From Kitty to Kamala: The Journey That Turned Ms Marvel into This Generation’s Hero
Kamala Khan is a superstar now. Introduced only a year ago by Marvel, she’s become a bona fide figurehead for the publisher. A young Muslim girl in America who develops powers and uses them to try and help people, her story has caught on with a mainstream audience and turned the Ms Marvel series into a real, actual hit, especially among the growing digital readership.
What’s fascinating about the character, though, is how clearly she’s embedded into the tradition of superhero comics, and how you can draw a direct line from her back through Marvel’s history, to some of the company's most popular female superheroes. Kamala broke through at just the right moment in time, in just the right way, for the readership to embrace her, but she owes a debt to several characters that came before her.
Things start, as they always do, with Kitty Pryde.
Introduced as the first explicitly “young” character for a series whose teenagers had always sounded like they were the same age as Stan Lee, Kitty was written to be a fresh voice in the cast. She was flighty, strong-willed, and frequently shown as naive. She also changed her outfits a lot. Her character quickly grew to be the heart of the series, as her point of view generally matched that of the reader. There’s a good reason she’s cited by many female readers as the character that brought them into comics in the first place.
Pryde was also an influence on one of the preeminent writers of the new millennium, Joss Whedon, who incorporated her spirit and personality into his character Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He brought the influence full-circle when he became writer for Astonishing X-Men and wrote Kitty as his Buffy stand-in.
Whedon also introduced a new female for his team in the form of Armor, an Asian student at the school who accidentally gets drawn into the main team.
Armor is an interesting character, because her personality and role were played up quite strongly while Whedon wrote X-Men, but dropped almost immediately after he left. Unlike Kitty Pryde, who benefited from years of Chris Claremont's stewardship and became a popular subject for subsequent creative teams, Armor got messed up fairly quickly after her original creators moved on. One later story seemed to imply that her ability to generate forcefields was tied to an honor system. When she feels like she’s being honorable to her family’s legacy, the armor grows stronger; when she feels she’s betraying her ancestry, it grows out of control.
“Weird cultural stuff” sums up a few of the characters Marvel have tried to build up over the years. Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men took place around the time of the September 11 tragedy of 2001. As a result, a large segment in the middle of his run reads as a direct response to the attack, in uncharacteristically clunky ways. This included the introduction of one of the few positive Muslim characters in superhero comics, Dust.
A Sunni Muslim, Dust is characterized rather consistently in all her appearances, and several writers have even used her as a way to educate readers on Islam, and especially on what life can be like for a young Muslim.
She also… turns into sand. I’ve spoken to several Arabic X-Men readers over the years, and the general consensus among them is that Dust is a positive character, but also somewhat passive, with a power set that presents problems because it evokes some of the strongest racist insults directed towards Arabs. She also wears an abaya and niqab together, which are appropriate items of clothing for a woman from the Middle East, but some creators have confused it for a burqa, and several artists have drawn the outfit as form-fitting, in contravention of the purpose of the clothing.
Dust and Armor were attempts to diversify the Marvel Universe with characters who could be new versions of Kitty, but from different cultural backgrounds. In both cases they suffered from mistakes in their representation and risked feeling more like statements than fully-realized characters. The characters have since become regular members of the Westchester student body, but neither of them are the stars they could have been.
Due to the significance and power of Kitty Pryde’s initial appearance in Uncanny X-Men, many writers have attempted to create new female characters who can match her for star power. Even Claremont tried to recapture the magic when he introduced Jubilee back in 1989.
Jubilee was a Chinese-American character who managed to leapfrog many of the problems that hit other female characters at Marvel, and quickly developed a fan following. A Kitty Pryde for the next generation along, she was brought into the 1990s cartoon series that defined the X-Men as a group for a large number of fans.
It’s arguably Jubilee who influences Kamala the most. They’re both excitable, flammable characters, and both are shown to be smart and capable and enthusiastic about superheroes, but they also both clearly needed to develop and grow. The characters also share an emphasis on fun. Where Dust carried the burden of being a Muslim character during a particularly stressful time, Jubilee was brought in to provide comic relief.
Jubilee is one of the strongest examples of a female character growing in popularity through comedy, and the creation of Kamala Khan feels incredibly informed by this. Her series is light and bubbly, and the character is a quick-talking spark, just like Jubilee --- and like another recent character on the road from Kitty to Kamala.
Although she’s seen as being a silly character, Pixie is one of the few recent characters at Marvel to have headlined her own miniseries, Pixie Strikes Back. Clearly, silliness has an audience, especially when the rest of your superhero universe is so often downbeat and grim. Just as Pixie and Jubilee both proved that comics readers like a bit of levity (and some actual jokes) in their books, so we see Kamala developed not as an “important character,” but as a funny one.
Angel Salvadore is another example of a teen girl character who briefly gained some traction at Marvel, but again only one writer really had a handle on her, and though she embraced comedy, her story was also marked by tragedy and weighty drama. Driven out of her home by an abusive step-father, Angel was defiant and rebellious, sneaking off from school to drink and meet boys. Her anger was played for laughs as often as it was played seriously, and it created a character who felt like somebody real, and different for the X-Men as a whole.
Then she got pregnant. As with Dust having the power to turn into sand, having the teenaged black girl get pregnant felt like something that should’ve been given more thought. The storyline led to the well-written development of a family unit over the years – and to one of the only mixed-race couples in comics, and one of the longest-lasting – but it also angered several readers at the time. Angel could have been a new Kitty or Jubilee, but her story largely took her out of rotation . Why would she go off to fight Magneto when she’s got kids at home?
Most of these teenage female characters have come from the X-Men, which is understandable because the X-Men’s central premise demands the periodic creation of new voices and new characters. Whole teams like the New Mutants and Generation X grew from that demand for new generations, establishing characters like Dani Moonstar, M, and Husk. For the most part these were ensemble characters, rather than sole teen girls in a team or in their own title.
The Avengers have also had fleeting moments when they ignored the old white guys in favor of telling stories with female characters. Two of them, in fact, grew separately and joined forces in the most recent run of Young Avengers; America Chavez and Kate Bishop.
What’s most noticeable about these characters is that they were not written to fill that Kitty Pryde role. They represented a different kind of young female character – women embracing the responsibilities of adulthood – and they stole the spotlight of the books they appeared in.
Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta’s Vengeance miniseries was clearly intended to subvert the way young characters are written at Marvel, and introduced America as an all-action star who just happened not to have reached her twenties. She didn't share the same interests as Kitty or Pixie or Jubilee – shopping, music, pop culture – but was instead self-sufficient and ready to fight.
Kate Bishop is similar in that regard. She didn't need to grow into being a superhero; from her first appearance she was already a more confident adult than her fellow Hawkeye, Clint Barton.
Again, the chemistry of these characters feeds in to the new Ms Marvel. There’s a grown-up attitude to Kamala Khan. She realizes, quips aside, the real dangers of the world she’s in. We’re following her origin story, but the character already has the self-reliance and immediate confidence that are usually only afforded to male characters like the new Nova. With Kitty and Jubilee, there was a sense that they needed the X-Men to help them develop. With Kate Bishop, America Chavez, and Kamala Khan, there's a sense of self-sufficiency even if they do all end up on teams.
If we’re going to talk about the many influences that have blended into Kamala Khan through the years, there’s one character who stands out above all others.
Molly Hayes was the breakout star who proved to Marvel that people wanted new, fun, complicated female characters out there. Created in the pages of Runaways, by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona (the current lead artist for Ms Marvel – what a coincidence!), Molly Hayes was the kind of character that Marvel wanted Armor, X-23 and Pixie to be. She grew a huge fanbase, especially among female readers – and especially especially among new female readers, the most valuable demographic out there.
When the Runaways brand lost momentum, Marvel was either unable or unwilling to capitalize on Molly's popularity and launch her into a solo series, even though she was arguably one of their most-loved characters of the time. Marvel would later give solo series to both Pixie and X-23, but neither character had the same level of fan-support as Molly Hayes ten years earlier.
If the time wasn't right back then for a breakout young female solo star, today is definitely the right time for Kamala Khan. Created by Alphona, G. Willow Wilson, and editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, Kamala wears the influences of decades of prior characters like Jubilee and Kitty on her sleeves. One can also see the effort being made to respectfully represent her cultural history, rather than to replicate some of the missteps made with Dust and Armor.
But most of all, you can also tell that the character stepped into the spotlight at a time where the demand for a hero like her was reaching new heights. Kamala Khan marks a cautious step forward from Marvel comics. Hopefully in a few years’ time she’ll be remembered as the first in the next generation of young female characters at the company.