- Margaret A. Robbins, PhD
Is Kamala Khan Becoming a Cultural Icon? A New Take on the Ms. Marvel Narrative with Team-Ups
Kamala Khan is a superhero figure that I’ve read, followed, and written about for the past five years. So far, two creative teams have been responsible for her primary narrative, Ms. Marvel with writer G. Willow Wilson (along with editor/co-creator Sana Amanat, artist Adrian Alphona, and others) and The Magnificent Ms. Marvel with writer Saladin Ahmed, editor Alanna Smith, and artist Minkyu Jung. I’ve loved both teams and where they have taken the story as well as the art. In particular, I’ve found Ahmed’s most recent issues interesting because Kamala has been able to further explore her part-alien identity when she goes to the planet Saffa, and many believe that she’s the “chosen one”. In an era in which immigration is a controversial topic, I believe the idea of a superhero with a partial alien heritage, a common theme in comic books over the years, is particularly relevant. In a polarized political climate, it can be difficult to know which part of your identity you most want to explore and which places will most feel like home.
Recently, Kamala has become a character in other comic series, such as Marvel Rising by Nilah Magruder and Rob Di Salvo. What I find particularly intriguing are her recent Marvel Team-Up comics with Spider-Man aka Peter Parker and Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers, her mentor figure and predecessor as Ms. Marvel. From the beginning, Kamala’s narrative has been one in which intersectionality was of great importance. She’s juggling identities as a teenage girl from Jersey City, a Pakistani-American, a Muslim, and over time as one who is trying to understand her alien origins. Yet when she’s paired with two iconic, long established White superhero figures, the intersectionality becomes even more pertinent.
In many regards, Peter Parker and Kamala Khan as characters are a logical team-up for issues 1-3 of Marvel Team-Up by Eve Ewing and Joey Vasquez. They are both nerds, with both having a keen interest in science and Kamala’s additional interest in Avengers fanfiction. Both have intense feelings for the boy or girl next door. Both have strong connections to their families, yet have to hide aspects of their lives from family. And both characters know how it feels to have to balance being a “normal” high school kid with being a superhero. In the team-up issues, Peter and Kamala are literally trapped inside each other’s bodies after a scientific demonstration goes wrong and have to figure out how to realign. Kamala then has to spend time in a now adult Peter’s body, dealing with adult issues such as bills and a job interview. Peter has to re-remember what it’s like to have a curfew, parents and teachers who make the rules, and other restrictions of being a teenager.
In just three short issues, it’s difficult to fully develop the issues that happen when a teenage girl of color and a white male adult change bodies. While I think the issues could have delved deeper into this important question, the situation they presented was intriguing in a medium that has often explored issues related to justice and identity. Peter and Kamala both realized that they are treated differently in another person’s body. Yet ultimately, they both want to go back to their own, in part because they want bodies that match their ages and experiences, and also, they know better what to expect. If we had the opportunity to change bodies with someone with privileges that we don’t have, would we take it? And do we really fully know the answer until we’re in the situation? On the surface, this is a fun comic that, in the first issue, meets in the middle (literally) between two stories, and the reader can read upside down or right side up. But on a deeper level, it asks fundamental questions about how one’s embodiment might affect life experiences.
In Marvel Team-Up #4 (McElroy/Guara/Sobreiro) with Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, Carol’s goal is to get Kamala more free time at night for her superhero duties. To convince Kamala’s parents to allow this, Carol tells her parents that Kamala will have the opportunity to learn from a Pakistani female scientist and also to make money. Her parents are reluctant at first for the sake of keeping Kamala safe, but the money aspect fully convinces them. Moving forward, Carol and Kamala will work together to keep the peace, especially when all is not as it seems. Carol keeps her part-Kree heritage close to the chest due to recent events, and Kamala asks her why she is not more open about it.
While Captain Marvel looks European American and Ms. Marvel is an adolescent girl of color, both are partially of alien descent, and there is more to them than meets the eye. Will this issue be explored more in the next issue? Marvel comics seem to have a trend of striking a balance between entertainment and social awareness. I wonder how that will manifest in future Ms. Marvel team-ups, including the forthcoming #5, which will expand on Carol and Kamala’s story.
Will Kamala Khan continue to grow as a superhero cultural icon? Right now, when I go to popular culture conventions, a lot of people do not recognize Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel costumes, but there are a large number of Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers costumes. When I look for “Ms. Marvel” t-shirts, a lot more of them relate to Carol than to Kamala, in part because Carol has been around longer. Yet the Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan readership has been far over what Marvel initially anticipated, and the series continues to go strong and to have spin-offs. I am also reading and citing more academic scholarship about Kamala Khan and her place within the female superhero trajectory, which I see as a positive sign. Will she eventually take her place with Peter Parker and Captain Marvel, in terms of visibility? Although she might not be at that level of visibility yet, I think there’s potential, which could be in part why these team-up comics were created. Regardless, Kamala’s narrative is one of significant importance within cultural and media studies.