In 2014, Marvel Comics introduced its first ever female Muslim superhero: Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, aka Ms Marvel to the world.
Gifted incredible shape-shifting powers after being exposed to the Inhumans’ Terrigen Mist, she decides to pay tribute to her idol, Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, by donning a costume and fighting injustice as Ms Marvel.
Three years later, the character has gone on to become one of the comics publisher’s most popular characters, and the poster girl for Marvel’s growing emphasis on character diversity.
In the comics, Kamala has also been going from strength to strength, having been part of the Avengers, becoming the leader of teen superhero team The Champions, and playing major roles in recent major Marvel events like Civil War II and Secret Empire.
Sana Amanat, who co-created Kamala together with Ms Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson, never thought the character would take off in such a huge way, let alone join the Avengers.
“Willow and I initially thought, ‘Maybe we’ll get to issue #9, if we’re lucky’! But now we’re about to reach #50!” she says with a laugh.
“It’s incredible how much she’s expanded. Her joining the Avengers was just a really cool moment for us – it was everything Kamala wanted, but it was also everything WE wanted! It really showed that Kamala had arrived.”
In a recent phone interview from the United States, Amanat said that being female and Muslim themselves, she and Wilson wanted to created a character who could showcase some of the experiences they had been through personally.
“We wanted a character who could showcase a different kind of experience, and really just bring up the next young hero in the Marvel universe,” she says.
“You don’t realise how meaningful and impactful it can be for so many people. So many fans have come up to me and told me how much the character has meant to them. I had one mum tell me, ‘I grew up in a time when after 9/11 (in 2001 when terrorists attacked the United States), it was a toxic time to be a Muslim in America. And seeing Kamala gave me so much hope not just for me but also for my children’,” she recalls.
Amanat reckons that the key to great superhero characters is balancing their amazing, fantastic qualities with who they are as a regular person.
“We always think about who they are and who their civilian identity is all about, their wants, their responsibilities, their flaws… and then upon that we build these aspirational qualities we all desire to have,” she explains.
“What does Spider-Man or Captain America represent? What are their ideals? You think about those ideals first and that’s how you start building an interesting character. We then lay it on top of a character that is real and honest and authentic. That’s how we start to develop any character in the Marvel universe – by having both aspects, the mundane and the fantastic.”
With Ms Marvel, Amanat says that a lot of people got excited about her even before they had read any stories about her. “I think it comes down to the fact she is just a fantastic character. She is very relatable, funny, engaging, awkward … yet she is so idealistic and wants to do the best she possibly can,” she says.
Enriching the Marvel universe
As Marvel’s director of content and character development, Amanat oversees Marvel’s efforts to expand its vast library of characters across the company’s various platforms into the hands of global audiences. She also serves as editor on comic books like Captain Marvel and Hawkeye.
“My role is to make sure that we are continuously elevating the characters and the content within the comic world across the other platforms (ie the films, the TV shows, or the video games),” she says, adding that while she does have some involvement over how the comics’ characters are adapted for other mediums, her main focus is still on the comics.
“The heart and soul of the Marvel Universe is still in the comic books. I do work with other people in the company to help develop the characters for other content, but a lot of it is still inspired by the comics,” she says.
That said, there have been some instances when the opposite happened, for instance, with the Baby Groot character who became a huge hit in the recent Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 movie.
“If what they see in the movies are something people are excited about, we do integrate them into the comics. Little Groot was a great example of how a character got people all over the world excited,” Amanat says. “What is cool is there is a constant back and forth flow of cool ideas across mediums that people are playing with and it makes the whole Marvel experience even richer.”
Still, she has no doubt that the hugely popular Marvel films have definitely helped to bring new audiences to the comic books. “Comic books are a bit more accessible these days because there is so much more exposure to our content. We’ve seen audiences grow in the last few years,” she says.
“I think comics are a really fantastic art form, we need to do a lot more to educate audiences about what’s so great about comics, even from a really young age as well. The trick is making sure every comic book we put out is acceptable to a new kind of fan.”
As part of her efforts to bring in newer audiences to Marvel, Amanat helped launch the Women of Marvel panels and podcasts that have activated and excited a new generation of fans, and gave a TedxTeen talk about the need for representation in storytelling.
With characters like Ms Marvel proving so successful, she hopes to be able to turn Marvel into an even more inclusive brand in the future.
“Ms Marvel was created in a time where there weren’t many characters like her. After that we ended up celebrating more diverse characters, like Miles Morales (Spider-Man), Amadeus Cho (Hulk), and Jane Foster (Thor),” she says.
“My ultimate goal in Marvel is to get to a point where it isn’t viewed as a boy brand anymore, and more of a brand loved by fans of all backgrounds, experience and gender, or just fans of great stories and characters.”