Friday, November 08, 2013
The new character is an angsty teen-ager who wakes up with a superpower, and uses it to fight bad guys. This is the formula that worked magically for Marvel 50+ years back, with Spiderman, and which they have tried sporadically to reproduce ever since. But where Spidey was a lonely outsider because he was a skinny science nerd in a school dominated by jocks, the new Ms. Marvel (whose name is borrowed from an older character) is an outsider because she is a Muslim.
That's where the news comes from: she's a Muslim. And some people, at least, find the very thought of a Muslim superhero unbearable. We just skimmed the reader comments to a [surprisingly not-hateful] story at Breitbart, and came away with these not-at-all-bigoted pearls of wisdom:
Chill, white Christian dudes. This is bad, all right, but not for the reasons that you may be thinking.
There are a couple of things about this story which may not be instantly apparent to non-comics people, so we'll try to run them down quickly. Then we'll get to the real outrage.
First, the industry has spent decades trying to interest people in characters who weren't WASP ubermesnschen (or thinly-disguised Jews passing as WASP ubermenschen). From guys with prep-school names like Clark Kent, Jay Garrick and Reed Richards, the superhero world has gradually broadened to include a significant number of popular black characters (Luke Cage is getting his own show on Netflix!), as well as Asians and Latinos. The most successful effort was probably the "New X-Men" of the 1970s, a group which included angsty teens from Africa, Russia and Japan. (Although the most popular member, by far, proved to be a Canadian). In recent years, the pace has stepped up; the old Blue Beetle, a generic WASP millionaire inventor, was killed off and replaced by an angsty Mexican-American teen; the old white Nick Fury has been replaced by his own African-American son.
On one hand, a lot of this is crass marketing, as a faltering industry tries to widen its readership. There are only so many 40sh white guys with no girlfriend running around at any one time. On the other hand, that's what a popular medium is supposed to do: change with the times.
Second, religion has historically played a marginal role in comics. This is a good thing. The religions most frequently encountered are either defunct (Norse and Greek paganism) or invented (the Vishanti, or any of a hundred evil cults dedicated to racial supremacy, government overthrow, or ushering in the End Times). Religion, in this sense, is a plot device, largely interchangeable with the high tech that confers powers or psychopathology that creates villains.
Even "real" religions function this way. The Spectre is a ghost, sent back to earth by God; but he could just as easily have been sent back by Rama Kushna, the Himalayan spirit responsible for Deadman, another ghostly hero. And this is why it is just as well that mainstream superhero comics have not spent much time on the widely-practiced religions dear to the hearts of millions. They don't exactly explore the unique nuances or the deep spirituality of these subjects.
There certainly have been characters who participate, at least to some degree, in the world's major faith communities. Adherents.com has an exhaustive list, but you shouldn't take it too seriously; a lot of these "affiliations" are pretty speculative. Still, the Huntress is not only Catholic, but wears a big old cross as part of her costume. And the Punisher is a seminary drop-out. (Like Al Gore, but with bigger guns). Kitty Pryde is Jewish, as is the Thing, although in the latter case this was a late-in-the-day addition to the story of a familiar character.
For a few comics characters, though, religion has been a major part of their storyline. During Frank Miller's run, Daredevil spent quite a bit of time wrestling with his Catholicism. So does the X-Men's Nightcrawler. Both DC and Marvel have done series about the Golem. The DC version, called Monolith, was superb; created by a rabbi in the 1930s to protect a Jewish ghetto, the revivified creature attaches himself to the rabbi's great-granddaughter, an angsty teenage girl, and her Asian roommate.
Independent comics, meaning broadly the ones not published by Marvel or DC, have produced a number of heroes who are overtly religious: Areala the Warrior Nun, Battle Pope, and so forth.
Third, there are plenty of superheroes whose religion isn't fake or defunct, but isn't Christianity or Judaism, either. One of our personal favorites is Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. Like most martial-arts characters in comics, he's at least nominally a Taoist. Green Arrow's adult son, Connor Hawke, was a Buddhist monk.
All of which brings us to:
Fourth, Muslim superheroes aren't entirely new. As early as 1991, Marvel experimented with an all-Muslim super-team based in Iraq, called, Desert Sword. DC has done the same sort of thing, with the same lack of success. But for a few years now, an independent publisher called Teshkeel Comics has run the adventures of a Muslim super-team called The 99 (as in the number of names ascribed to Allah). They're not completely obscure, either; The 99 have actually teamed up with the Justice League.
So ... what's really new about Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel? No single thing. But she does bring together into one easily-publicized package a lot of the things happening in the comics world. Unless we are mistaken, she is the first Muslim superhero from a major company to get a major marketing push -- and a major "name."
For some of us, the name is the most controversial thing going on here. The original Captain Marvel, an utterly unangsty orphan named Billy Batson, was published by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s and 50s; he was taken off the stands after a lawsuit, and then reintroduced by DC in the 70s. But during the 60s, when Timely/Atlas rebranded itself as Marvel, the publishers introduced their own Captain Marvel, a completely different guy. Today, the first Captain Marvel has been officially renamed"Shazam," the second one is dead, and the character named Linda Danvers, who since the 70s has called herself Ms Marvel, has taken over the captaincy.
And that's why we side with the Breitbart boys.
Stubborn old conservatives like Father A. are outraged -- outraged, we tell you! -- that little Billy Batson has been deprived of his name. Carol should give it back to him, at which time birds would sing and all would be right with the world.
Still, Marvel has legal rights to a valuable and historic name, which they have bestowed on this new character. We hope the stories are good and the character thrives.
As for the religious angle, well, all we can say is that we hope comics treat Islam with a little more respect for detail and history than they have typically accorded Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, paganism, and most of their own made-up religions.