Kamala Khan: A Retaliation to Comic Book Muslim Stereotypes
‘No Muslims will be welcome in the West’ (Cantor, 2011, p.103) This sentence is the one instance where the word Muslim appears in the graphic novel ‘Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story’ (Cantor, 2011). As the book is concerned with jihad, the Muslim concept of holy war, the repeated omission of the word ‘Muslim’ within the pages of the comic book is undoubtedly negligent, but it is not surprising. The title’s intentions of examining followers of the Qu’ran is evident throughout, with protagonist Aaron Goodman hellbent on understanding what causes a man to commit an act of terrorism in the name of Allah. Considering the intentions of the text, the concept of followers of Islam is integral to the story but instead of the word Muslim, the term ‘Arab’ is repeatedly substituted. The exchange leads to factually incorrect statements, which therefore undermine the text. Whilst in Pakistan, titular character Ahmed explains that Pakistan ‘ate, slept and danced for war’ (Cantor, 2011, p.54), playing into the Orientalist notion that Muslim majority countries are barbaric. This inflammatory statement is then followed by Ahmed speaking of ‘our pure Arab lands’ (Cantor, 2011, p.55). As Ahmed is in Pakistan, this statement leads to him inaccurately labelling the country as part of the League of Arab States, when it is actually located in South Asia. Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan in South Asia, is also discussed with reference to ‘Arab lives’ (p.28). No location within the text that is actually Arab features, and no characters are explicitly listed as being born within such regions. The word is used often and consistently when it is not appropriate or correct. The text paints Pakistan as a war-obsessed Arab land, although it is not an Arab country. It is, however, a Muslim majority country.
Cantor’s work, therefore, fits cleanly into the landscape of trope-laden and factually inaccurate representations of Muslims within American comics, which have populated the visual medium. The ‘Comic Book Muslim’ (Dar, 2010, p.99), which was discussed by Jehanzeb Dar in 2010, was built upon the foundations of ‘Islamaphobic and Orientalist stereotypes’ (Dar, 2010, p.100). Propelled by ‘dark skinned, black-bearded’ (Dar, 2010, p.99) caricatures and distorted sex roles, these tropes culminated into demonisations of Muslims and Arabs, who were treated as one of the same. The women were bundled in cloth and seen as ‘oppressed victims of Muslim men’ (Dar, 2010, p.100) and the men were the violent oppressors. The most prevalent trope seen in these depictions is that of the ‘repulsive terrorist’ (Shaheen, 1991, p.1), leading to Dar coining the equation ‘Arab = Muslim = Terrorist’ (2010, p. 100) to highlight the misunderstandings surrounding these groups in American visual media. To support this claim, Dar refers to Shaheen’s paper The Comic Book Arab(1991) which documents over fifty instances where Arabs are depicted in graphic literature. In all cases, the Arab characters are terrorists who are linked to Islam (Dar, 2010, p. 101).
We see the concept of all Muslims as Arabs who are also terrorists not only in ‘Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story’ but also in mainstream superhero titles. In ‘Batman: A Death in the Family’ (Starlin, 1988, #426-#429), the Joker is offered the position of Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Joker accepts and dresses for the part in Arab headdress, despite the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is, once again, not an Arab country. The Joker addresses the United Nations and states that what Iran and the Joker have in common is ‘insanity’ (Starlin, 1988, #426-#429). The Joker then commits a terrorist act by unleashing toxic gas on the United Nations general assembly. Luckily, his plan is foiled by Superman. The use of Arab dress and the Joker representing a Muslim country and committing an act of terrorism fits into Dar’s equation. Iranian people are therefore presented as insane and without justification, in the same way that the Joker is. The Joker’s insanity is representative of Iranian insanity. Likewise, the Joker’s ‘destructiveness’ (Shaheen, 1991, p.3) denotes the supposed destruction that the Iranian people cause. As the Joker is the enemy of the American hero Batman, it places the ‘Comic Book Muslim’ in line with Batman’s enemy. In the narrative of heroes and villains, Muslims land squarely on the side of the villain, which perpetuates the notion that Muslims are enemies to the Western way of life.
With such damaging representations across both superhero titles and graphic novels, Dar posed the questions ‘Where are the everyday Muslims? Where are the Muslim Superheroes and Superheroines?’ (2010, p.109). This cry for representation demanded an overhaul of the grossly inaccurate stereotypes offered by the graphic medium. The answer to Dar’s question came in the form of ‘Pak-American, part alien, morphogenic nerd’ (Wilson, 2015, #9) Kamala Khan. Khan became the first ever Muslim Pakistani-American character to receive their own title series within the Marvel Universe, leaping ahead in terms of ‘diversity’ and representation within superhero comics. The current Ms. Marvelseries showcases the ins and outs of Kamala’s everyday and superhero identities, fulfilling the cry for representation demanded by Dar. Kamala actively pushes back against Dar’s equation of ill representation by being a Pakistani-American Muslimsuperhero.
Before discussing Khan further, it is important to note that there hasbeen positive Muslim representation in comics prior to her Ms. Marvelseries. It would be unfair to paint all Muslim representation in superhero comics as damaging. In 2008, Dr. Faiza Hussein (codename Excalibur) was introduced by Paul Cornell in Captain Britain and MI13 #1. Dr. Hussein is listed as a second generation Pakistani-British Muslim (Napier, 2015, para. 7), which puts her alongside Kamala as a retaliation to the view that all Muslims are Arabs. Hussein and Kamala are both ‘necessary’ (Napier, 2015, para. 10) to reflect the current reality of American or British life. To have a title that examines these nations without including the demographics ‘Muslim’, ‘Pakistani’ or ‘immigrant’ would not be a realistic representation of the ‘Britishness’ or ‘Americanness’ that these titles attempt to capture. It is unclear whether Hussein’s exclusion from Dar’s article was intentional due to her Britishness, or an oversight due to Hussein receiving minimal academic and critical attention. As Captain Britain and MI13was published by Marvel, an American company, and distributed in America, it can be seen as an American comic despite being set in Britain. Presumably, Hussein was not mentioned by Dar because she is a relatively unknown British hero, albeit one in an American publication. As Dar’s paper focuses on American mainstream superhero comics, it would take the likes of New Jersey teen and titular protagonist, Kamala Khan, to dismantle his equation. In order to negate stereotypes, visibility is key and sadly Hussein’s appearance has not been touted to the same effect as Kamala’s, nor does it occur in Marvel’s America, which is the hub of Marvel’s mainstream Superhero activity.
Kamala dismantles the terrorist aspect of Dar’s equation by embodying the opposite of the stereotypical Arab/Muslim terrorists we see in other comics. When it comes to the hero versus villain binary, Kamala falls into the former category alongside Batman, Spider-Man and Superman. Kamala’s religious upbringing aids her when it comes to making moral choices, therefore showing that Islam can be a source of heroism as opposed to fuel for terrorist activities. When Kamala recalls an ayah (verse) from the Qu’ran in issue 2, she is reminded that those who help save others are ‘blessed’ (Wilson, 2014, #2). Kamala cannot be conceived as a threat to the American way of life as she is part of the American tradition of superheroes, which is further emphasised by having her take up the mantle of original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers. Danvers is an ‘all-American blonde bombshell’ (Kent, 2015, p.523), and embodies the traits we associate with superheroes: ‘truth, justice, liberty and equality’ (Dar, 2010. p.101). Having Kamala take up the position of Ms. Marvel shows that, by filling Danvers’ boots, she is worthy of the same praise and respect as Danvers whether or not her moral code is influenced by Islam.
Along with her association with Danvers, Khan’s affection towards Americanness is emphasised early on to dispel the ‘otherness’ that plagues Muslim representation. Within the first issue of the comic, Kamala sniffs bacon, which she is not allowed to consume due to Muslim dietary restrictions, but calls it ‘delicious’ (Wilson, 2014, #1). Later in the issue she disobeys her father and sneaks out to go to a party in an attempt to be ‘normal’ (Wilson, 2014, #1) like her peers. With these actions, it feels like Wilson is constructing the ‘idealized Muslim’ (Kassam, 2011, p.556). Khan is seen as hitting the right amount of assimilation to be deemed ‘Western enough’ to be humanised, creating the image of a ‘familliar stranger’ as opposed to a ‘stranger stranger’ (Ahmed, 2000, p.100). This thread has been picked up on by critics who say Kamala is ‘just like so many other teenagers’ (Hughes, 2014, para. 6). Although this move is an act of catering to the Western audience, as the aspects of uniqueness of Kamala’s identity had to be ‘adaptable for consumption by audiences who do not belong to that marginalized group’ (Kent, 2015, p.524), it does show that Khan is not a terrorist, she is just a ‘normal’ girl.
However, whilst Kamala decides not to eat the bacon, she does not give in to her desire to assimilate. When she goes to the party, she is ridiculed and told she ‘smells like curry’ (Wilson, 2013, #1) by her preppy classmate, the popular Zoe. Here, Kamala receives racially-charged hatred for her identity as a Muslim, American-Pakistani teenage girl. Although critics and even the creative team emphasise that Khan is just like ‘teens everywhere’ (Hennon, 2013, para. 6), the problems she faces are undeniably linked to the ‘intersections between racial, gendered and religious oppression’ (Kent, 2015, p.525), which allows Khan to lay waste to the ‘Arab = Muslim’ (and vice-versa) part of Dar’s equation.
Khan and her family are portrayed as an authentic Pakistani-American family. In contrast to the huge blunder DC Comics made when the language of Pakistan was referred to as ‘Pakistanian’ in Superman/Wonder Woman Annual #2(Tomassi & Champange, 2015), the speech of the characters is peppered with the actual national language of Pakistan, Urdu. When Muneeba Khan, Kamala’s mother, is reminiscing about her son Aamir in his youth, she recalls when he used to get ‘khana’(Wilson, 2016, #6) on his clothing. The substitution of the English word ‘food’ with the Urdu word ‘khana’ gives a genuine representation of the muddled speech of immigrant parents. Kamala’s parents use Urdu terms of endearment when talking to her, such as ‘jaaanu’ (dearest) and ‘beta’ (child) (Wilson, 2014, #2). The characters have a legitimacy with their speech and the Urdu is used to show the paternal and maternal affection the parents give. As they are immigrants who have had to assimilate, it shows that they are genuine with their children as they use a mix of English and Urdu. This relaxed ebb and flow of language builds an intimate image of the Khan family and shows that not all Muslims fit the stereotypical Arab Muslim trope.
Kamala’s Pakistani background is once again portrayed positively when considering that it has had an active part to play in her powers. Opening up #8 of the new Ms. Marvel(starting again at #1 following a successful run of nineteen issues, chronicling Kamala’s adventures), the India/Pakistan partition is shown. We see Kamala’s Nano (her maternal grandmother) speak of a feeling that the family carries a ‘strength that is waiting to appear’(Wilson, 2016, #8). From previousMs. Marvelissues, we know that this strength is the inhuman gene that is awakened in Kamala when the terrigen mist descended upon Jersey City back in #1(2014). Kamala’s powers come from her bloodline, a bloodline which is Pakistani and travels back across India prior to the creation of Pakistan in light of British rule vacating India.
It is clear that the Pakistani part of Khan’s character is a rejection of inaccurate representations of Muslims in comics. Although Khan’s relatability has been emphasised repeatedly by both her creators and critics, she is undoubtedly a new direction for the typical mainstream American superhero. This move could be seen as catering to the Western audience but the authenticity of Khan’s Pakistani-American identity shines through. To not acknowledge Khan as a new direction would be to underestimate the depth of her character. Similarly, to not consider the Orientalist and damaging presentations of Muslims within comics that predate Kamala would be a gross misunderstanding of how she fits into the comics context. The new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, being a positive representation of a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage girl, disproves the view that all comic book Muslims are Arab and that all of these Arab Muslims are terrorists, finally disproving Dar’s equation and answering his call for better representation in American comic books.
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*A collected edition is used to reference, #1 was individually published in 2008