What is comic book culture? Is it superheroes who prevail against villains, made up characters who take you through a journey, foreign cartoons? The word culture represents the customs and behaviors of a social group. Therefore, does comic book culture exist? Comic books have developed greatly since their start and now include an array of genres that represent multiple different cultures. It is interesting how much American comic books grew and the direction they are moving in. If you look at the history of American comics, you will notice how the “comics culture” changes based on the behaviors of the time. For example, in Robert C. Harvey’s “How Comics Came to Be,” he points out how comics were used as political satire in the beginning of its time after politicians were “caught in civic corruption” in the beginning of the 1900s (Heer, 2009). Then after the wars started, “Born about a year prior to the United States’s entry into World War II, Captain America existed, uniquely, both in the world of fantasy that superheroes always occupy and in the political reality of the prewar United States” in the 1940s (Ongiri, 2017). Then, the focus changed to inclusivity with the Civil Rights Movement when “Black Panther” was created and added into the Fantastic Four in 1966 (Smith, 2018). The wave of Feminism and Women’s Rights influenced the comics with Captain Marvel in 1967 and Ms. Marvel in 1977. However, Ms. Marvel does not only include feminism, but also cultural diversity in 2013 with its fourth character Kamala Khan. From the past couple of decades, America has gone through a strong “culture change.” From the white males focusing on politics, to fighting the World War II, to integrating Black Americans, to Women’s Rights, the American culture has gone through a whirlwind. American culture does not hold the same meaning it did in the early 1900s. Now, when I think of American culture a single image does not come to mind. In this present day, “American culture” is a combination of multiple different cultures and backgrounds. The country of immigrants, America is the home to people of many cultures and communities which are yet to be fully represented. Marvel has adapted its comics over the years to include the American culture of the time and has done so in Ms. Marvel #1 and Ms. Marvel #13 as well to represent current American culture. Ms. Marvel is a young female Muslim Pakistani-American from the suburbs who tries to find her identity with her superpowers. Ms. Marvel is highly relatable to many South Asian and Middle Eastern American teens, which Marvel succeeds in including as a new fan base. Not only does Marvel include that fan base, but also other cultures such as Black American and Asian American culture are included. The image and dialogue in Ms. Marvel #1 and Ms. Marvel #13 enhance the inclusivity of different backgrounds and cultures to further expand Marvel’s fanbase.
The dialogue in Ms. Marvel #1 shows the reality of what it’s like to be an American with South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant parents and provides a relatable plot. Ms. Marvel opens up with Kamala Khan smelling a BLT since her Islamic religion does not allow her to consume bacon. The cashier, Bruno, says to her “Either eat the bacon or stick to your principles.” with the word “principles” bolded (Wilson, 2014). This statement said to her by her white counterpart is often said to many muslims in America and emphasizes a struggle that Muslim Americans have to overcome. Living in Muslim dominant countries make it easier to avoid eating pork since you almost never come into contact with it, however living in America you are exposed to many different foods including pork. The word “principles” is bolded to emphasize that avoiding pork is part of her values and eating it would be very detrimental to her life and personal beliefs. Kamala has to overcome her internal struggle of avoiding eating pork when coming into contact with it which many Muslim Americans also experience which is why this line is very relatable. A piece of dialogue that acknowledges another struggle of Americans with different backgrounds is when Kamala says “Sorry. Nakia. Proud Turkish Nakia doesn’t need “Amreeki” nickname. I get it.” when she says “I told you not to call me Kiki anymore” (Wilson, 2014). This happens very often to teens who have “different” names which are “hard to pronounce.” Their names often get “whitewashed” which subtly and sometimes subconsciously pushes kids to abandon their culture and to culturally assimilate. This dialogue emphasizes the struggle teens have with their “different” names and how some people deal with it. In this case, Nakia stands her ground and refuses to change her name to avoid altering to the norm. However, so many teens change their names or their white peers change their names which takes their identity away from them. This is another struggle that many ethnic Americans have to deal with that Ms. Marvel addresses on page 2. On page 9, Kamala was sent to her room for arguing about going to a party and says “Everybody else gets to be normal.” This is a sentence that many South Asian and Middle Eastern Americans think to themselves. They naturally compare themselves to their white friends at school and feel like an outcast when they can’t attend parties with boys, eat different foods at lunch, celebrate different holidays, and are treated differently from their male siblings. America is much more modern than other countries so when their immigrant parents are not as liberal other parents, many teens in America feel like Kamala. Another quote from Kamala that is relatable is “I grew up here! I’m from Jersey City, not Karachi!” on page 18. Even though ethnic Americans were born and brought up in America, they are treated as foreigners. Even though they are American at heart, they are still not quite like everyone else which is a barrier that many ethnic Americans have. They do not identify with White Americans or with people from the country they originate from. This is why it is hard to find a hero to look up to when teens are growing up. However, Marvel has moved one step closer to fixing this barrier for ethnic Americans with Ms. Marvel. The dialogue in Ms. Marvel #1 is so relatable that expands Marvel’s audience to include people of different backgrounds that can’t relate to other comics such as Captain America and Captain Marvel.
The images and plot in Ms. Marvel #13 give representation to other cultures and communities in America. Instead of just including Muslim and white characters, Marvel now has a more diverse set of characters which which more closely represents what a school in Jersey City would look like. Although the comic does not deeply incorporate the other cultures in the plot, their representation is the first step to including a larger audience to read Marvel comics. The first image in the comic is in a classroom where the reader can see the diversity of the room (Wilson, 2016). The word box includes the name of the teacher, Mr. Chu, which gives representation to the eastern Asian community. Just by looking at his appearance in the image, it is not very easy to tell the teacher is of an Eastern Asian background. However, by giving the teacher a common Asian name, it acknowledges that they exist. Another background that exists in the comic is the African American community through Gabriel Hillman. His appearance represents the culture of the African American community through their staple looks such as the texture of their hair, the fade on the side, earrings, and a chain. Many African Americans sport the flat top fade look and it has now become an identity for their community. A New York based barber says, “Before this period, we relied heavily on Black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali who sported afros, to influence how we engaged in society in addition to our look” (Gabbara, 2018). After rappers started to adopt the look, the Black community followed their style since they were the new influencers for them after the Civil Rights movement at the time and to this day. The earrings and gold chain are also staples to the Black community which enhances their representation in this comic. Gabe has more representation in this comic than Mr. Chu in that he is closely related to Kamala. Another interesting point is that Gabe showed up in Kamala’s school because his neighborhood was redistricted and his “parents are in a totally different voting precinct.” Although this is not the main issue in the comic, the issue of redistricting that has happened throughout history for the Black community, where politicians redistrict in order to influence the net voting period. After there were three lawsuits filed in Southern States, it brought attention to the issue throughout the whole country and “the new lawsuits mean there now are redistricting challenges pending in a dozen states — in some places, multiple lawsuits —alleging racial or political gerrymandering in U.S. House or state legislative districts” (Kunzelman, 2018). What the politicians did that directly correlates with the comic is that “lawmakers illegally limited minority voting influence by “packing” black voters into one majority-minority district and “cracking,” or spreading them out, among other districts” (Kunzelman, 2018). I think Marvel chose Gabe in particular for the plot since Black communities have suffered from this issue in the past. It makes the comic more relatable for the Black American community and brings attention to the hardships of other cultures rather than suppressing history, which often happens in America. Another detail that is present in the comic is on page 8 where there are images of different people in different panels on the left side (Wilson, 2016). These images represent many communities that exist in America such as single moms, mixed race couples, senior citizens, blue collar workers, and young people. All of these communities play a large part in American culture. Using these different communities through a voting sense in this comic emphasizes their value in the country. Voting is the activity that brings attention to and gives importance to the different communities that exist in America. By giving each one of these people their own panel emphasizes each one of their communities that make up American culture. All of them have influence on the vote and the changes that will be made to their communities and the country. This comic acknowledges and gives attention to the multiple communities that exist and the culture that all of them contribute to in America. Without these communities, American culture would not be the same and having individual panels of each of them emphasizes that.
Marvel starts to include different communities and give representation to them in Ms. Marvel, however what is the reason for doing this? Throughout the history of comics, there have been many cases of including other communities in comics, however it was never in a positive light. The Comics Code Authority stated to never “ridicule or attack… any religious or racial group” along with many other limitations such as violence and nudity (Aldama, 2010). After these limitations, many underground and individual Comics artists seeked to rebel against the Comics Code and made extreme racial stereotypes in their comics. There was also a difference in the way Black newspapers and mainstream newspapers portrayed black characters. Any other race that was included in Comics was always exaggerated so much that they negatively represented those communities. Since most Comics artists were white, other communities did not get proper representation. Without heavy research integrating other races in Comics would not be possible for the white man Comics artist. In the past, integrating other races has not worked, so why did Marvel seek to include so many different communities and how did they incorporate them without extreme stereotyping? One way Marvel was able to do this is by having a Muslim teamwork on the Comic. The Writer G. Willow Wilson converted to Islam in college and the edit Sana Amanat were both part of the team and were able to represent the Muslim community in a way that would establish them in Comics as well as relate them to Muslim-American teens. Amanat said “I wanted Ms. Marvel to be true-to-life, something real people could relate to, particularly young women” and since the purpose was so that people could relate to to Kamala Marvel was able to create this comic (Robinson, 2013). Unlike in the past, where the purpose of including other races in Comics by white artists was to share political opinions and provide comedy, Marvel’s purpose with Ms. Marvel was to appeal to an audience that does not have anything to relate to and give them someone to look up to. Where Black newspapers have done this in the past, they were not mainstream so they did not gain as much attention in history. Marvel has the power to change the way Comics are portrayed and Ms. Marvel is a step towards including all different communities in Comics.
The multiple communities and cultures that exist in Ms. Marvel give representation to many different ethnicities that exist in America. All the individual cultures that exist in the comic and in society contribute to the American culture and without them the culture would not be the same. The comic does a good job of showing that especially in Ms. Marvel #13 when it included multiple different people who represented multiple communities in America in different panels. Creating a female Muslim American superhero gives Marvel the opportunity to expand its audience to the whole Muslim community. Although Ms. Marvel appeals to female teenagers, there are many aspects in the Comic which larger communities such as Asian and Middle Eastern Americans can relate to, thereby expanding Marvel’s audience.
Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below!
Aldama, Frederick Luis. Multicultural Comics : From Zap to Blue Beetle, University of Texas Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rit/detail.action?docID=3443496.
Gabbara, ByPrincess. “The History of the Fade.” EBONY, 17 Dec. 2018, www.ebony.com/style/history-fade-haircut/.
Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester. A Comics Studies Reader. University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Kunzelman, Michael. “Lawsuits: Congressional Maps Dilute Black Voters in 3 States.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 13 June 2018, www.apnews.com/d30b289c43f543079555304f2be53b6a.
Ongiri, Amy. “Punching Nazis: A Great American Tradition?” Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 Feb. 2017, lareviewofbooks.org/article/punching-nazis/#!
Robinson, Wills. “Marvel Comics Relaunches Ms Marvel as 16 Year Old Muslim Girl.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 6 Nov. 2013, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2488263/Marvel-Comics-relaunches-Ms-Marvel-16-year-old-M uslim-girl.html.
Smith, Anna Deavere. “Wakanda Forever!” The New York Review of Books, 24 May 2018, www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/05/24/black-panther-wakanda-forever/.
Wilson, G Willow. “Ms. Marvel.” Vol. 1, Marvel, 2014.
Wilson, G Willow. “Ms. Marvel.” Vol. 13, Marvel, 2016.