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Review of Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation

By Brianna Anderson
Lewis, A. David and Martin Lund, eds. Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. Harvard University Press, 2017.

In May 2018, Marvel announced that Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, would soon join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the first Muslim superhero to appear in a feature film. Frequently promoted as a “groundbreaking heroine,” Kamala debuted in 2014 to widespread acclaim as the first Muslim superheroine to headline a standalone comics series (“Ms. Marvel”). However, as A. Davis Lewis and Martin Lund’s edited collection Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation demonstrates, despite these significant milestones, Kamala is hardly an anomaly. Instead, the teenage heroine serves as the latest—and most commercially successful—addition to a small but growing assemblage of Muslim superheroes, many of whom have been overlooked and misunderstood by both comics fans and scholars. The nine essays featured in the volume seek to remedy this oversight by analyzing how these characters have influenced the superhero genre and its readers, as well as “the ways in which Muslim superheroes embody, counter, or complicate Western stereotypes of Muslims” (2). The interdisciplinary collection incorporates chapters from scholars from a broad range of fields, providing readers with multiple useful frameworks with which to analyze the Muslim superhero. Additionally, the volume seeks to expand the comics canon by recuperating frequently forgotten and neglected Muslim protagonists and by illustrating how these minority characters have contributed to the superhero genre.

Several of the collection’s most compelling essays employ an intersectional approach, examining how the convergences of culture, gender, race, and religion shape representations of Muslim superheroes. In “Kamala Khan’s Superhero Burkini: Negotiating an Autonomous Position between Patriarchal Islamism, French Secularism, and Feminism,” cultural studies scholars Chris Reyns-Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz persuasively analyze how representations of the veil—or, more accurately, the absence of the veil—shape readers’ reception of Muslim superhero comics in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The chapter considers how writer G. Willow Wilson’s depiction of Kamala as an ideologically moderate Muslim enabled the commercial success of Ms. Marvel: Métamorphose, the French translation of Ms. Marvel: No Normal. Released one month after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the translated comic was an unlikely hit in France, “a country that has had troubled and tense relations with Muslim culture for at least several decades” (63). Reyns-Chikuma and Lorenz contextualize this uneasy relationship by using the controversy surrounding headscarves as a helpful lens to illuminate the ideological conflicts between Muslim culture and French secularism. The unexpected positive reception of Métamorphose in this strained political environment, they argue, stems largely from Wilson’s portrayal of Kamala “as courageously choosing the Muslim feminist option” by selecting a burkini as her superhero costume, while also opting not to wear a veil (82). This depiction makes the character more palatable to secularist French readers, Reyns-Chikuma and Lorenz conclude, by allowing Kamala to wear a modest superhero costume that conforms to “Islamic codes that resist hypersexualization,” while also excluding the seemingly un-feminist veil (82).

Similarly, theology scholar Nicholaus Pumphrey’s “Niqab not Burqa: Reading the Veil in Marvel’s Dust” examines how the 9/11 terrorist attacks shaped both the representation and reception of a costumed Muslim superheroine. He traces the shifting meaning of the veil in five “stages” of comics featuring the Marvel superheroine Sooraya Qadir, or Dust, a member of the X-Men who wears a niqab and an abaya. Created by writer Grant Morrison and artist Ethan van Sciver one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sooraya originally served as “an attempt to satirize the fear that Americans were propagating and to create a misunderstood hero based on obvious stereotypes that all Muslim women wear burqas” (20). However, Pumphrey contends, the numerous (primarily white, male) artists and writers who have depicted Sooraya after Morrison’s original run frequently reinforce negative stereotypes about Muslim women through their contradictory portrayals of the superheroine. For instance, in New X-Men: Academy X, writers Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir repeatedly mislabel Sooraya’s niqab as a burqa and emphasize her lack of agency. While later writers attempt to portray a more empowered Sooraya, artist Paco Medina consistently undermines their efforts by costuming the superheroine in a tight-fitting niqab and drawing her naked body. These two divergent representations, Pumphrey argues, appease the Western male gaze by sexualizing the woman as “the female Oriental Other,” and undercut potential readings of Sooraya as a feminist who actively chooses to wear the niqab (28).

Though Pumphrey provides a mostly convincing exploration of the ways that the various representations of Sooraya either complicate or reinforce negative perceptions of veiled Muslim women, the complete absence of images in the chapter weakens his analysis. The author repeatedly asserts that the comic’s visual narrative sexualizes and stereotypes Sooraya, but he fails to back up these claims with supporting images or close readings of individual panels. This troubling omission of images occurs in seven of the volume’s nine essays—a puzzling oversight in a collection devoted to the highly visual medium of comics. Additionally, Pumphrey’s chapter concludes somewhat unsatisfactorily by asserting, “Whether Dust is empowered by choosing to wear the niqab or has no agency, the historical scope of her characterization allows readers to give authority to one depiction or another, based on their own lived experiences” (36). Pumphrey also fails to clarify what “lived experiences” the comic’s audience of primarily “white, cis-male heterosexuals” are supposed to draw on as they interpret a veiled Muslim woman (32). Together, the lack of images and the overly optimistic view of how actual readers may interpret Sooraya weaken an otherwise strong analysis of an often-overlooked superheroine’s troubling depictions.

Two additional chapters focus on representations of Muslim women and gender issues in superhero comics. In “‘And, erm, religious stuff’: Islam, Liberalism, and the Limits of Tolerance in Stories of Faiza Hussain,” comparative religion scholar Kevin Wanner analyzes how British superheroine Faiza’s embodiment of minimalist religiosity contributed to her positive reception. He distinguishes between a character presented as a “female Muslim superhero,” like the overtly religious Sooraya, and “superheroes who just happen to be female and Muslim,” such as the religiously denuded Faiza and, to a lesser extent, the more moderate Kamala [emphasis in original] (50). Wanner persuasively argues that comics readers respond more positively to the latter category, because those superheroines conform to ideals of Western liberalism that segregate religion and public life.

Anthropologist Aymon Kreil’s chapter “Qahera Here and There: Navigating Contexts in the Translation of a Muslim Egyptian Superheroine” also analyzes the reader reception of a Muslim superheroine comic. He compares the English and Arabic translations of Deena Mohamed’s Qahera Tumblr webcomic series, noting that early, English-only iterations of the comic criticized Islamophobic Western views of Muslim women. After the first two installments, however, Mohamed produced English and Arabic translations of each comic, a shift that reflects the series’ changed focus to women’s rights in Egypt. While Qahera’s liminal position between American and Egyptian contexts allows Mohamed to educate both Egyptian and foreign readers about women’s issues, Kreil contends, the comic’s marginal position and social commentary may also “foster feelings of alienation toward Egyptian society” among a young, liberal Egyptian audience already disenchanted by the outcome of the 2011 revolution (203).

Likewise, contributions from religion scholar Ken Chitwood and comics scholar Fredrik Strömberg provide transnational readings of comics that bridge Western and Middle Eastern cultures. Chitwood’s “Hero and/or Villain? The 99 and the Hybrid Nature of Popular Culture’s Production of Islam” draws from the work of feminist and queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa to analyze the Kuwaiti comic The 99’s status as a hybrid creation. Developed by Naif al-Mutawa in 2006, The 99 centers on a team of Muslim superheroes who possess superpowers derived from the ninety-nine Virtues of Allah. By blending superhero conventions with Islamic history and theology, Chitwood argues, the comic “represents a ‘third space’ or ‘borderland’ where not only religion and popular culture contact and collide, but also where ideations of Islam and Muslims converge” (169). While The 99’s occupation of this marginal space contributed to its commercial and critical success, it also provided opportunities for readers to misunderstand both the comic and Islam. Though the chapter only analyzes a single comic, Chitwood’s insightful reading of The 99 as a contact zone between religion and popular culture and between Western and Middle Eastern cultures provides a useful framework for other scholars interested in transnational media.

By contrast, Strömberg’s “Superhero Comics from the Middle East: Tyranny of Genre?” identifies eight defining characteristics of the American superhero genre and explores how The 99 and three titles produced by Egyptian publisher AK Comics alternately conform to and resist these tropes. While AK Comics closely followed all eight generic traits of the American comics, The 99 adapted several of the genre conventions to create “something new”: a transgressive text that blurs the boundary between American superhero comics and the didactic “information comics” typically produced in the Middle East (160). Despite these generic innovations, Strömberg concludes that the Americentric superhero genre does not easily translate into a Middle Eastern context without considerable adaptations, a limitation that ultimately hindered the success of both publishers. Strömberg’s argument borders on essentialist at points, collapsing texts from two countries with dissimilar political climates—Kuwait and Egypt—under the broad label of Middle Eastern comics. Additionally, the eight-characteristic template that he employs for his genre analysis is too rigid to serve as a universalizing schema, particularly for non-American comics, and it implicitly creates a hierarchy that portrays American superhero comics as more legitimate artifacts that other countries can only mimic or refashion. However, the chapter does benefit from the inclusion of ten images that bolster Strömberg’s argument and facilitate the precise close readings of panels missing from many of the volume’s other, strangely image-less contributions.

Returning to the West, two chapters written by historians Dwain Pruitt and Mercedes Yanora provide a larger overview of Muslim superheroes in American comics. In “The Comics That Hate Produced: Representing the African-American Muslim Experience in DC Comics,” Pruitt illustrates how racial tensions influenced a range of twentieth-century African-American Muslim superhero comics published by DC Comics. During the 1970s, he argues, DC’s negative representations of African-American Muslim superheroes reflected white Americans’ anxieties about Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam. Later, the DC imprint Milestone Comics, helmed by African-American writers and artists, provided more sympathetic, though still flawed, portrayals of African-American Muslim superheroes in the Blood Syndicate comics. However, most of these characters vanished from the DC Universe after Milestone closed in 1997. While Pruitt does not engage deeply with Islamic studies, his contribution stands out as the only chapter to address the Black Muslim experience and, consequently, broadens the scope of a collection otherwise largely devoted to representations of Muslim superheroes of Middle Eastern descent. Meanwhile, Yanora’s “Marked by Foreign Policy: Muslim Superheroes and their Quest for Authenticity” examines the link between depictions of Muslim superheroes and U.S. foreign policy in Muslim-majority countries. She traces representations of Muslim superheroes across three comics published from the Cold War to the present day and argues that their evolving portrayals of gender, citizenship, and the “altruistic mission” of the superhero reflect changes in foreign policy (128). The chapter concludes by arguing that Kamala deviates from earlier representations of Muslim superheroines due to her portrayal as a “competent superhero, defined by her ability, not her sexuality” (130).

Finally, theology scholar Hussein Rashid’s “Truth, Justice, and the Spiritual Way: Imam Ali as Muslim Super-Hero” attempts to reframe the comics superhero genre to encompass heroes from Muslim traditions. The chapter, the only other in the volume to include images, analyzes a series of short comics produced by the Indian publisher Sufi Comics that center on the heroic tales of Ali. Rashid argues that Ali functions as a “super-hero,” an early heroic figure who predates the modern Western superhero (209). The essay highlights interesting parallels between Ali and contemporary superheroes, asking readers to question Americentric assumptions about the superhero genre. While Rashid reinforces his argument by performing close readings of several sequences of panels, the chapter does not draw on comics scholarship, and Rashid never addresses how the comics medium in particular may enable new readings of Muslim “super-heroes.” In addition to this oversight, his expansive approach to the topic deviates markedly from the other scholars’ conceptions of Muslim superheroes and, as Lewis and Lund observe in their concluding “Editorial Remarks,” even threatens to “[undercut] the premise of the book itself” (242). As a result, the chapter, though innovative and provocative, largely seems out of place in the collection.

Muslim Superheroes provides a timely overview of the ways that representations of Muslims in superhero comics reflect, reinforce, and resist mainstream cultural attitudes, both in the West, where Islamophobic discourses often circulate, and globally. While some contributions are weaker than others and seven of the nine chapters suffer from their complete lack of images, these flaws are far outweighed by the collection’s important contributions to comics studies. By incorporating scholarship from a diverse range of fields, the volume usefully models how interdisciplinary methodologies can be used to analyze Muslim superheroes and, by extension, superheroes from other marginalized groups and non-superhero Muslim comics characters. The collection also spotlights frequently overlooked Muslim superheroes, providing a much-needed expansion of the comics canon that may prove particularly helpful for scholars interested in incorporating more diverse comics in their curricula. For instance, educators could teach the popular Kamala alongside lesser-known characters like Sooraya and Qahera, allowing students to gain a richer understanding of the ways that Muslim superheroines embody or complicate stereotypes about Muslim women. Consequently, Muslim Superheroes serves as an invaluable resource for comics fans and humanities scholars interested in the intersection between popular culture and religion.

Works Cited

“Ms. Marvel.” Marvel Digital Comics Shop,  https://comicstore.marvel.com/Ms-Marvel-Kamala-Khan/digital-comic/50598. Accessed 8 May 2019.

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