EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from our superhero podcast, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast! Listen to the whole thing below.
On April 6, a Berkeley senior named Khairuldeen Makhzoomi boarded a flight from LAX in Los Angeles to get back to his home in Oakland. He had just attended a presentation from none other than Ban ki-Moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations. Makhzoomi called his uncle, who still lives in Baghdad, to brag about the event.
As immigration stories go, Makhzoomi’s is a classic—as American as apple pie. In 2002, his family fled Iraq after his father, a diplomat, was killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
So Makhzoomi didn’t think much of speaking to his uncle in Arabic to tell him about the dinner he’d attended. He didn’t think much of using the idiom “Inshallah,” which translates to “if God is willing.”
He didn’t think anything of it. But another woman on the flight did. She heard him say “inshallah” and thought he had said “shahid,” which means martyr. She told the flight crew, who sent an employee to escort Makhzoomi off the plane, where he was greeted by three security officers. He was asked if he had any hidden luggage. He was searched head to toe. He was asked if he had a knife. They brought out dogs and other officers, and they did all this out in the open, in front of everyone. Makhzoomi started crying. He was not allowed back on the flight. He was told Southwest would not be flying him back home.
He later told reporters, “The humiliation made me so afraid because it brought all of these memories back to me. I escape Iraq because of the war, because of Saddam and what he did to my father. When I got home, I just slept for a few days.”
As of this recording, Southwest has not apologized.
Islamophobia is unique among the many American phobias because of how recent it is. America’s struggle with most kinds of racism is part of the ongoing repercussions of old wounds that never truly healed. But the hatred and fear of Muslims, while not necessarily new, is stemming from events that are happening right now. The woman who alerted security to the presence of an Arabic-speaking man on her flight was worried because she associates people who speak Arabic with ISIS, al Qaeda and 9/11. The idea that Arabic-speaking people could also be students at Berkeley—could be scientists and politicians and doctors and artists and even heroes—had not occurred to her, because those stories don’t get told. Not on television. Not in the movies.
They do get told, however, in Marvel comics.
In 2012, two editors at Marvel—Steve Wacker and Sana Amanat—were swapping stories about growing up, and Amanat related an anecdote from her childhood about growing up Muslim. Wacker found the story funny, and that spurred a longer conversation about the lack of superheroes among their lineup with cultural specificity.
Marvel Comics actually has a long history of inclusion. People who accuse them of being too politically correct today by diversifying their lineup either don’t know or don’t care about how many times the company has faced criticism in the past for including marginalized characters long before they gained mainstream acceptance. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that these characters were diverse by reading their dialog. In most superhero comics, everyone from the Roman Catholic Hell’s Kitchen native Daredevil to the Soviet Russia defector Black Widow seemed cut from the same cultural ether. They speak the same way. They make the same jokes. They frequently have the same value systems and moral codes and anyone who doesn’t—like, say, Punisher’s willingness to kill or Luke Cage charging for his superhero services—is branded as an outsider. Wacker and Amanat wanted something different—a superhero who could accurately reflect the minority experience in America.
They turned to an author named G. Willow Wilson, a former Atlantic contributor whose 2010 memoir The Butterfly Mosque had garnered widespread acclaim. Wilson was a Muslim convert who had done in-depth reporting for The New York Times and The National Post. She had tried her hand at writing comics in the past—including a beautiful graphic novel called Cairo—but now Marvel was interested in having her try something different: creating the first Muslim superhero who would have her own series.
That’s the sort of concept that makes for warm, gooey headlines on Buzzfeed and all, but it doesn’t really mean much if the series itself isn’t good. But fortunately for the world at large, the series would end up being marvelous.
In creating her Muslim superhero, G. Willow Wilson went back to Marvel’s basics: a normal, unassuming outsider who suddenly discovers that with great power must come great responsibility. In this case, the outsider was Kamala Khan, a Desi teenager living in Jersey City, just across the Hudson from New York, where most of the superhero action is. Kamala is one of the first heroes who truly seemed to be the product of a Marvel universe where superheroes are the norm. She has a poster of Captain Marvel in her bedroom, and daydreams about joining the Avengers.
This frustrates her family. Her parents are warm and loving, but struggle to connect with Kamala. Her mother is neurotic about any contact with boys. Her father pushes her career aspirations. And none of them seem to understand her older brother, Aamir, and his increasingly conservative devotion to his faith.
Even in this, Kamala was already a very different kind of superhero for Marvel. Beyond being a Muslim teenager from Jersey, she came from an intact family. They squabble and bicker, but they support each other. Many of Marvel’s heroes find a sense of brooding isolation because they come from a broken background. Kamala feels like an outsider because the people who love her most don’t know how to connect with her.
Soon enough, Kamala discovers that she’s an Inhuman with latent super powers. She can shapeshift, grow and shrink her entire body or just part of it. She can make her fists as big and heavy as tires, or her legs as long as trees. She can even re-shape her face and body to look like someone else altogether. In fact, upon discovering her powers, her first instinct is to transform herself to look like her idol, Captain Marvel—a tall, white-skinned superhero with flowing blonde hair and a sexy costume. As Amanat later told The New York Times, “It’s also sort of like when I was a little girl and wanted to be Tiffani-Amber Thiessen.”
It’s only after her first few attempts at superheroing go awry that she realizes the value in fighting crime not as an idealized vision of conventional strength and beauty, but as her own self.
It was an interesting twist on superhero escapism. In the old days, lonely outcasts could relate to the shy, nerdy Peter Parker while fantasizing about having his powers as a release. In this series, Kamala acted as a stand-in for those lonely outcasts who use superheroes as an escapist fantasy, and it doesn’t work. In the end, Kamala doesn’t escape her home life. She uses it to make her better. She takes Captain Marvel’s discarded name, Ms. Marvel.
The name Ms. Marvel has a long history in Marvel Comics—Kamala is actually the fourth character to use the name. The first official use was in 1968, where a Cape Kennedy security agent named Carol Danvers gets caught in the radiation of alien technology, giving her super strength and warrior instincts. She started calling herself Ms. Marvel—mostly because Stan Lee and then Marvel Comics publisher Jim Shooter just really felt that Marvel Comics wanted to secure a copyright on the name Ms. Marvel. Carol eventually started calling herself Captain Marvel, and we’ll tell her story another time, but for now, it’s important to know how key the name Ms. Marvel is to Marvel Comics. Any character with “Marvel” right in their name has been seen as a strategic, flagship character for Marvel Comics. In the ‘70s, Captain Marvel’s comics were full of psychedelic visuals and trippy, otherworldly exploits—a clear sign that Marvel wanted to be hip to the counter culture movement. In the ‘80’s, as women’s lib gained a stronger foothold in culture, Captain Marvel became a brash, warrior-ready Avenger who was often the first to charge into battle and the last to retreat.
So now, today, the fact that Ms. Marvel is a young, Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City says something important about Marvel Comics. The brand has always been about society’s outcasts and rejects coming to terms with defending a world that doesn’t totally accept them. This was most prominent in the X-Men, whom society rejected because of their weird mutant powers—like blue fur or wings. But the reason society rejects Kamala is much more subtle, insidious and normal. You see examples of it on the news every day. In making her a flagship character, Marvel Comics was once again positioning itself as being on the side of the outsider.
In the years since her creation, Ms. Marvel has become something of a sensation. Her and Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man, are probably Marvel’s two most popular new characters of the decade so far.
Most of that is owing to G. Willow Wilson’s tremendous writing and Adrian Alphona’s spectacularly detailed artwork on Ms. Marvel’s first series. From page to page, the story could be funny, infuriating, sad, frightening and thrilling all while communicating heart and emotion. Ms. Marvel won the Hugo Award for best graphic novel in 2015, and it deserved it. In Wilson and Alphona’s hands, the story of Ms. Marvel became what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Spider-Man had been: not the story of a superhero who happens to be a teenager, but the story of a teenager who happens to be a superhero. As a superhero, Ms. Marvel spends a lot of time-saving the world. But as a young woman, Kamala is just starting to find her place in the world. She faces killer robots and alien invaders, but her more persistent problems are the growing distance she feels from her parents and the undercurrent of sexism, bigotry and mistrust her Muslim heritage affords her.
Ms. Marvel’s an Avenger now, which means she’s quickly becoming part of adventures much, much bigger than her Jersey City roots. And she deserves the marquee treatment Marvel Comics has been giving her, although there are – so far – no announced plans to give her a movie. Hopefully, that changes soon. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is in dire need of some diversity, and Kamala would be a terrific asset to any young Muslim teenager who’s ever wanted to go to a superhero movie and see someone who looked like them.
But there’s another reason heroes like Ms. Marvel are important, and it goes back to the opening story about Khairuldeen Makhzoomi getting kicked off his Southwest flight. The woman who turned him in only knew enough Arabic to be afraid of it. The security officers who searched Makhzoomi could only see an Iraqi immigrant. People fear Muslim culture when the only representations they see of it are from extremists on the news. It’s a very real, very evil danger that poses a real threat to our national wellbeing.
And this is a job for Ms. Marvel.