The comic book industry is a strange one. It’s dominated almost entirely by two companies -Marvel and DC – and as such, it’s perhaps the only entertainment industry that has managed to exclude, overlook or misrepresent entire groups of people for years. So when I found out the new Ms Marvel had been re-imagined as a Pakistani-American teenager from a traditional Muslim background, I mentally prepared myself for a vicious online backlash. However, I was delighted by how hard I had to work to find any. Yes, the mindless and misguided intolerance was there – but those voices were being drowned out by an overwhelming amount of support, admiration and even gratitude towards Marvel for making this decision.
Box-office breaking franchises such as The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy have proved that super-heroes can have mass appeal, so it’s crucial that companies like Marvel diversify along with their audiences. As I’m sure even those with a passing interest in comics and super heroes will be aware – there previously hasn’t been much to latch onto in terms of well-rounded, representative characters who seem human and complex. Sometimes a character’s two dimensionality is simply touted as part of “the joke”, but it’s a shame when this approach is favored over depth and development.
This problem has always been especially pronounced with female characters. Incidents such as the recent fiasco over what some people saw as an inappropriate and sexually explicit variant cover for the new “Spider Woman” series perhaps proves that women in comics are still at risk of being presented as sex objects instead of developed characters. However, the issue of how women are depicted in comics is more complex than what can be summed up in a few memetic internet taglines. It’s easy to say something simplistic like “female superheroes are too sexualised” but that isn’t it, it doesn’t capture the problem fully. There’s nothing wrong with having a role-model who’s sexy and confident in ways you can only dream of – that’s why people like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Dita Von Teese are all so wildly successful.
Comics feature men and women who are already unlike anything we’ve ever seen or anyone we’ve ever met – So it seems natural to demand an extra level of relatability in comic books in order to maintain empathy and engagement. That’s why character’s such as Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel) and America Chavez (Young Avengers’ Miss America) are so crucial in offering diversity and representation to young readers in new and exciting ways. These are cool, confident women who don’t miss the mark – they’re part who you were as a teenager, and part who you wanted to be. They’re relatable, yet still aspirational.
The roaring success of series like Ms Marvel and The Young Avengers proves that audiences are open to a new kind of superhero. It’s even more uplifting to see mainstream companies, like Marvel, being a part of this movement towards racial and cultural diversity. It’s hardly surprising when an indie company goes against the grain, that’s kind of their bread and butter; but when an institution like Marvel or DC takes a moment to smell the roses – that’s something to write home about.
Image property of Marvel Comics