I was 16 years old when I made the plunge into comics.
I’d grown up loving superheroes and had read a few trade paperbacks here and there, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I began to regularly read comics.
The first few collections of DC’s New 52 reboot and the (first) Marvel NOW! had just relaunched, which meant I could jump in with relative ease and not be too far behind with current storylines. It was also around this time that comics began their latest push for diversity and representation.
So when Marvel announced in 2013 that the latest character to headline the “Ms. Marvel” title would be a 16-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim superheroine named Kamala Khan, it was hard not to feel like this comic was made exclusively for me.
I loved reading about the classic heroes — Spider-Man, Superman, the Justice League — all the characters I knew from movies and cartoons.
But as much as I could relate to Peter Parker and Clark Kent, there was always a certain mental gymnastics I had to go through to truly connect, which I knew most fans didn’t have to.
I wasn’t able to read “Ms. Marvel” until about a year after the series was announced. But it only took five pages before I realized that those gymnastics I had to do before were unnecessary with this book. Kamala Khan may as well have been a member of my family.
Her family spoke the same mixture of English and Urdu I heard at my house every day. Both of our parents had that particular Desi strictness that limited our social lives more than we would’ve liked (though I had the “fortune” of being the eldest son and not the youngest daughter).
What really separated Kamala from the few other Muslim characters I’d read about before was the fact that her story wasn’t defined by her identity as a Muslim.
Take her origin, for instance. An awkward teenager sneaks out to a party late at night, gets humiliated in front of everyone, and is exposed to a strange substance that grants her amazing powers and abilities on her way home. It’s a very archetypal story that deals with some very universal themes about adolescence.
Yet the details that drive the story are informed by Kamala’s background. For example, what ultimately ostracizes Kamala at the party is others’ casual disrespect toward her faith, something we see when she’s given a cup of hard lemonade when she explicitly says she doesn’t drink.
Kamala is neither completely devoted to her faith nor rebelling against it. She, like a lot of Muslims, is somewhere in the middle. Her race and religion are subtle facets of a rich and confusing life.
“Ms. Marvel” put into words and pictures the feelings and insecurities I had growing up in a mostly white, Christian school district as someone who wasn’t either of those things. And it accomplished this in a way that nothing had ever been able to do before.
I would not be able to understand myself as well as I do, and therefore enjoy all the successes I’ve had, if it weren’t for Kamala Khan. And if we’re to ever undo the destructive politicization of Muslim-American existence, having more nuanced characters and stories like hers is a good place to start.
Reach columnist Shahbaz Khan at firstname.lastname@example.org.