Marvel’s Faiza Hussain: ‘Better’ as Normal
Whatever Marvel is doing with Secret Wars, one established fact stands out to me: they’re bringing back British, hijabi superhero, and personal favorite, Faiza Hussain, to the printed page. My heart swells.
Faiza Hussain debuted in 2008, in Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk’s Captain Britain & MI:13. I adored this book, and I immediately adored her; Faiza’s debut was both the introduction of a vibrant, individual human character and a tight superhero origin story. As aliens invade the earth and her country, Faiza observes her duty as a doctor of the National Health Service and sets up battlefield triage in the middle of the wacky/scary spaceship melee. Attending to the lives of others while her own is entirely endangered, Faiza is hit by a weird space beam --- not unexpected, but that’s why we’re impressed with her already.
Upon her recovery, it’s discovered that something about her, or something about the beam, or something about the precise circumstances of the event (old school Marvel just-believe-it stuff here) has led to her superhuman ability to perform what’s essentially telekinetic doctoring. She can take you apart in order to put you back together again. With her mind. She joins the team of the book’s title. Bam! Government agent!
With a usefully versatile superheroic ability (she can fix you, or she can stop you, or she can freak you out by showing you your own intestines, or--) so cleanly based in her personality and lifestyle, and a sense of responsibility rooted in prior, “civilian” life instead of resulting, reluctantly, from the shouldering of Great Power, Faiza is a superhero in the S-mould. No grit, no grey, no gloom. Just the best she can be, always, and no belief that that’s anything particularly shocking. She does good because good is what you do. She is noble.
To avoid unrelatable, untouchable perfection, Cornell wrote Faiza’s interests and upbringing into her on-page appearances. Faiza likes cricket and superheroes. Her parents are wry and earnest. She uses prayer to center herself in times of great stress, and during moments of particular gravity she will probably be whispering in the back. Faiza is a woman, but she’s not gendered in the usual ways: she doesn’t wear anything skintight. We don’t know what her hairstyle is like, because it’s covered by her hijab. Her shoes are always flat, she wears trousers and grown-up layers in white, brown and beige, and her adult self-determination is taken so much for granted that sometimes she doesn’t know what to do. We never, ever see the outlines of both of her breasts at once, and all of her stated hobbies are masculine-neutral.
Despite straying from the usual mold of the feminine, Cornell scripted in a romance for Faiza, and I’m so grateful. Over the fifteen-issue run of Captain Britain & MI:13 she and Dane Whitman, aka Black Knight, grew close. If you enjoy romance but can’t stand the saccharine, try this series; Dane and Faiza like each other, respect and admire each other, and want to be around each other. They find reasons to spend time together. Eventually they get to ride about, saving the world, and each other, waving swords on a big winged horse. It’s basically all the romance and growing wonder of Sailor Moon/Tuxedo Mask, without the candy-frosted girlhood. Both of those options are necessary in this world! Faiza is necessary in this world.
Faiza Hussain is a second-generation Pakistani-British Muslim, and Cornell has spoken several times about the necessity of including a character who inhabits these demographics, in a book about modern Britain.
[Y]ou could actually ask, if I didn’t include Faiza, and I’m doing a representative team of modern Britain, well where is she? And it’s the fact that actually not having these people is often a gaping absence.
I’d not be happy to meet anybody disagreeing with this sentiment, but I know very well that they exist; many of them are vying for legitimate political power right now. This week sees voting for the UK General Election, and every Leaders’ Debate --- in fact all media coverage of the run-up to this handing of the baton --- includes the views of despicable racists aiming to plonk their behinds squarely in the seat of legislative power. Things, as they stand under the Conservative Party (haha, coalition, what?), are decidedly imperfect for Muslims in "Great" Britain, and for families who recall their immigration to the country. It is appalling to acknowledge the possibility of the climate becoming worse, but one must.
Many people would suggest that increasing the number of brown, Muslim characters in pop culture --- this resurgence of Faiza Hussain, for example --- would be a firm foot forward, allowing those already here to see themselves reflected, and allowing racists (a lot of whom have probably rarely met a Muslim, and if they did, hardly noticed) to realize that their thinking is cockeyed. Others would point out the smashing sales records for Marvel’s American Ms Marvel, starring Kamala Khan, suggests the possibility of non-white, Muslim superheroes as moneyspinners. You could say that their inclusion (“diversity”) is just good business sense.
What do I say? What can I bring to the roundtable here?
I defer to Cornell's premise that, in this specific case, Faiza Hussain was a necessary member of MI:13, a necessary addition to the printed Marvel Universe, on the strength of her representation of modern census fact. (Dealing with the numbers of realism provides diversionary tactics to the enemy.) If we set aside thoughts of the “subjective” morality of inclusion, Faiza was and is a necessary member of the Marvel UK canon, because there was already a seat laid for her there. A Siege Perilous, if you will.
When dealing in the English traditions of British mythological nobility, which “Captain Britain”, written by an Englishman, inherently must, there are brown faces in the crowd already. We’re harking at Robin Hood’s Merry Men. King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Write these cycles anew, give knights and legends your own names and stories, but do not neglect what is there: Muslims. Immigrant. Brown and black people.
Let me zoom out and back in again for you. Sort perspective out a bit.
Did I mention that Faiza wields Excalibur? Sez wiki: “Excalibur or Caliburn is the legendary sword of King Arthur, sometimes attributed with magical powers or associated with the rightful sovereignty of Great Britain”. Faiza did what Arthur didn’t: pulled a magic sword from a stone. (Arthur pulled a different sword, he had Excalibur straight from a Lady, as a gift).
Captain Britain & MI:13 was a Robin Hoodish telling of Arthurian motif. A rambunctious gang of roaming vigilantes rather than settled monarchy from whom individual knights roam and return, MI:13 dealt with Merlin and Excalibur, featured knighthood, visions and invasion, but dealt with devils, and worked less than entirely inside the law. It’s not a perfect match to either established narrative, but who wants it to be? Kirk and Cornell are playing with their inheritance.
Consider the popular re-tellings of Robin Hood’s adventures of the past fifty years. Muslims abound. From the pale, Middle-Eastern Nasir of Robin of Sherwood (played by Mark Ryan, who is neither Middle-Eastern nor a Muslim) to Morgan Freeman’s Azeem in Prince of Thieves, stopping by Black Rastafarian Barrington of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, past Men in Tights’ Ahchoo, and resting lightly on the BBC’s 2006 Robin Hood and Djaq (or Saffiya, depending on circumstance). While this modern tradition started with Nasir, forty years have passed. It’s pretty well baked in.
Robin of Sherwood framed Nasir’s presence in the group as eminently reasonable. The King, along with Marion’s father and others, was fighting crusades against Saladin’s empire. People could get from England, to the battlefields, and back again. Characters did this once, twice, more.
If an Englishman might make the journey, the journey may be made. If a so-called Saracen can get from his home to the battlefield, then from the battlefield to England is on the cards: there is a proven path from there to here. Possibility is laid out softly for the most disbelieving among us: Muslims have ever been able to live in Britain. In fact the Child Ballads, from whence come a lot of the “historical” facts on Robin Hood, name travelers from Spain, and specifically identify so-called Moors. Young Beichan, for example, is a Londoner imprisoned by a mean guy, helped to escape by his nice daughter, whom he marries. She's an English Moor. It’s in the stories.
Harking back farther, to the source of all we call Britishness, consider the knights of the Table Round.
Consider Palamades. Moriaen (above). Esclabor. Safir. Segwarides. All of them knights. All of them Arthur’s Knights. Of the Round Table. The truest, finest knights imaginable. Say you reject the idea of King Arthur and his court as being “actually historic,” and therefore call them illegitimate. How do you answer for the presence of Muslims in the stories and fables of Arthurian legend, as they were told from 1230 or so? Eight hundred years of fictional inclusion. Are you going to try to break that heirloom structure?
When the BBC's Jill Trevellick cast black actor Angel Coulby as Guinevere, or Gwen, in 2008’s Merlin, controversy was manufactured, but she was pandering to nothing. She was acting on precedent.
When Paul Cornell wrote Faiza Hussain into the Marvel U, knighted her, placed her within a team required to exemplify Peak British, made her the best, and then gave her Excalibur, he was acting on personal conviction, and storycraft precedent. The absolute right of a hijabi Pakistani-English individual to Britishness, and presence in Britain, and representational status of all of us.
Now that Faiza, under the pens of Al Ewing and Butch Guice and in the alternate whatever of Secret Wars, has inherited the title of Captain Britain, nothing about that has changed. It was right. It was good. It was necessary, but it was not progressive. It was simply written. To include and celebrate her is obvious and should be taken for granted. To remove or forget her --- that’s failing to hold the line. Thou art recreant, sir knight! Don’t fall back, my Marvelite horde! Push forwards! Strive.
Faiza’s a woman instead of a man, and that’s a beginning. (I can’t tell you the relief that comes to me with active women’s roles given focus in retellings of these ancient stories --- I don’t have to wade forth, myself, with the various humiliations of “self-insert” fantasy? I’m catered for? Invited to the table? Thank you!) But she’s also alone. Faiza is not the only woman of MI:13, nor the only woman on her Mighty Defenders team in Secret Wars. But she’s the only Pakistani-British Muslim.
Let me reiterate: the default state of this demographic is “present,” in stories of Arthurian Mythicism. Faiza’s story will always be one of these, because she holds Excalibur, and she came of heroism under Captain Britain, who answers to Merlin. Beyond her womanhood, Faiza’s identity does not give the publication she appears in a badge of progressive merit. She is simply a staple of her genre. For Marvel to achieve what we mean when we say “diversity,” Faiza absolutely must be accompanied. She is wonderful, but as a product, she is not more than the beginning of a climb through justice.
When we look to the valorous stories of England, if we ask, “What is it to be British?” and hope for an answer of honor and scope, we cannot accept any that neglects the presence of Muslims, immigrants, or black or brown people. Because that would be false. “They” are here, and “our” stories belong to them, and should be opened and filled by them, because they are us.
Doubtless there are old stories in your country too, about people who “arrived”, people who were “different,” but people who were there, where you are, before you were. Find them. Regard them as the baseline. Ask “what’s next?
But here we are. And here’s the positive: Faiza is back, and I missed her, because Faiza belongs here. Where I live.