For a company whose characters enjoy such global reach and popularity, Marvel Comics hasn’t always been a beacon of inclusiveness or diversity.
Nearly 75 years after its founding however, the creator of good old fashioned American superheros such as Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America and the X-Men, is changing tack.
One of its latest creations is Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan; not just your typical superhero nor your typical Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey. Her special power? The ability to change shape, constantly adapting in an increasingly cynical world.
Her creators hope that Kamala Khan will not only help the venerable house of Marvel to reach out to newer audiences in countries such as Pakistan but also deal with the often negative stereotypes about Muslim women in the United States.
Among those creators is Sana Amanat, the fresh-faced daughter of academics who – along with writer G Willow Wilson, a Muslim convert – drew on her own experiences to create Kamala Khan.
Amanat, who has previously worked on everything from Marvel’s ‘Iron Man 3’ to ‘Death of Spider Man’ – calls the series a “desire to explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective” and what it means to be young and lost amid expectations by others while also telling the story of a teenager coming to grips with having amazing powers.
The idea for Kamala Khan came after a discussion between Amanat and senior editor Stephen Wacker, as they compared stories about growing up.
From there it germinated into a “character for all those little girls who are growing up now the way you are growing up,” she recalled.
The UKAsian caught up with Amanat to find out more.
How much of Kamala Khan is based on your own teenager experiences?
It’s funny because a lot of people ask me that question. I certainly don’t have the powers although that would be amazing. It really is a universal story about a slightly awkward teenager who gets this extraordinary gift and how she deals with it and how she reacts to it more than anything else. The story draws on my personal experiences and those of many other people. So if anyone opens up a scene, where Kamala is having a typical conversation with her mother for example, then that would be something that many people would identify with.
Tell us a little bit about how it all began.
The actual idea was pitched to me and my senior director and it’s been a collaborative effort between me, the director and the writer. I sort of had a vision of what I wanted this project to be, in particular what the character would look like and her back story.
I wanted her to be very modern in the sense that she is representing a demographic that hasn’t been represented in comics or even the wider media business. It’s funny because it didn’t start out as something that NEEDED to have a particular demographic element. It was during a conversation that it came up that the Muslim Pakistani community was not a group represented anywhere and there were no positive role models from that community.
There’s a lot of negativity when you see a Muslim on the news so it was time to have a character who that not only reflected a more realistic vision of a Pakistani Muslim but also a Pakistani Muslim female as well.
The hope is that in some senses it will be educational to teach people about this particular demographic. In other ways it will be humorous and heartwarming.
What was the overriding message for you growing up as a Muslim girl in America?
The one thing my dad always said to me was, ‘whatever you do, make sure it’s meaningful and make a positive impact on people whatever you do’. I think he saw it early when I entered the comics industry that it had great potential to change people’s perceptions.
It’s very exciting in that sense because we are creating this story of who Kamala Khan is. The complexities of her life, the conflicts that she’s facing and that’s more exciting than creating an arch villain, for example, which will come later. Right now her biggest challenge is not a dark villain but overcoming the ignorance and prejudices of people.
It’s a difficult time to begin with but she lives across the river from New York City where superheroes are doing amazing things all the time and she too realizes that she has to protect her world and her family and, more importantly, she’s the only who can do that.
What kind of problems did you face?
I suppose one of the biggest examples is dating as a Muslim, particularly as a Muslim woman. Although many people feel that it is a cultural thing, it’s more about parents being protective. My parents are very educated and the overriding message from them was I needed to carry myself in life in a way that people would respect me.
So I was a lot more conservative than my American friends. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was in university and I felt bad about it even then because I couldn’t tell my parents about it. But as you start coming into your own you realize that this is part of growing up and realising what you want for yourself and what’s good for you and knowing how to act so that men will respect you and it’s the only way you will get what you want and deserve from a relationship.
Kamala Khan makes her debut in February