Comics fans have been pressuring publishing giants Marvel and DC to improve their treatment of female characters—and it looks like the companies have listened.
In the past week, both Marvel and DC announced that they will roll out new female superheroes. And not just token characters, but complex heroes who are both teenage women of color. The announcement of these two new characters gives me some hope that maybe something is getting through to the mainstream comics bigwigs from comics creators and fans who want more diverse and engaging characters.
Let’s start with DC. Comics writer and artist Jeff Lemire is creating an as-yet-unnamed superteen for relatively new title Justice League Canada. The character will be based on an actual Canadian teenager, the late Cree activist Shannen Koostachin from the Attawapiskat First Nation.
Canadian real-life superhero Shannen Koostachin (via Indian Country Today).
Shannen Koostachin's real-life story is pretty amazing. After the Canadian government failed in its promise to rebuild her former, condemned school, Koostachin created an online campaign to help her community build a new school, talked with the media about the problem, and led a student lobbying effort for better schools. At age 14, she was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize. Sadly, she was killed in a car crash just before her sixteenth birthday.
The character won’t be an exact representation of Shannen, but it will be a Cree superhero inspired by her. Artist Lemire told CBC, “I think if I can capture some of that heart and some of that essence in this character, perhaps she'll almost be a guiding spirit in the creation of this character.” He plans to visit schools in Moosonee and Moose Factory to talk with students and have them suggest superpowers for the new team member. "There would be the cultural strengths. The family ties, the knowledge of the land, the rich, rich symbolism of the Cree on James Bay," Lemire says, when envisioning the new character.
While I’m a little worried about the possibility for some massive cultural appropriation here, Lemire seems to be willing to do the work and consult the actual people he is borrowing these “cultural strengths” from. Also, as Susana Polo says on The Mary Sue, it seems easier to avoid writing a giant stereotype if you’re using a specific person as your jumping off point. So I’m going with cautiously optimistic on this one.
On Marvel’s side, they will be introducing a new title character, Ms. Marvel. (Since the previous Ms. Marvel was promoted to Captain Marvel, the moniker has been freed up.) Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, is a Muslim-American teenage girl whose family is from Pakistan, but now resides in Jersey City. (Not even New York! You’d think they had superhero serum in the water there.) While not the first Muslim superhero out there, Kalama will definitely be the first Muslim character in the Marvel universe to headline her own title. Kamala was created by Marvel editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker, who were inspired by Amanat’s experiences growing up as a Muslim-American. They also “noted the dearth of female superhero series and, even more so, of comics with cultural specificity.”
This is when I started to get really excited. Editors at a mainstream comic publisher talking about the lack of diversity and then working to fix it? It’s like I’m getting a birthday twice this year.
Here are sketches of the new hero and her friends from Marvel artist Adrian Alphona:
Kalama’s story will be authored by G. Willow Wilson, a critically acclaimed comics writer who is also Muslim, and will deal with family drama along with the superheroics that come from being able to shapeshift. “I wanted Ms. Marvel to be true-to-life, something real people could relate to, particularly young women,” Wilson said in a press release. “High school was a very vivid time in my life, so I drew heavily on those experiences—impending adulthood, dealing with school, emotionally charged friendships that are such a huge part of being a teenager. It's for all the geek girls out there, and everybody else who's ever looked at life from the fringe.”
Honestly, it sounds like this book has a lot of promise, both in its creative team and in its protagonist, and I hope they turn it out. Encouragingly, Marvel female superheroes She-Hulk and Elektra will also get their own series next year.
In both of these cases, it’s exciting to see the “typical American teenager” trope that launched Spiderman becoming something that reflects the a wider reality of typical American teenagers. Ms. Marvel launches in February and we can expect to see DC’s new Justice League Canada member sometime next spring, so we’ll just have to wait to see how well the ideas are executed. Until then, I’ll be holding onto this sweet ray of hope that mainstream comics might actually be trying to catch up to indie comics’ level of representation and diversity.