In the end Back in the 1930s, when Batman and Superman made their way through comics, the formula for a superhero was simple: a white man with unusual powers and a sense of vigilante justice. It stayed that way for years. Then DC and Marvel, the two publishers that dominate American comics, began introducing a wider cast of protagonists, starting with Black Panther in the mid-1960s. Today, their roster of characters includes ethnic minorities, indigenous and gay heroes, as well as personalities with mental illness. This diversity has attracted a large fan base: in 2020, sales in America and Canada reached nearly $1.3 billion.
Movies and TV follow where the comics led. “Black Panther” (2018) and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021) featured African American and East Asian superheroes respectively. Both were box office hits. “Ms Marvel” (pictured), a series coming to Disney+ on June 8, will be another first for the franchise. Its protagonist is a Pakistani-American teenager, the first Muslim superhero Marvel brought to American screens.
The “Ms Marvel” tapes have featured Kamala Khan since 2014. In five years, it sold 500,000 copies in print and topped Marvel’s digital sales chart. Its audience is global, as comics are increasingly popular in Muslim-majority countries. The United Arab Emirates held its first Comic Con, a festival for fans, in 2012; Pakistan followed suit in 2014. Saudi Arabia has held conventions since 2017.
Muslim artists have long been absent from the comics industry and depictions of Islam rare. Kismet, the first known Muslim superhero, appeared relatively early, in 1944, briefly fighting the Nazis during wartime France. Yet “it was written by people who obviously had barely heard of Islam,” says A. David Lewis, a Muslim artist who resurrected Kismet. “They just threw the word Mohammed.”
Other figures emerged after the oil shortages and Iranian hostage crisis of the 1970s, as US geopolitical attention shifted to Muslim-majority countries. Most were cartoonish villains, usually sheikhs or bandits. A study of over 200 American comics featuring Arab characters between the 1950s and mid-1990s found no positive depictions. After 9/11, terrorists populated the strips. At the same time, clumsy attempts at positive portraits are multiplying: Dust, a heroine from the “X-Men” series, who fights terrorists in a sexy setting abaya and sailing, has been widely criticized.
Recent heroes, written or drawn by Muslims, have been more rounded. Many are produced outside the major publishing houses. “The Indy comic is definitely the R&D [research and development] department,” says Lewis. His stories featuring Kismet imagine the character arriving in America after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and trying to unite the country through activism. Artists often push the boundaries of what heroism is. Qahera, the subject of a satirical gang of Egyptian superheroes, battles misogynists and condescending white feminists on the streets of Cairo. Deena Mohamed, its creator, describes Qahera as a form of fantasy. “When I was drawing things that a superhero doesn’t have to worry about, I was implicitly talking about the things that I worry about,” she says.
Despite this growing interest, Muslim heroes are still relatively rare, even in Islamic countries. “The 99”, a Kuwaiti series featuring heroes based on the 99 names of God in Islam, ran for several years. Latifa, an illiterate Saudi superhero, battles mutants in a post-apocalyptic world. “Burka Avenger” is a popular Pakistani children’s cartoon. Many designers are still looking for a way to make the form culturally appropriate and not just an American import. “Arabic superhero stuff never works 100% because it always feels translated,” says Mohamed.
There are also practical obstacles. America-based brothers Adil and Kamil Imtiaz created the webcomic “Buraaq” to provide Muslim children with a hero who reflects their religion. Named after the steed of the prophet in Islam, he flies, fights evil in a cape, and speaks openly about his faith. Adil says the animation industry in Pakistan, where they are from, is growing, but it’s hard to compete with the American giants. He hosted a number of short videos of Buraaq himself.
The generalization of Muslim heroes remains difficult. “Whatever individual artists, writers or publishers may aspire to do, it’s ultimately about selling books,” says Martin Lund of the University of Malmö, who studies representations of religion in comics. . Comics about the metaverse or deadly viruses have become strictly in America (and if publishers are looking outward, it may now be Russia, a favorite source of villains). A large and reliable part of the industry’s fan base rails against what it claims is forced diversity. Ms. Marvel will have her work cut out for her. ■