Ms Marvel and the Power of Hero Image

Originally posted 02/02/15 via Alternate Dimensions

It’s not unusual for people to correlate superheroes with messages or meanings. The comics themselves often like to utilise their characters to send positive messages to the reader base. Captain America’s whole identity is based off representing the American citizen, and in times of war it’s not unusual to see these fictional heroes defending the American way. Even though moral messages can be controversial within the realms of a comic book we have seen them used to tell stories, whether it be Stephanie Brown refusing to have an abortion or Roy Harper dealing with addiction.

Earlier this month in San Francisco however one of the newer heroes was used to send a message, not through the pen of an official author but rather by the people reading the book. Khamala Khan, aka the new Ms Marvel who made headlines last year behind an excellent new series depicting the life of a young Muslim teenager as she dons the mask, has been used to deface anti-Islamic advertisements on the side of buses in the San Francisco area.

The ads, which first went up around January 9 featured Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, stating “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran” and encouraged ending aid to Islamic countries. In the weeks that followed several of these advertisement were defaced with an image of Ms Marvel with the message: “Stop the hate to Islamic countries”.

Before jumping fully into this column, I just want to make something clear. This column is not going to be dealing in any depth on the Islamic issue presented in this debate. The focus instead is on the Ms Marvel character and why she was used, as well as the notion of superheroes as moral figures and archetypes in general. If it’s a debate on Islam or any other religion you are after, the internet is your oyster.

It says something as to the resonance of Khamala Khan across the current pop culture climate that she was chosen to represent the voice of those opposed to the advertisement. Khamala is a young character to pop culture and the comic world having been created less than a year ago. And despite the attention that came from the debut of her book and the critical acclaim that has come in the succeeding months, she lacks the instant recognition that many of her contemporaries would. Yes she was kind of a big deal among those in the comic specific geek community, but the true measure of her impact was fairly minimal. There are still plenty of people who would have no idea as to who she is or even who Ms Marvel as a character is. And with the Carol Danvers Ms Marvel coming to the big screen Khamala’s position isn’t likely to change through the hands of Marvel.

In spite of this, she is there on the defaced advertisements covering up the message and speaking for these people. While the story didn’t dominate the news for days, the controversy will still help to boost her recognition amongst the mainstream community to some degree. And while Marvel would have had no hand behind the use of her imagery, she may become a symbol beyond their control. In the books she isn’t aggressive or vocal about her faith, it’s merely a part of who she is and her life (and is also handled rather brilliantly by the creative team). But this message on the buses could be interpreted as otherwise. Ms Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson did speak out in support of the vandalism via Twitter, stating “Some amazing person has been painting over the anit-Muslim bus ads in SF with Ms Marvel graffiti. Spread Love.” But while she may be in support of the actions, she wasn’t in control of it, and as the character becomes known through this the power of the character is handed over from the writers and creators to the people.

What is clear here is that Marvel have a character on their hands who is speaking to a community. Far beyond media manufactured ‘feel good’ political correctness and diversity, there are clearly those who are taking Khamala to heart and feeling inspired by what they feel she represents. And they also must feel that she can inspire others as well. It would be no mistake that Khamala, a fictional superhero character, was used instead of an real pro-Islamic figurehead. There is a power behind the fictional that can speak louder than the real. And while real world figures carry baggage (either theirs of that perceived by the audience) that could undermine their message before they even get a chance to speak, the use of a teenage crime fighter who just so happens to be Muslim is powerful.

It’s worth taking a step back from this as an isolated incident and looking at the superhero mould as a whole. Most are fairly simple in their conceptual design. As a base they are moralistic figures who have goals and ambitions to make their world a better place. How they are motivated and how they go about this may vary (compare two of the more archetypal examples of Batman and Superman) but their goals are ultimately positive, and their drive basic enough that they can be used as a positive example. When we introduce Batman to our children it isn’t to encourage them to avenge our deaths by dressing up and getting into fights and stringing up drug dealers in alley ways, but he is basically a representation of the moralistic ‘good’. So we can use him to be the voice of a moralistic right mixed into our entertainment.

Even in the rising popularity of anti-heroes and the morally ambiguous, a character like Superman can be used with this kind of purpose. Love, respect, justice etc. Often they are used in this manner officially, and often the company who owns the character will actively invest in the concept or to promote good will (see the DC ‘We Can Be Heroes’ campaign from last year for a recent example). It’s also not unusual for them to be used unofficially in this same notion.

This is where Khamala Khan stands in all of this. She was no doubt created to be a positive role model for Muslim readers, and maybe ‘normalise’ the notion to others without coming across as preachy. But after a fairly hyped debut the Ms Marvel train has been allowed to steadily find its own pace without being aggressively pushed by the company. Now, her image and her concept has been co-opted to send a message unorthorised by Marvel. Is it good for the company? Probably. It’ll spread her cultural power and recognition without causing too much of a backlash (those who might react negatively to her and didn’t know of her prior likely wouldn’t read the book anyway) and media backlash isn’t going to happen to any real degree (if at all) in such a P.C climate. The character of Ms Marvel will be relatively safe in all of this, but co-opting a symbolic superhero imagery for someone else’s message could in future harm the brand rather than boost it.

But it is clear the character carries a lot of power, both from a moralistic sense and for those who feel they can relate to her situation. And that is impressive for a character who is not yet a year old in the public consciousness. It is the kind of power that is normally only earned by mainstays like her stablemate Captain America. Her message can be interpreted positively by those of the Islamic faith, those who are a racial minority or simply by those who feel the burdens of being a teenager in the modern western world (also those who are living life as a superhero…). Whether she will become a cultural institution or whether she’ll simply fade into the background like many new characters remains to be seen, although given the combination of public reaction and quality writing it is likely more the former than latter.

There is power in moralistic archetypes, even if they are as a base level too ‘simple’, as television especially is praising the complex and multi-faceted ‘protagonists’ like Dexter, Don Draper or Walter White. A message is clearer when sent through something simple. And that is in part why superheroes are succeeding at the forefront of the public pop culture visage. Their stories are simple to understand, so you can enter their movies without a library’s worth of knowledge of the character (unlike some of the comics). Take Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was a political spy thriller that could have been unnecessarily complex. But the fact Steve Rogers was there as the archetype concept of Captain America gave it an anchor that made it simple to follow and a clear ‘hero’ to root for while both sides of the battle received moral scars.

All superheroes have a moralistic stance, even a shady one like The Punisher. How well that translates to the real world varies, but fictional characters have always carried power in giving a voice to the voiceless or anchoring a message. It’s partly why they can become timeless figures. But while many of us grew up with these figures having already having been established in this role, it’s exciting to see a new one beginning to carve out the foundations for a similar cultural shelf life.

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