This week the comics industry juggernaut Marvel announced a new superhero stepping into their circulation.
Kamala Khan is a young Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, growing up in New Jersey. In an article this week in the New York Times about the new character, author G. Willow Wilson explains that she wanted the comic to be about a few things: “…about the universal experience of all American teenagers, feeling kind of isolated and finding what they are.” Wilson explains that this comes through the lens of Kamala being a young Muslim in America who struggles with her faith.
The prospect of a new comic about this kind of character feels really promising. Even the art displays something new and comforting about it. I feel like Kamala could actually be a real person that I know. But aside from pointing out how Kamala will be different than previous Marvel superheroes, very little is discussed of her.
About a quarter of the article is taken up with examples of Marvel’s shoddy history of attempting to introduce minority characters. Thus if we are not already familiar, readers begin to introduce themselves to the battle against sexism and racism in the comic book world. Navigating the gauntlet of narrow editorial mindsets and penny-pinching fans… is seeing the underlying reality that most positions in the comic business are still inhabited by white men, and that this environment has often embarrassing and ugly consequences.
There are so many incredible examples of how working mostly with white men to create a comic universe comprised mostly of white men and male-idealized women can take its tole on your ability to even imagine diversification.
Some fun examples of this are instances such as DC Comics’ Dan DiDio in his outburst, now famous in the comic book world, at the San Diego Comic Con in 2011. When a member of the audience suggested that DC hire more women, DiDio emphatically responds, “WHO? Who should we hire? Tell me right now!” Let’s keep in mind that the suggestion came as a result of DiDio literally asking the audience what DC Comics should be doing to boost readership and reader confidence. As has been noted by many, if you actually listen to the exchange (an MP3 is conveniently available), you’ll note that DiDio’s response sounds less like a question and more like a challenge. DiDio continues to embarrass himself as an editor at America’s #2 comic publisher with actions like forbidding Batwoman authors from allowing the character, who is currently portrayed as a lesbian, to marry her partner. Superheroes are about self-sacrifice; they “shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” he explained to fans at the Baltimore Comic Con.
In August, 2013, comics creator Mark Millar was in the spotlight, particularly for his comments about the subject of rape in comics. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.” Millar went on to boast that he “always likes to push it and see something [he’s] never seen before.” Monika Bartyzel’s response in The Week:
But Millar is wrong. We have seen rape in comics before, and we’ve seen it a lot. In fact, rape shows up repeatedly in Millar’s work (Wanted, The Authority, Kick-Ass 2), which echoes a longer tradition of rape suffered by superheroines like Black Cat, Ms. Marvel, and Rogue. Rape is no more an unspeakable taboo in comics culture, where the industry is overrun with continual sexual harassment and rape threats, than it is in real life.
Are we seeing a pattern yet?
Honestly, so much has been said about sexism in comics in recent years, comic creators have gone from ignoring it to denying it, to then claim it’s not their responsibility to change it.
Despite it being less of a publicly heated debate (perhaps because it’s more embarrassing?) we see this trend not only around gender, but around race. Brandon M. Easton, an African American animation writer, layed out the numbers in a Bleeding Cool article last year:
Clearly, breaking into Marvel or DC is insanely difficult and few people of any background manage to get close; but the fact that there are less than 3.0% of Blacks credited on all Marvel and DC titles as of June 2012 illustrates a serious problem that requires greater exploration.
Without necessarily trying to, Easton sums up a large part of the attitude problem facing society and the microcosm of the comic book industry. It is about racism specifically, but we can extract important lessons about all forms of systemic oppression:
In the U.S., it becomes a situation where some White people feel personally indicted as a racist and the burden rests on Black people to 1) prove racism still exists and impacts all of us, 2) explain the difference between a White person living their daily lives vs. the institutionalized system of racism, and 3) defend yourself against claims of “reverse” racism as the very mention of the issue means that you hate White people. Almost every online discussion of race boils down to these three arguments before it’s all said and done. And ultimately, nothing changes because some folks refuse to separate the system from their personal identity.
…So what does this all have to do with the fresh young Kamala Khan? Well, it could tell us that the mainstream comic book industry, despite some very old habits and mindsets, is trying to move forward.
Khan appears to be her own superhero, when she is, in fact, going to become the new Ms. Marvel…Oh dear. Marvel and D.C. both have an embarrassing record of stuffing minorities–African Americans, women, and LGBT folk–into superhero characters that are already molded and defined as the characters of white men. Why is this a problem? To me, it boils race and gender down to pigment and body parts, and ignores the basic understandings of systemic oppression: that of a categorically different life experience. The idea that a Black Spiderman or a Ms. Marvel would carry on with the same missions and objectives as their white male counterparts, in essence, tells us what the comic creation establishment means when they huff and haw at accusations of racism and sexism: beyond pigment and body parts, we’re all the same. So why go out of our way to hire/include/portray minorities in comics?
Relatively speaking, I don’t think we are all the same. Perhaps a Pakistani Muslim superheroine like Kamala Khan would be concerned with American military drone strikes killing hundreds of civilians back home… Perhaps superheroes of colour would be more in tune with criminal behavior that has negatively impacted their communities or countries of origin, as opposed to some generic gangsters or bad men in suits? And I can’t speak for all women, especially women superheroes, but perhaps a feminist perspective would *completely* change a superhero’s take on the world–its problems and its solutions.
What’s also enlightening, in the end, is the attitude of introducing diversity. “Fans respond with their dollars,” said Axel Alonso, the editor in chief of Marvel Entertainment, In the sense of margins and numbers, there is the logical fear that minority issues won’t connect with the majority and their wallets. As some of the most POWERFUL comics creators in the world said, “The comics follow society. They don’t lead.”
I find that to be an interestingly defeated attitude for an industry’s top dogs. Any industry–but especially one with creativity at its core. And especially one so capable that it can put out a press release about the Muslim superheroine Kamala Khan on Monday, and have it picked up by two dozen major newspapers by Wednesday.
It seems to me that the biggest news the comic world can make these days is news of change.
Ultimately, the comic industry giants have yet to be able to overcome the major hurdles of sexism and racism, because they genuinely do not know how. Don’t worry guys, you’re not alone on that one. But until there is a comprehensive examination of racism and sexism, not as topics of sensitivity training, but as pervading systems of oppression in our society (with histories. with context) then we have little hope for the new characters being born, no matter how diverse they appear to be.