Marvel’s New Muslim Superhero

Comic books and the related publishing industry have been a serious form of cultural expression since before the days of Clark Kent and Superman. Superman, created by Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster in 1933, was sold to the publisher who would later evolve into DC Comics. Superman became an iconic part of America culture in spite of both creators being Jewish. Prior to World War II, Jews were reviled throughout the world, even in the United States. Late in 1880’s, the Russian Jewish ghettos were frequently targeted by Russian Christians; Jews persecuted, harassed, and subjected to many forms of humiliation. Even in the United States, despite what many might say, Jews were not welcomed with open arms. In most urban areas, from New York to Chicago, Jews were similarly harassed.

Captain_America_Vol_1_201Comic books themselves have frequently sought to present societal issues to readers. Early in Captain America’s career, his adventures pit him against the Nazis. Interviews with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby reveal Captain America was created specifically to counter what they saw as the horrific actions of the German Wehrmacht.  My favorite comics are those from the 1970s and 1980s partnering Captain America with the Falcon. Together, Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson team-up to take on the Red Skull, cultists, and drug dealers in Harlem. But, even the title itself seems evidence of racism, as Falcon would be dropped from a few of the titles in the series. In the 1990s and 2000s, Captain America would take on White Supremacists, terrorists, and ultra-conservative “super-patriots.” Many authors and researchers have done some nice work detailing the contribution of comics in mirroring societal issues.

Many recent books have taken up a variety of societal issues. Marvel’s Civil War story arc parallel the real-life effort to generate “watch lists,” the promotion of people to spy on their neighbors, and the formation of militia groups along the U.S.-Mexico border. Muslim-Americans were singled-out, as well as anyone who might be suspected of being Muslim, such as Sikhs, light-skinned Black people, and darker-skinned Hispanics.

Both Marvel and DC have promoted LGBT characters. Marvel’s Northstar, part of Alpha Flight, was openly gay and promoted greater AIDS awareness. Most recently, DC’s Batwoman was revealed to be gay. Other characters from both publishers are homosexual, as well, though not as well-known. From Top Cow, the Witchblade’s current wielder, Danielle Baptiste is also gay. These titles tend to explore the effects on life and family of discrimination experienced by these characters, but, honestly, I’m not sure the writers are really doing much, other than saying, “OK, Kate Kane is Batwoman and she is gay. Now, we’re going to kick some evil butt.” I haven’t been impressed much by the strength of conviction for the writers to really address some of the animosity in today’s so-called “free” society. Not in the same sense writers in the ’70s and ’80s took on racism and drugs, for example.

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February 2014, witnessed the arrival of a new Marvel book representing a new, and perhaps bold, direction for Marvel. “Ms. Marvel” represents the most recent incarnation of the Ms. Marvel character. Originally appearing in 1968, Carol Danvers gave up the title in 2012 and assumed a new role as Captain Marvel. In 1985, Sharon Ventura became Ms. Marvel after being coaxed to take part in the Power Broker’s experiment. The former villain, Moonstone (Karla Sofen), assumed the name in 2009 for a brief run. Now, we have Kamala Khan, a 16-year old Pakistani-American residing in Jersey City, New Jersey.

I really like this book for a number of reasons. Not having any experience in reading Ms. Marvel, for new readers, writers and editors should have made determining Kamala’s ancestry a little easier. Embedding geography in comics is not unheard of; in fact, many comics use geographic details frequently (Daredevil, Moon Knight #1, Winter Soldier). Editors and writers merely need to spend a few minutes to get the details correct, embed a few clues, embed a few details, and a good story becomes a learning lesson. Having Kamala’s father threaten her brother with going to live with his uncle in Karachi if he doesn’t find employment was all the clue necessary.

This is a great book to share with your kids, especially if you have a 10+ daughter. Written for Teen+, when I read through the book, had I a 10+ year old daughter I would have allowed her to read and collect this title. Too many books these days, labeled as “Teen+” overly sexualize the title character, and women, in general. For some asinine reason, artists equivocate large breasts with power and physical prowess. Another good title for girls is the newest “Wonder Woman,” written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang. One of the best books, overall, in the last two years and a great book for young women to collect.

Kamala_Infidel_Meat

Writers don’t seem to be too much into humanizing their characters, showing weakness and frailties readers can relate to, but Ms. Marvel’s writers, Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona deserve a lot of credit for making Kamala relatable to readers. Kamala visits her neighborhood bodega and literally lusts after a BBQ pork sandwich. A good talking point for beginning a conversation: “Why would Kamala say something like, “delicious infidel meat…?”” For Muslims, like Jews, pork is off-limits due to its cloven hoof. (Leviticus 11:7-8; Deuteronomy 14:8)

Kamala_Amreeki

Kamala has a friend she pals around with. In the panel (left) we see Kamala use the name “Kiki” in reference to her friend. Kiki takes an exception to being called, “Kiki,” asking not to be called, “…Kiki, anymore.”

Kamala apologizes, saying with some sarcasm, “Proud Turkish Nakia doesn’t need “Amreeki” nickname. I get it.” We learn Nakia is not Pakistani, but Turkish, and later we learn some other similarities. We also see a reference to “Amreeki,” a colloquialism used for “America.” Many people, when relocating to the United States, will adopt an American-style name. International students on college campuses will assume names like, “Roger,” or “Alex,” or “Alexis,” simply because Americans have trouble pronouncing foreign names. As a sidenote, the world is full of challenging pronunciations. Perhaps, it is the United States that is different, not the majority of the world.

Nakia_scarf

While passing time in the bodega, some high school kids show up. White, perhaps upper-middle class, and certainly representative of many high school kids in today’s rural high schools, the conversation begins innocent enough. “Your headscarf is so pretty.” Notice Kamala is not wearing a headscarf, the hijab, some Muslim women wear. A sign of modesty, women in many countries wear head scarves. Today, people associate the hijab with Muslim women. The reality is the hijab pre-dates Islam, and Christianity, for that matter. Headscarves adorned the heads of Greek, and later Roman, women, who represented nobility, or the upper class of society. The headscarf was a way women would segregate themselves from common women and prostitutes. Nakia is wearing a hijab, though, and this grabs the attention of who can only be described as an uppity white girl.

Nakia_honor-killing

In the full panel, we see the full expression of the girl’s concern. “I mean, nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody? Nobody’s going to, like, honor kill you?”

When I read this the first time, I thought, Wow, the writers really jumped right into the fray, didn’t they?” Honor killings is a big jump from snarky comments about a headscarf.

Honor killings epitomize atrocities against women, but what is an “honor killing?” Some cultures around the world persist in dictating to daughters whom they should marry. A daughter who follows her parents decision honors her family, and life goes on. As we move deeper into the 21st century, technology is exposing very traditional culture values to other values. We see the clash of Culture A versus Culture B splash across media weekly, almost. Honor killings are not religious based. Honor killings pre-date Islam, Christianity, and probably Judaism. In other words, honor killings are not part of Islam, nor Hinduism, nor Christianity, nor a part of any religion. The way honor killings are portrayed in the media one would have no choice but to assume they are part of Islam. They aren’t, but there are those in the right-wing media who would like no more than to make up the dots to connect honor killings to Islam.

Patriarchal societies, male-based, promote control over women’s access to marriage, education, employment, and general life activities. Mothers, sisters, and aunts are also complicit in dictating behavior of younger women in order to maintain the culture. For literally thousands of years, girls have been used to seal alliances between families to end conflict, to prevent conflict, to encourage cooperation in economics or warfare. Young girls were the only bargaining chip, at times, to bring closure to some concern. A girl who refused to accept marriage was seen to threaten a family’s livelihood, discredits a family, dishonors a family among tribes of families – a loss of “face” or respect. The only way to recover respect was the death of the daughter at the hands of the parents or some appointed family member.

We see the same behavior in Asian societies, even today. The loss of face, of honor, for a family member can permeate an entire family. In China, 2008, the manager of the factory responsible for poisoning milk, mouthwash, and toothpaste, committed suicide. Why would he commit suicide? In part, perhaps to avoid an ugly trial in China, culminating in lifelong imprisonment. A larger component would be to prevent his family from suffering. His children may never be allowed to enter college, or be relegated to menial jobs because of the actions of their father. The actions of a family member can stain the entire family for generations in some cultures.

We see news of honor killings come from rural India. We read news accounts of honor killings in Pakistan. Reading of honor killings in Eastern Europe is not uncommon. When people immigrate to the United States, they bring their culture with them, and we have had some cases of honor killings among immigrants. Without a doubt, though, news of honor killings from Afghanistan is the most prominent. True, the practitioners of honor killings in Afghanistan are Muslim, but are not mainstream Muslims. And, as I stated earlier, honor killings in Afghanistan pre-date Islam, and are tied to archaic tribal rules, and have no basis in Islam. Our blonde-haired “friend” of Nakia doesn’t seem to be aware of any of these details.

Kamala_alcohol

Kamala’s high school friends are gearing for a weekend party. This will present a problem for a number of reasons for Kamala. First, alcohol will be present. “Alcohol” is an Arabic word derived from al-kohl, meaning “purified.” Kamala is not Arab, she is Pakistani, and probably speaks Urdu, not Arabic. Urdu is a member of the Indo-Aryan language family and not related to Arabic, which is Judeo-Arabic, and closer to Hebrew.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam; alcohol is also forbidden in some Christian denominations, such as the Southern Baptists and Mormonism. For a Muslim, being around alcohol is fine, as long as one does not partake.

Perhaps a more serious issue for Kamala is the presence of boys her age. We aren’t led to believe this – yet – but fraternizing with the opposite sex is forbidden in most Islamic societies. There is a considerable range in the oversight of these relations, though. Turkey, for example, is perhaps the most liberal Islamic country. Women can hold most any job in the private sector and any job in the public sector. Men and women are allowed to mingle. On the other side of the spectrum, Saudi Arabia and Iran represent more traditional systems. Women are not allowed into some activities, like sports, government, and have limited employment opportunities, like nursing and teaching. Single men are not allowed to mingle freely with single women. Shopping centers and malls have areas set aside exclusively for women and families, while single men must sit elsewhere. Iran has experienced some controversy in sports. Mamood Amadinejad allowed women to attend soccer matches only to be overruled by the Supreme Islamic Council. Several years ago, a ski resort in northern Iran got into trouble with the religious police for allowing men and women to share the same ski slopes.

None of this explains why, though. The Qur’an (and the Christian Bible, too) states people should dress modestly, should not expose too much skin. Men should not cut their hair or beards, and women should veil their faces, and not wear clothing revealing the curves of their body. Good luck with that, super-heroines.

People are too susceptible to sin, especially men. Thus, because men are either unable or unwilling to suppress their sexual urges, women must hide themselves. Furthermore, because men have fragile egos and cannot handle a woman who can surpass them in skill, wisdom, and knowledge, men prevent women from engaging in many activities, like sports, politics, religion, and industry. But, we cannot blame any of this on Islam, as we encounter discrimination wherever men and women are found. But, some cultures make Islam responsible, point to the Qur’an was the governing document preventing women from many activities, because “God said so.”

Kamala_dinner-prayer

When Kamala returns home, she finds dinner nearly ready, her father reading a local paper, and her brother saying his prayers. We see a broad range of religion expressed here, from her brother, Jamir, who seems to be a devote Muslim, to her father who seems more secular, even chastising his son for praying too much.

Kamala_dinner-prayer2

Jamir evidently spends more time in mosque than looking for employment. In other words, like some of today’s directionless youth, continue to live at home, idle, and live off Mom and Dad. “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God” and is the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians. Islamic beliefs are based on Judaism and Christianity. Islam recognizes the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, the Christian Bible, and all of the principle people mentioned in the books. Islam adds the Qur’an to round out a trilogy of religious books. People don’t agree with me; the problem is not with me. People who don’t agree with these details refuse to acknowledge how Islam sees itself.

“Abu” translates as “father”  Most Westerners don’t understand naming conventions used by people around the world. Thailand, for instance, requires everyone has a unique family name. Thus, if you run across two people with the same surname, they are related. English names are no where near as organized. Arab names, for example, the very long name chain we often see in the news, represent consider information. We can tell from an Arab name chain lineage, the grandfather, the father, the person’s given name, the person’s chosen name, tribal affiliation, and perhaps even geographic home or hometown. A friend of mine, Hamid, suddenly became “Abu Rakin” one day. Always trying to pronounce and learn names, I asked him if I had been saying his name wrong. No, he said, my wife had our first son overnight. His name is Rakin, so I have a new name, now, “Abu Rakin” but you can still call me Hamid. The spelling in the panel seems more consistent with Arabic, though, not Urdu.

Kamala_dinner-UsuryOffendsAllah

Islam has some very strict rules governing the handling of money. For instance, interest cannot be charged. No interest. Not only can interest not be charged, interest cannot be earned by Muslims. The Islamic banking system has some attractive qualities to some non-Muslims, as a result. So, you might ask, “How do they make money?” Typically, a loan comes at a price. The loanee pays a fixed amount of money for a loan. For a $10,000 loan, a person may pay $500 dollars or some fraction of the loan amount. When Jamir suggests his father is guilty of the sin of usury and that his father’s choice of employment is worthless, his father takes offense. Jusuf, Kamala’s father, reminds his son (“beta”) his job affords Jamir the luxury of sitting at home doing nothing.

Kamala_dinner-CricketDoping

Finally, I found the details of Jusuf’s paper interesting. Sometimes, I think artists get lazy, simply scribbling lines to look like text but on scrutiny resolves to gibberish. Not the case with Jusuf’s paper.

“Akbar” translates as “greatest,” so he is reading Jersey’s greatest newspaper.

The most popular sport in Pakistan is probably soccer. The second most popular sport in Pakistan, though, is cricket. And, like cycling and baseball in the United States, Pakistan has a problem with doping within the sport of cricket. Cricket was introduced by the British, when the Empire of Great Britain ran the entire landscape from Pakistan to Bangladesh for almost one hundred years, from 1847 or so to 1947.

The United States has no idea about cricket, except for some isolated club teams here-and-there. Listen to cricket coverage on NPR sometime. Bizarre, and amusing.

This is a great book with so much potential, potential in a number of ways. Teachers I know are always looking for ways to introduce ideas and concepts to students. What better way than to bring a comic to class, oriented to females, nicely drawn, covering so many societal and geographic issues? Educators representing many disciplines can draw from this single book.

  1. Explore the history of Pakistan and the influence of Great Britain;
  2. Explore the geography of South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan);
  3. Explore the geography of language families;
  4. Explore the geography of cricket;
  5. Examine the issues of religion, similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; identify the Five Pillars of Islam;
  6. Examine the geography of Islam, the holy sites of Mecca and Madinah; use Google Earth to find locations using Longitude-Latitude coordinates;
  7. Examine the etymology of Arabic words, like alcohol, algebra, banana, kebab, couscous, and hummus;
  8. Explore the issues associated with migrating to new areas with a different culture;
  9. Examine the comic book layout, design, and composition;
  10. Examine use of color;
  11. Examine techniques for communicating action.
  12. Engage in open-ended discussion of how comic books / graphic novels could succeed in communicating issues over other media.

Comic books and graphic novels are entertaining, but their use need not stop there. Used with some imagination and thought, comic books and graphic novels can be important sources of learning and engagement.

Seeing where the Ms. Marvel creative team takes Kamala will be very interesting. She/Ms. Marvel has already been placed among important influences on 21st century global culture and human rights, along side Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot October 9th, 2012, by the Taliban for attending school.

Of all the new books released in February & March, make sure Ms. Marvel is in your pull-list.

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