear me saying, “you know” a lot!
Heina: Ms. Marvel, when it was announced, I heard about even though I’m not really into comics because, Twitter, and I actually didn’t have very high hopes for it, to be honest. But the day it came out I had a friend who bought it right away and I was on the bus on the way to work and it was early in the morning and he’s texting me going, “You gotta read this! This is YOU! This is clearly about you!” And I bought it and, yes, I was kind of a Kamala Khan growing up.
Dale: That’s the wonderful thing about her – there’s elements that all comic book people recognize to some degree. They haven’t made Being Muslim into everything about her. There’s that, but she also likes Avengers fan fiction and has these crazy little fantasy sequences that we all have of “If I were an Avenger, this is what I would do!” and it’s that appealing mixture that there’s something in there for all of us. I had the same reaction – “I really like this character.”
Heina: Yeah, I feel that generally, when it comes to Muslim characters in media you see the really religious ones and the really rebellious ones but not really the people who are kind of negotiating the space. And I feel that’s mainly what’s going on with Kamala which makes her so relatable, is that she’s negotiating her place in the world, which is something that I feel like every teenager or even adult these days can relate to.
Dale: I had these doubts going into it because DC had done their thing earlier with Green Lantern and that did not go particularly well, where they just turned him into a statue which Muslim-y things happened to rather than a character that’s been fleshed out and has motivations beyond Events Happening To them. And so [Ms. Marvel] was a wonderful breath of fresh air going into that first issue. Her character was always good, and I really liked her family. Now, we had some tension on that, so I’ll let you start.
Heina: Well, I definitely enjoyed her family in the sense that I know these people. Her brother, who is kind of a layabout but who is also really religious and uses it as a kind of excuse, I have many relatives – I won’t name who they are in case they ever watch this – who are exactly like that. The mother and the father, while somewhat of a caricature in some ways, represent kind of exactly what I see with immigrant communities, especially immigrant parents where you have the one who’s traditional but also wants success for their kids and you have the other who’s very much, “Let’s achieve this American dream!” Very model minority stereotype there, but it’s a stereotype that has a lot of veracity to it. You get these people who are Muslims, who I know, who voted for Bush twice! Because they’re so dedicated to this idea of bootstrapping your way up and moral values and they want to be more American than the Americans to prove that they are indeed Americans.
Dale: Yeah, stereotypes they might be, but they’re stereotypes that you haven’t really seen in mainstream comics. In some of the more indie comics, yeah, they pop up rather more often, but for DC and Marvel, to have not just the one character, but the whole family, and to have the members of that family have lines and personality and conflicting approaches to how to integrate into society or maybe not, maybe that’s an option too, and a valid one. It was rather stunning and I was taken aback by them being there, by having Four Whole People in a comic that aren’t this pure Western perspective. So, I got unreasonably excited about that.
Heina: I agree to a certain extent. And talking to you about it, when we were chatting, it did make me reconsider that, because to me, these people are caricaturized versions of people that I know, and people that I know many version of. But for the average reader I imagine it is a different thing. It reminds me, I was talking to one of my friends about the different stereotypes about desi Americans, so like Indian and Pakistani Americans, and there’s the Nerd Back Home type and then there’s the Club Rat. And I was telling him about this stereotype and he said, “Wait a minute!” – he thought that Tom in Parks and Rec, if you’ve watched Parks and Rec.
Dale: Ah, no, unfortunately.
Heina: Well, Tom is basically that stereotype of the Club Rat Indian Dude and he didn’t know that that was a stereotype, and thinking about the stereotypes that most people don’t know about, Hey, part of comics is to some extent caricaturizing people…
Dale: Yes, and they refresh themselves a little bit. It’s a regular process, there are [in Ms. Marvel] the high school jock character and the Mean Girl character, and those are ancient comic book tropes which just creaked and groaned off the page. It’s just, “You guys again.” They’ve been worked away from the last forty years, and to have them just splat down again…. But it always starts there, and it will works its way through eventually, that’s why I was happy to see in issue 2 that everybody was a little more fleshed out. Well. There are some exceptions to that…
Heina: I guess what I kind of almost enjoyed about how flat the white characters were is that, for so many years, we’ve had to deal with people of color being presented in various media, not just comics, and we’re always told, “Representation is good, even when it’s flat and terrible.” And we were supposed to content ourselves with these flat depictions and Ms. Marvel is like, “Well, see how it feels.”
Dale: It’s true, I was just sitting there, burning. Then, moving along to issue 2, they’re still awful. You have the Flash Thompson jock and not only is he just offensive and brutish as he was in the first issue, but date rape-y on the side and just AGGGH!
Heina: Yeah, I think that could have been handled in a little less flat way. I was so caught up with Kamala that I didn’t really pay that much attention to him.
Dale: I can see that. It was really just that, in Marvel and DC especially, you get so many origin stories which involve the schoolyard bully doing his schoolyard bully shtick – it’s harder and harder to swallow each time. So, it took a little more getting over, even though it’s a standard move, but it went quickly and I was able to get on to these, granted, other stereotypes, but at least it was only my fourth time reading about those stereotypes in comic book format rather than my thousand and fourth, so it had that glimmer of newness to it. To some degree. But did you think the family got better in the second issue? Worse?
Heina: I didn’t think they were so bad that first issue, I just wasn’t enthralled because they didn’t seem all that new or different to me but I really did think their reactions were quite realistic. When I was 18 and in college and I ended up stranded without my cell phone or car keys but with my car. And so I was trying to figure out what to do and how to get into my car and so the last thing on my mind was calling my parents to tell them I was going to be late because I was a commuter student in college. As soon as I got in touch with them and got home, their reactions were quite similar to the reaction of the parents in the comic book. There was blaming of each other, blaming of America, blaming of me. There’s that initial moment of, “Are you Okay? We love you so much, we were so worried,” but as soon as they realize you’re okay then all bets are off.
Dale: I liked particularly the sort of shading on the brother’s character. Yes, he’s this ascetic, this rarefied intellectual, and we all have those in our families, but when it comes right down to it, at the moment of crisis, it’s about family and watching out for the people you love. That judgment which should come with being this airy intellectual, that gets put aside when the time comes to really put it aside, which struck me as a very true thing. A very human thing … He’s not quoting scripture or verses at her. “Are you okay? Did anything happen? Do I need to round up my posse and make things happen?” This very visceral, human moment. I dug it.
Heina: I enjoyed it too, although the mom does kind of throw shade at him later. She says, “Your son dresses like a penniless mullah” and I loved that so immensely because I have relatives like that. People who have the foot-long beard and they wear robes and they have their robes above their ankles because there’s a saying from Mohammed about arrogance and men with dragging pants and I don’t even want to get into it, but, I know these guys, and it was fun to see someone take a dig at them that was very clearly internal. It wasn’t some white person saying, “Oh you look ridiculous with your beard and robe, it was the mom saying, “As successful immigrants, why the hell are you dressing like we’re not successful? What are you doing?”
Dale: And I think every comic book reader, certainly every adult comic book reader, has gone through these moments as well. You have all of these advantages, and yet you’re sitting in your basement waxing profound about these tiny points – what are you doing? It’s a moment that encapsulates a very specific thing within a very familiar thing, and I think that a lot of moments in Ms. Marvel are able to do that. They’re able to touch the common humanity in all this stuff. All of that I’ve been happy with, though I almost tend to see I liked Kamala more in issue one than in issue two, but it’s for more structural reasons. She gets her powers through the Terragen Mists, and it’s been two minutes that she’s had her powers, and she’s already having these very profound Weltschmerz moments of worldly wisdom about how, in spite of having these powers, they aren’t fulfilling. Which is a true thing, but you usually wait more than four minutes to have the character give that speech.
Heina: Yeah, she was a little less vulnerable, a little less of this awkward, fan-fic writing teenager. Suddenly, she has super powers and she knows what to do with them. Which, in some ways, almost fits the model minority stereotype. We’re supposed to be instantly good at everything to make up for the fact that we’re not white. I saw some of that there, but I don’t know if it was too subtle to reach most people, so I don’t know if that was intentional at all.
Dale: The thing we haven’t talked about, which is one of the most interesting things about it, is that her power is shape-shifting. She doesn’t turn into Ms. Marvel. She turns into what she wants to turn into, and what she turns into is a white blonde super hero from fifteen years ago.
Heina: I actually wanted to talk about the covers with regards to that. I actually much preferred the cover of one to two. I mean, I understand why they gave two they cover they did, but I feel that the first issue’s cover is going to be iconic in some way. It already feels iconic to me. The clenched fist and the rings and her shirt. The brown fist, basically.
(Dale holds up the first cover)
Dale: Yes, they’re saying a lot with it, and now here’s issue 2.
(Dale holds up the second cover)
Heina: It’s Ms. Marvel!
Dale: Yeah, it’s Ms. Marvel! Vaguely in shadows and hands on hips and you can just see hints of the blond hair there.
Heina: When I saw the cover I thought, okay, maybe they’re going to be ambivalent about the coloring of her on the cover. But no, it’s very clear she’s in the white girl shapeshifter mode.
Dale: It’s an interesting move, at the same time very subtle and very not.
Heina: When I left Islam and first started dressing without the head scarf and thinking about it, and it also coincided with a great deal of weight loss for me, I almost had that moment that Kamala had, “Okay, I look like how I thought I’d look like if I were going to be hot.” But it’s not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Not to say that there aren’t benefits to looking good but when it gets down to it, if you’re not actually happy and self-realized, looking the way you want to look isn’t going to solve your problems.
Dale: It’s an interesting choice – How are you going to feel safe? How are you going to feel safe in your skin? It’s by this absolute act of appropriating the look of the people around you. That desperate yearning to feel safe and integrated manifesting in this particular way, with her being a shapeshifter and how that is going to manifest her interior level of safety by how she unconsciously chooses to appear. That’s super interesting, and then the realization that this didn’t fix anything, that’s a great great speech, that might have made sense after she’s experienced it for a day. But this, “In spite of three minutes of looking like Ms. Marvel I’m still not fulfilled” just feels like they really wanted that speech in issue 2.
Heina: yeah, I thought that was a little soon. I thought they could have, at least for a little while, let her enjoy it.
Dale: Yeah, like Tobey Maguire when he first becomes Spider Man! Just enjoy it for a little bit – “This is kinda neat!”
Heina: Have a moment of revelry! Run around, prancing. She deals with the guy who’s kind of street-harassy. She could have gone around kicking people’s asses who were doing it to her. Ya know, that could have been fun. I’d probably do that!
Dale: Exactly. I sort of appreciate that there was, for a long time, this trope that you get your power, and it’s very dark and you brook about your power, and that’s what you do and that’s who you are. And then they countered that by, now people are going to get their powers and it’s going to be really cool and they’ll just enjoy it, and then they’ll realize the downside. And this is a weird amalgam of those which is interesting, I just wish there had been more life experience behind that speech so that it could be slightly more affirming and empowering a moment rather than, you’re saying these things but where’s the experience that filters into that? Then there was the Embiggens line… which was a great line. She has to manifest that one power of growing her hand and she has to find some sort of trigger word and she hits upon “Embiggen!” which is a great line if she were like 30, but the number of 16 year olds that I see casually throwing around 15 year old Simpsons episode references is [sound suggestive of a very small quantity with accompanying gesture].
Heina: But that might have to do with her being on the Internet.
Dale: It might, but even so.
Heina: I didn’t even know that was a Simpsons… Okay, I’ve seen maybe three episodes in my whole life. And I’ve heard Embiggen because I’m on the Internet.
Dale: Oh, is it still alive on the Internet? Well, good for it!
Heina: Yeah, I didn’t even know it was a Simpsons reference. Go figure.
Dale: It’s a great episode, but the last student I heard reference Simpsons in my class was maybe seven years ago and it was in a sort of desultory “Who is so far gone that they still watch the Simpsons?” context. So, I had to cut a lot of jokes from my lectures after that… So, it was another little moment of disconnect, but I didn’t know that it had since become an Internet thing and gained a second life.
Heina: I don’t know if it’s quite gained a second life on the Internet. But the term Embiggen reminds me a lot of the linguistic playfulness that sort of characteristic of places like Twitter or Tumblr. It seemed to go along the lines of that for me, because again I didn’t know it was a Simpsons references.
Dale: Well, that’s why I sort of liked it. My first reaction was, “Oh That’s awesome! It’s referencing something that I know!” and then I’m like, “Wait a minute, I’m OLD! And this character ISN’T! Where did that come from? You were 1 when that episode came out, which is depressing, but true for sixteen year olds! But wait a minute, the writer’s old too, so that’s where that came from!”
Heina: She’s into fan fiction, she’s probably on Tumblr. Of course she is. And there’s a lot of linguistic playfulness that goes on in these communities – especially teenage girls, who are writing fan fiction and exchanging these things with each other. There was no Tumblr when I was writing fan fiction but we were still having a lot of fun with language, making up words as almost inside jokes with like two people, one of whom lives in Australia and the other in England.
Dale: I remember the sketch comedy crowd in high school, we’d watch like Fry and Laurie gleefully rampaging through the English language. I’m glad to hear that that tradition endures.
Heina: Oh, it persists. I don’t know if endures is the word… no shade though, I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist when it comes to language, but that’s probably a whole other conversation. There was actually a thing about identity that I was interested in… I was at FogCon and there were a lot of panels about identity. It was pointed out how, in DC, your identity is often a secret, and so it’s something that bad guys could use against you, whereas in Marvel, generally speaking, at some point there’s a reveal and everybody knows who you are and you’re kind of both of these people simultaneously. I was thinking about it with this, because, Kamala getting to be Ms. Marvel in a white form. It almost ensures that she can have a DC style identity.
Dale: It’s going to be interesting how that plays out. I imagine what it’s going to be is issue to issue that’s going to get toned down. And I might be misremembering this and recalling the narrative that I want to be the case rather than the one that is the case, which I do from time to time, but it seems that even within this issue it tones down a little bit. At the very end, you see her doing the Hand-Biggy thing, but she’s got her own face and hair. So, she’s already synthesized how to put the powers together while still maintaining herself. But whether that’s going to persist when she goes out into the real world and needs to feel safe again… Right now she’s in isolation, but in this issue she’s got the crowd of eternal Tweeters around her who are taking pictures and all, “Ms. Marvel’s back!” which means she’s probably going to be visited by the rest of the superhero community. And that’s sort of the interesting thing about religion in comics in general, is what happens when religious characters integrate with, “There’s Thor, he’s a god.”
Heina: Like Captain America!
Dale: “That’s not how god dresses.”
Heina: I have a huge soft spot for the Captain. Mostly because he’s the only sincere character in medium, but that’s a whole other thing. Now I’m imagining other characters from the MU visiting the Khans and the mother trying to offer them tea. It’s hilarious in my head. Like a sitcom situation.
Dale: Exactly – the Hulk holding this dainty little saucer.
Heina: Or, have you seen Bend It Like Beckham?
Dale: Oh yeah!
Heina: That scene where the soccer coach comes over and they’re suspicious of him but they give him tea anyway and when the daughter offers tea to the mother, the mother gives her this dirty look and swats her away. I’m imagining stuff like that happening but with superheroes and it’s incredibly amusing. I’m just going to let myself have this.
Dale: In the first issue, she set that up really interestingly – she’s willing to play. There’s this recasting of the Marvel pantheon as these quasi-Eastern figures in this one fantasy fugue Kamala had there. Which should be cool to investigate as she experiences larger and larger parts of that world. But at the same time you’ve got to eventually meet Reed Richards who has traveled to the end of the universe and knows what happens at the end of the universe, and it’s not what any sacred text says. “I was there, this is what went down.” Those interactions, and this is why comics are so fun as this rampaging playground of what could be.
Heina: Speaking of holy texts, what did you think of the text from the Qur’an?
Dale: So, my instant reaction was, just as a quote, “That’s kind of a cool quote” but if that quote wasn’t there, was she just going to let the dude drown? Is that a determining quote? But in terms of, here is this quote that casts some interesting shafts of humanity, and yes, you can be part of this system and take some good things away from it, sustaining things away from it, I thought that was a generally interesting thing to have done, versus DC’s “We’re going to have this person be not positively supported by elements of their culture, but rather negatively supported by people being antagonistic towards their culture, and that’s going to act as a sort of perverse positive support.” But that’s coming from outside the system, so when you saw it…
Heina: I actually am surprised by your reaction to it. I thought you were going to see it as more pandering. But that’s mostly because you had some issues with how Islam was sort of straw-man criticized in the first issue. My reaction was sort of mixed. ON the one hand, yes, there are plenty of Muslims who live by that version of the Qur’an. I know, stereotype again, many Indian and Pakistani doctors, who take that “If you save one person, you’ve saved all of mankind, and if you let one person die, it’s like you killed everybody” and use that as sort of a life motto and there’s a free clinic in Los Angeles that’s run entirely by Muslim staffers that’s sort of based on that. That’s a nice thing. That’s a good thing. At the same time, though, it sort of reminds me of how I and other Muslims kind of tried to overemphasize certain parts of the religion so as to take attention away from other parts. And I’m very guilty of this. I did this a lot, especially post 9-11, understandably so. But it sort of read to me as, you know, when I try and criticize Islam, I get these Muslims who throw those verses at me like ammo. Not even like ammo, like they’re trying to silence me with those verses. So, I’m not a huge fan of them anymore. But in the context of this comic being for general readership… I wouldn’t be surprised that there are people reading comics who didn’t know that the Qur’an had verses about confirming life.
Dale: That’s my assumption going into it – if you’re an average comic book reader, these realms are not something you’re used to seeing at all. You’re going into it with such massive preconceptions, so to have little bits here and there [to the contrary is a good thing]. This is her personal religion that she’s formed to sustain herself in her adolescence and that’s exactly what you do, it felt right. You pick a few things which you can absolutely hold onto, that feel psychologically right, and yes, there’s other stuff there, but it’s been artfully skidded around you when you’re growing up – same thing in the Christian community and even the secular humanist community, you get things that are sort of “Don’t look behind this curtain, kids!” – and beyond that you think that, with all the arrogance of youth, “I know what this body of thought really is” and that sort of wonderful naivety.
Heina: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s limited to youth. The Muslim reformers and progressives hold onto that for their whole lives. And to be honest, I’d rather have them than the fundies deciding what Islam is going to be. But at the same time it can be a problem with me and them where they just want to overemphasize that and criticism is sort of not allowed or brooked. But for a general audience I’m glad that that was there. But my gut reaction was a little bit…
Dale: Sure, if that’s something that’s been fired at you over and over again…
Heina: Just today on Twitter I have these people who assume I’m attacking Islam just because I say I left it and all these ridiculous criticisms being leveled at me and things demanded of me that are never demanded of Muslims. Knowledge, essentially.
Dale: This all-pervasive knowledge.
Heina: Yeah, I must know everything about Islam but Muslims are allowed to know very little.
Dale: That’s interesting – “You can’t reject this unless you have impossibly complete knowledge.”
Heina: I was thinking about it today. It’s like a bad contract essentially where all you need to do is sign or initial [to join] but to get out of it you need to know all the legalese and read all the fine print. It’s like that’s how they treat religion. But Kamala seems to have adapted Islam to herself pretty well. That’s probably one of the major differences between teenage me and Kamala is I was far more religious. So a lot of the things that she does, like she negotiates her identity, she figures out her space, she does things according to her conscience but quotes from the Qur’an. I however was more angsty because I read the entire Qur’an at that part and knew all the rules for the most part, and they’re kind of impossible to follow. So things like writing fan fiction I’d say, hey, why am I doing this? Some of my teachers even told me fiction wasn’t allowed because it’s lying. And the fact that it was fan fiction, that I was watching movies. She doesn’t seem to have all these hang-ups. She probably speaks more to some of the relatives I have who grew up more, to use a word I hate, moderate. They seem to have adapted Islam to fit themselves a little bit better. Whereas I felt I wanted to follow it but I knew too much about it to think I could follow it.
Dale: It’s almost something that has to happen within the first few issues. Those sorts of titanic battles within – she has the appearance of having it all put together, but at the same time there are these visceral signs she doesn’t, like that she chooses white blonde Ms. Marvel to be her avatar.
Heina: Not only that, but Ms. Marvel in her sexy outfit.
Dale: Oh yeah, Sexy Ms. Marvel.
Heina: I related a lot to that because yeah, I covered myself and all that, but I imagined myself in sexy powerful outfits. Even now, I’ve written about this too, but we were talking about Frozen earlier and it relates back to that but it happens that for Western people who are of Western descent and only thinking about the Western tradition, sexualization of women can never really seem empowering because it’s just a way to objectify. Whereas for me, as someone who was in some ways over-sexualized because the reason for covering in Islam is that you’re going to tempt men and you’re supposed to start as soon as you hit puberty which for me was at age eleven. So, at age eleven I was essentially told, “You are such a temptation, that we need to wrap you up and put you away.” At least partially, it wasn’t quite that bad. But I was in long, loose clothing and had scarves and all that, and that’s what was behind it. So, for me, deveiling, and wearing sexy clothes felt really empowering. And then I had all these white feminists coming after me about it. “Why are you showing so much cleavage?” Because I can! I couldn’t before, this is fucking fantastic! What is this, it’s this whole new canvas with which to paint myself. So there’s a tension there that I hope they at least somewhat address, not necessarily from a feminist perspective but that Kamala might feel empowered by sexiness more than the average female reader of a comic.
Dale: They just sort of glance and taste at the issue a little bit. “I’m wearing this, but the tight boots pinch, and this outfit doesn’t actually come with any underwear, and that’s weird.” All these mundane realities of that glamorous look, but again, it’s something where it would have been nice to have her engaging with that look and what it could be before declaring, “It’s all vanity!” and such. I hope the comic sticks around long enough for them to start dealing with these deeper tensions they’re sort of poking at now but I think they’re almost too afraid of putting it into the first couple of issues.
Heina: In the first issue, when she talks about wanting to kick ass in wedge boots. They kind of nodded a little bit at it. But I would love to see them play with that more. It’s something that doesn’t get explored enough. And as society moves towards more equal and feminist views, that’s something that needs to be addressed in terms of the tension between what we call “white” feminism and feminism of women of color, cause I’ve seen Facebook conversations where an ex-Muslim woman will post a topless picture or a partially naked picture or something. And these women will just come out of nowhere and go, “Why are you objectifying your body and submitting to the patriarchy?” when in reality they’re doing quite the opposite. They’re saying, my body is here, this is what it looks like, and deal with it.
Dale: It would be a tremendous event if, in a Big Two comic, issues of that complexity get addressed.
Heina: I mean, I don’t expect them to go that far with it.
Dale: It would be awesome.
Heina: But I feel there’s room for her wearing her costume or talking about it and some white girl yells at her and says, “Hey, why are you objectifying yourself?” and her going Scoff Scoff I feel cool. But she’s already questioning how great it is to be wearing a sexy costume.
Dale: Even the cover costume is a substantially toned-down one of the classic. It’s a sort of normal dress with a scarf, which might be where they’re heading. It’s interesting to hear you say that, because it’s not something that’s been addressed much. They’re starting to, more and more, at least in the Marvel comics that I tend to read, that the female characters like Psylocke who has this ridiculous [costume], and she’s been referencing that it’s ridiculous, but that’s as far as the commentary on it goes. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but everybody’s going to keep wearing the same thing, their iconic uniforms, and really the only change I’ve seen is, in the Captain Marvel book, which Kelly Sue DeConnick is writing, which just had its relaunch last week. It’s got a much more toned-down Golden Age look to it. That’s where it’s tending right now – classic, almost Rocketeer-looking uniforms rather than the 1980s Spinebreaker uniforms and such.
Heina: The boobs and butt pose?
Heina: You remember that Catwoman cover, right?
Dale: Oh geez, that whole Catwoman issue!
Heina: I’m glad that happened, because it brought home how absurd things had gotten. And the parody art just killed me! It was one of those defining moments for Escher Girls – people writing in and that exploding. Would it be funny if Kamala, while in her white girl, sexy, Ms. Marvel thing trying to do a boobs and butt pose?
Dale: Just in the quiet of her own room? I’ve done equally ridiculous things in the quiet comfort of my own room.
Heina: We were talking about that earlier! When I first heard of the Boobs and Butt pose, I remember trying to strike it and realizing that, even if I became magically double jointed, it probably wasn’t going to happen. But you can try!
Dale: Thank you. [tearfully] I’ve been waiting for somebody to say that to me for so long!
Heina: I meant a general you, but you know. But, I hope she does explore that more, because obviously she had a reason for wanting that sexy outfit. It was a fantasy of hers, a way of projecting herself in a way that she wanted to be versus the reality. I hope they portray that way, instead of getting into the preachy “These boots chafe.”
Dale: There’s a bit of that. That’s why I was sorry to see it resolved so quickly. Why really are you choosing this? What are you getting through this? Is it a false empowerment? Something that’s feeding a desperate need that you’re not going to be able to fulfill otherwise? What’s going on there? And instead it’s just like, eh, the boots pinch, let’s go ahead and leave that episode behind now. There’s a lot of psychological plumbing that could have happened there.
Heina: It’s something that’s exciting me about it. In spite of not reading many comics, I consume other forms of media quite voraciously. Always been an avid reader, watch a ton of tv shows and movies, completely shameless about all that. And I also love TVTropes, as do we all. I’ve fallen down that hole many times, and woken up the next day, looking hung over. It’s an intellectual hangover, in a lot of ways, if you stay there too long. Sometimes I hate the fact that I can’t be as surprised as I used to be because I’ve picked apart these tropes. But I do feel like Kamala could go in so many different directions that I can’t quite predict her trajectory.
Dale: Yeah, usually comic book readers are so jaded. Dozens and dozens of new comics released, and so many origin stories, and this one’s kept things pretty fresh even from what I’ve heard from pure comic book people. Even as a jaded old comic book person, it’s got a lot I’m purely excited about, stuff I can’t say what the obvious logical next move. It’s going to be an interesting trip, as long as Marvel doesn’t cancel it like they’ve done with all of their other female superhero books.
Heina: Well, there’s a reason why I’m buying them and telling everybody to buy them.
Dale: And it’s doing well!
Heina: Yes, it’s one of Comixology’s best sellers. At the end of the book they talk about that, and it seems to be doing well. I alone am buying two copies of each, one for myself, one for my partner. I’m doing my part!
Dale: It’s all on you!
Heina: I’m throwing my money at what I like. The letters at the end, I find those a little bit…
Dale: … yeah…
Heina: And I thought they were okay. Normally they’re a little fakey-sounding, but these weren’t. What did you think.
Dale: [Rummages through the letter column grumbling] Oh, that’s the cover for the next issue? Hmmm…
Heina: What? Show us?
(Dale does so.)
Dale: It’s her, in her dark hair, with the more modest uniform, so I guess they are going to start heading in that direction, where she starts becoming herself more and more. Which will be even more interesting, how that interfaces with the larger Marvel community and world. It’s always a little bit stumbly. There aren’t that many really religious character who are generally positive in at least the Marvel universe. There’s Nightcrawler aaaaaand…
Heina: I wanted to bring that up, because Religion as Religion versus Religion as Identity. For many American Muslims, being Muslim isn’t necessarily that much of a “religious” thing. It’s sort of a community affiliation. For a lot of especially people in my generation and below, people whose parents emigrated in the 70s and 80s and had us in the 80s and 90s.
Dale: Oh you young people…
Heina: What essentially our parents did was, in a lot of ways, turn away from ethnic identity and towards religious identity. Certainly there are religious elements to my life: the food I eat, the clothes I wear to weddings and such, but growing up we weren’t taught that we were Indian, actually I wasn’t quite clear on what my ethnicity was for the longest time. My parents can trace our ancestry back to a small village in India, but we’re via so many countries – Pakistan, Burma, England, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa, you name it. I didn’t know what my ethnicity was, but I knew I was Muslim, and that’s what made me different. So, with Kamala, sure her religion is an important part of her life, she quotes the Qur’an when she saves someone’s life, but it could also be that it’s kind of part of her identity. Especially because her name is Muslim but not Arabic. Khan as a last name is not necessarily Muslim, it comes from the Khans, you know the Mongols. Kamala is, I’m not sure what language it originates from, it could be Farsi, it could be Arabic, it could be Urdu, but you find that name in several different ethnicities. I think mostly Muslims name their kids that way, but it’s not a name that references God in any way.
Dale: So that’s probably a conscious choice on the writer’s part? We’re going to add a little bit of interesting ambiguity here that none of the readers except for you will pick up on…
Heina: Kamala is a Muslim name, it’s just not a reference to a famous companion of Mohammed. Because there are a lot of Muslim names that are explicitly religious, that if I were named any of these names and I left Islam I would probably change my name, because it feels too godly. My name is like Kamala’s, where it’s not necessarily referencing anything religious. I found that cool. Although, does her family even get named?
Dale: Oh, I’m the worst person for remembering the names of peripheral names of comics in books. I just read this book two hours ago and the names are probably there but, nope!
Heina: I thought it was interesting – that Islam is more part of her identity than an affiliation and, for moderate or progressive Muslims, that’s often the case. They’ll find out I’m ex-Muslim and for them it’s like saying I’m ex-Indian – how do you do that?
Dale: That’s another thing I like how Ms. Marvel was handled versus how DC’s Green Lantern was, that the sense of identity in Ms. Marvel is of a community-familial-cultural identity which has positive elements built up from within to form an actual character with substance instead of the way DC did it, which was four pages of introduction where the main character steals a car, the car has a bomb inside, he gets taken by Homeland Security, brought to Guantanamo Bay, and just before he’s about to be waterboarded, he becomes the Green Lantern!!
Heina: Wait, are you kidding me?!
Dale: That’s exactly how it happens! He’s lying there, and just about to be waterboarded, when the Green Lantern ring comes in…
Heina: For a second there, I thought you were telling me the plot to Harold and Kumar go to Guantanamo.
Dale: Nope! That’s exactly how it went down, and this person is all about being a member of a group, having things happen to you, and what defines you is reaction to negative events. He showed up through that whole arc, the last arc of Geoff Johns on Green Lantern, shows up in some Justice League stuff, but I haven’t seen any of his internal character filled out in terms of positive internal cultural content. [Full disclosure, I gave up reading the Justice League book he’s in after the first arc, so maybe he’s been brilliant since?] So, Marvel has taken all the right cues from what didn’t happen and ought to have. So, yes, it’s an exciting thing to see, and the first time you have religious identity explored as also cultural identity. I can’t think of any other time, and of course as soon as I say that there’s going to be a flood of, Hey Jackass, Here’s 500 Examples, but I can’t think of any time that I’ve read of that happening in the Big Two in quite so thorough-going a way that lets itself breathe.
Heina: Even if there are examples, expanded to a discussion of various mediums. Usually, it becomes all about their minority status, almost a pedantic defensive sort of thing, and it’s so nice to see this evolution where it’s about Kamala, it’s about her, and that alone brought a tear to my eye. That’s what will do more to help people understand and humanize each other than, say, some preachy tract that says, “We’re not all terrorists, y’all!” That shit is boring! We’ve been bleeding that shit since 9-11. Let’s actually have a cool character with nuance and relatability.
Dale: Right, a character first, a stand-alone character who has personality traits first upon which… it’s what I was dreading after Green Lantern. “Fun fact America, not all Muslims are terrorists! Didja know that?”
Dale: Yes, very boring. And in comics, there were just male writers, male readers, male artists, for so long, that there is this sort of shyness, sheepishness about what’s allowed to be said. And for a while they overcompensated on that. And I think they’re figuring it out finally on not being so blatantly, instead of Stan Lee’s “Oh but my hair!” you get what Kate Beaton was talking about [I was thinking about this comic, but couldn’t remember the title] – these invulnerable rocks.
Heina: The strong, independent woman trademark. Completely infallible, completely perfect. Maybe anti-feminine? Which is annoying, because some people want to be feminine.
Dale: Like, in Marvel’s Super Hero Squad, they had their Ms. Marvel character, who is our Captain Marvel, just to be extra confusing. She’s there to be the responsible one while the male characters have their hijinks. She was the only female character for a long time, and that’s how they compensated for all of the Stan Lee archetypes early. “Now we’re going to have all the guys being really dumb – now we’re feminists, right?” Just as patronizing in a different way. And this is, it’s a human being.
Heina: Right, because being the caretaker of the manchild is just another stereotype, and it doesn’t let women be characters with flaws and hopes and dreams and failings. They have to be perfect. I like my heroines imperfect. Which is as good a note to end on as any!