Earlier this month, Marvel released the first issue of Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American teenager. Khan is the first Muslim-American superhero to star in a Marvel comic, though Marvel has featured other Muslim-American characters in the past. The former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, has been rebranded as Captain Marvel, a member of the Avengers, leaving the role of Ms. Marvel to be filled by Khan.
The series is written by G. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam. In an interview with NPR this January, Wilson says she initially, “wasn’t sure that the world was kind of ready for a character like this,” but that she has tried to create an authentic character. In creating Kamala’s character, Wilson worked closely with editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker. Amanat revealed in a video for the Washington Post that the inspiration for a Muslim-American lead character actually came from a conversation between herself and Wacker, about her experience growing up as a Muslim-American. Wilson said the three “spent a lot of time before [they] actually sat down to script the series working on background issues so that she felt like a real human being. “
Wilson said readers can expect the typical action of a comic book, combined with new challenges unique to Kamala’s immigrant family background. Her family members range from more traditional Muslims, like Kamala’s brother, to more “relaxed” Muslims, like Kamala. But the overarching storyline is one of changing identity, both of Ms. Marvel’s change from white, blonde Carol Danvers to Muslim-American Kamala Khan, and Kamala Khan’s change from normal teenager to superhero.
Marvel’s decision to have a Muslim-American girl star in her own comic will face criticism from some parties for being “un-American,” but perhaps these critics are wrong. If we look at the changing face of superheroes like we look at the changing face of Jesus, we can see a pattern of change of identity central to American religion. Just as the portrayal of Jesus changes as the face of American religion and culture changes, so does the portrayal of other “superhuman” figures.
In their book The Color of Christ, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey discuss how differences in Jesus’s appearance over time reflect the view of Jesus Americans held at that moment in time. During the early colonial period in New England, where many Puritans immigrated seeking religious freedom, visual representations of Jesus could not be found, because the Puritans believed that to look to an image of Jesus would constitute breaking the second commandment. However, in Catholic areas, Jesus was often depicted as bloody, and to many Native Americans in French-settled areas, Jesus was portrayed as a “Manitou,” or powerful hunter spirit. Visions of Jesus were changed by every group of people who came into contact with him, and his image came to reflect the views of these groups of people. Eventually, Jesus came to be known as the white man depicted in Warner Salman’s famous Head of Christ (shown above) in 1941. To Blum and Harvey, this showed that, “by wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face,” and you’ll notice that this depiction came to the forefront of the American depiction of Jesus just before the civil rights movement began.
Though they are in no way recognized as a part of any organized religion I know of, superheroes are still seen as important, prominent, though fictional, figures in American culture, just as Jesus is. Can’t they represent the changing landscape of religion in America, just as images of Jesus represents the view of Christians in America? Perhaps Marvel’s choice better reflects the landscape of America today than past comic series have. As people continue to immigrate to the United States, bringing with them their own religions and traditions, it becomes impossible to ignore the growing number of non-white, non-christians in America, and the need for our superheroes to represent that changing face of American religion.