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Ms Marvel and the making of a desi superhero

With the first episode of Ms Marvel having dropped this week, we look at why Kamala Khan speaks directly to Millennial and ‘desi’ audiences  

Iman Vellani in ‘Ms Marvel’. Image via AP
Iman Vellani in ‘Ms Marvel’. Image via AP

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Earlier this week, the first episode of the series Ms. Marvel, featuring Kamala Khan the Pakistani-American teenaged superhero from Jersey City, premiered on Disney+Hotstar, amidst much fanfare among desi (for the diaspora, this is an umbrella term meaning ‘from the Indian subcontinent’) Marvel fans—for the show really is aggressively desi. Fawad Khan and Farhan Akhtar have been cast in supporting roles, Mohan Kapur’s cringe-Dad Yusuf Khan yells ‘chak de phatte’ dutifully and there’s even a classic Shahrukh Khan fandom moment in there.

Kamala Khan has come a long way for a character that’s only eight years old — created by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson, and artists Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie, Kamala was given her very own solo book Ms. Marvel only in February 2014 (in comparison, even perceived ‘tier two’ MCU superheroes like Moon Knight and She-Hulk are 1970s creations). And while the show is likely to dominate Marvel discourse over the next few weeks, it’s worth returning to G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel books to understand what made Kamala Khan, and what drives her.

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The first thing you have to understand about Ms Marvel is that this is a superhero story about fitting in, about Othering, about the thousand and one ways in which teenagers can feel all alone in a crowd. Kamala is an Avengers fangirl and she hero-worships Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel in particular — Danvers is blonde-haired, conventionally attractive and wears the thigh-high boots Kamala admires from afar (while knowing that her Pakistani immigrant mother will never allow her to wear ‘em). 

From the very first issue, therefore, Wilson and Amanat were very particular about not giving Kamala “pretty powers”. She can shrink or “embiggen” herself like Ant-Man, she’s infinitely bendy and stretchy like Mister Fantastic — and like Wolverine, her body also has self-healing capabilities. She’s also a shape-shifter, with the ability to assume the appearance of anybody’s she seen (a la Mystique from the X-Men). The clumsiness of these abilities is emphasized; on several occasions, Kamala’s powers are called ‘scary’, ‘creepy’ or some variant thereof, even by other superheroes. When Kamala first gets her powers via an alien mist, she instinctively takes on Carol Danvers’ appearance as Ms. Marvel (in the comics, Danvers is Ms. Marvel before taking on the ‘Captain Marvel’ avatar), complete with the thigh-high boots and the leotard, which makes her feel under-dressed and awkward. 

Shortly afterwards, following her first-ever rescue act, Kamala’s inner monologue reflects the buyer’s remorse she feels after assuming Danvers’ ‘all-American’ appearance: “Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting. I always thought that if I had amazing hair, if I could pull off great boots, if I could fly, that would make me feel strong. That would make me feel happy. But the hair gets in my face, the boots pinch and this leotard is giving me an epic wedgie.”

The shape-shifting and flexibility are both simple but powerful metaphors. While Kamala can look like anybody, she wants to be herself, basically — whoever that is. For a 16-year-old, figuring out a capital-A Authentic Self is everything, after all. Kamala is a Jersey City girl through and through; her status as a “second-string superhero for a second-string city” (most A-list superheroes are New York-based) is reiterated throughout the comics. She’s the daughter of Pakistani immigrants Yusuf and Muneeba and so she isn’t allowed to go to parties with boys, or dress up the way she likes and she has to sit through periodic conversations with Sheikh Abdullah, the local imam. 

The very first scene of the very first issue subverts several stereotypes about Muslim-Americans — Kamala and her Turkish-American friend Nakia are talking about ‘facon’, or artificial bacon, for example. When a racist American classmate called Zoe walks by, she asks Nakia if her Dad “forced her to wear that headscarf” and hopes that Nakia won’t be the victim of an honor killing; the Turkish-American girl retorts that the headscarf was her own idea, that her father actually thinks “it’s a phase” and wants her to take it off. 

Wilson’s previous works, like the Vertigo Comics limited series Air and the cyberpunk novel Alif the Unseen, have also featured some intelligent, compassionate and humorous engagement with Islamic themes (pertaining to both mystic and everyday concerns). Raised in an atheist household, the 39-year-old Wilson converted to Islam in her 20s and during a stint teaching English in Cairo, married an Egyptian Muslim man who later moved to America with her.    

There are fascinating experiments within the pages of Ms. Marvel’s early issues—for example, right after she’s hit by the mist that gives her superpowers Kamala has a vision of Captain Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America floating above her, the page resembling 16th century Catholic-themed paintings like Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ and Raphael’s ‘The Transfiguration’. But Captain Marvel is also quoting the Persian poet Amir Khusro’s 13th century song ‘Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson’, itself an assimilation-themed poem inspired by the Hindu festival of Basant Panchami. Even Kamala’s chosen costume is a statement about assimilation on one’s own terms—it has elements of the classic Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel costume but it ditches the leotard for a more modest pair of pants as well as a dupatta (in general, the costume has been inspired by the shalwar-kameez that most Pakistani-American young women favor). 

Over and above everything else, though, Kamala Khan is the superhero of the Millennials and now with the show, Gen Z as well. She represents young people’s feelings about America, about the world and yes, about superheroes, too. She writes goofy Avengers fan-fiction, speaks in video game lingo (“I have +10 heals!”), references Star Wars and Kung Fu Panda in the same breath and during an early ‘test run’ for her powers, tries to transform into Taylor Swift but changes into her Ammi instead (“this is getting Freudian”). 

The fact that Kamala speaks for young people everywhere is underlined by the characterization of the first supervillain she fights — The Inventor, a cloned, part-cockatiel version of Thomas Alva Edison who has imprisoned and brainwashed promising youngsters from across America. He has convinced them that the only way to fight climate change is for young people to give their bodies away to be used as power sources, thereby reducing the dependency on fossil fuels. 

The Inventor is, of course, speaking the language of corporate-backed neoliberal advocacy groups. And the choice of Edison as super-villain is significant—not only was Edison one of America’s most famous uber-capitalists; he also benefited tremendously from the hype and the myth-making around his name. Moreover, Millennials and Gen Z kids know the truth about Edison’s parasitic ways (he was notoriously prone to stealing other inventors’ designs and using underhand tactics to destroy his competition) largely thanks to comics, specifically an edition of Matthew Inman’s ‘Oatmeal’ webcomic from 2012. 

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According to a 2017 essay on Ms. Marvel by Sarah Gibbons, published in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, “The comic exposes narratives of hard work and optimism—including the tired injunction to pull oneself up by the bootstraps—as false narratives, and does so by parodying the virtues of ‘flexibility’. This critique is enacted through the representation of the use of teenage bodies as power, as the Othered body becomes a site of negotiation of and resistance to the pressures of neoliberalism.”

The ‘Othered’ body refers not just to the brown, Muslim Kamala Khan but also to Millennials as a whole — they are the demographic whose labour has been systematically devalued by capitalism, who’ve lurched from a global economic meltdown in 2007-8 to the subsequent jobs crisis plus wage stagnation and now, finally, a pandemic to top things off. We may not have much, Kamala Khan is saying, but push us too far and you shall know the fury of our memes and our 20-foot ‘embiggened’ fists.   



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