Marvel and DC's Muslim Superheroes Shatter Stereotypes

In the United States, portrayals of stereotypes in the media often shape the public's perception of minorities. In the past, Native Americans were portrayed as savages, African Americans and Hispanics were painted as violent caricatures, and Asians were shown as unscrupulous shopkeepers with thick accents.

In recent years, some of those awful stereotypes have thankfully subsided, but one stereotype remains prevalent in TV, movies, and books -- the xenophobic portrayal of the terrorist Muslim extremist.

In a sad age when most Americans can't identify the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims, shows like Fox's (NASDAQ: FOX  ) 24 and CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) Showtime's Homeland only reinforce American stereotypes of Muslims, who are still commonly portrayed in the post-9/11 world as an acceptable, universal enemy.

Comic books as a catalyst for change

That's where comic books come in.

Back in the 1960s, Marvel's Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beautifully translated the U.S. civil rights movement into a struggle between mutants and humans, with the pacifist Professor Xavier representing Martin Luther King, Jr., and his fiery and violent archrival Magneto modeled after Malcolm X. As a result, entire generations of kids grew up with more open minds about racism, prejudice, and the importance of tolerance.

Today, Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Marvel and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) DC Comics are changing history again with a new generation of Muslim superheroes.

Dust, Ms. Marvel, Green Lantern, and Nightrunner (L to R) represent a new age of Muslim superheroes. Source: Marvel, DC, author's edits.

In 2002, Marvel introduced Dust, a female Muslim superhero born in Afghanistan with the power to transform her body into a cloud of sand-like dust. Dust, also known as Sooraya Qadir, dons a traditional niqab as her costume and refuses to renounce her religion, despite pressure from some of her fellow X-Men.

In 2011, DC introduced Bilal Asselah, also known as Nightrunner, an Algerian Sunni Muslim French citizen who becomes "The Batman of France." Nightrunner's introduction notably highlighted the social problems in the impoverished eastern suburb of Paris, Clichy-sous-Bois, the epicenter of the race and class discrimination-driven riots that swept through France in late 2005.

In 2012, DC introduced Simon Baz, the first Muslim-American Green Lantern -- who was falsely accused of being a terrorist before inheriting the powers of a Green Lantern ring. Baz eventually replaced Hal Jordan, the most commonly recognized Green Lantern, as the Green Lantern of the Earth sector.

This month, Marvel reimagined Ms. Marvel, one of its classic characters -- a blond military pilot who became a flying, bullet-proof heroine through an alien accident -- into a Pakistani-American teenage girl named Kamala Khan. The origin story of the new Ms. Marvel highlights the clash of cultures that the children of immigrants experience -- of growing up American in a conservative family environment rooted in older traditions.

A mixed reception in the U.S.

The reaction to these new Muslim superheroes, however, has been mixed across the United States.

An editorial article in The Washington Times discussing Marvel's latest Muslim superheroine claimed that the comic book industry was promoting "eerie" lifestyles such as gay and interracial marriage, and warning that the new Ms. Marvel's portrayal of an empowered Muslim woman could provoke a "militant" Islamic response.

Back in 2011, the Muslim "French Batman" was similarly attacked by right-wing bloggers. One particularly irate blogger claimed that Nightrunner would "have strange new powers to bury women to their waists and bash their heads in with large rocks."

One could hope that these criticisms only represent a narrow-minded minority of Americans aided by the Internet, but even Conan O'Brien chimed in, tweeting, "Marvel Comics introduces a new Muslim female superhero. She has so many more powers than her husband's other wives." -- ignoring, for comedic purposes, the fact that Khan is actually a 16-year old American girl.

Source: Twitter.

Those criticisms sting, but they also highlight Marvel's and DC's creative teams' admirable willingness to stand up for their beliefs by continuing the tradition started by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby 50 years ago.

The importance of the comic book business

Most people recognize the importance of the billion-dollar business of comic book movies, but fewer people realize that the comic book publishing business is still booming, in a time when sales of magazines and newspapers have dramatically declined.

Simply take a look at the stunning growth of the North American comic book market over the past decade.

Year

2002

2004

2006

2008

2010

2012

Annual sales

$300-$330 million

$420-$480 million

$575-$640 million

$680-$710 million

$660-$690 million

$700-$730 million

Source: Diamond, Comichron.

The growth trajectory of comics, in both print and digital formats, looks like it can easily top a billion dollars in North American sales alone in just a few years. The recent onslaught of comic book movies will likely boost sales even further, introducing a new generation of younger readers to the same franchises that their parents, or their grandparents, grew up reading.

Marvel and DC are the two top comic book publishers in the U.S., with respective retail market shares of 30.5% and 31%. By themselves, the publishing units don't generate significant revenue, but combined with their licensing revenue from video games, toys, TV shows, and movies, Marvel and DC represent priceless gold mines for Disney and Time Warner.

A final thought

In closing, dear readers, don't underestimate the courage of comic book writers and artists to constantly explore topics that mainstream TV and movies are reluctant to delve into.

Over the past 50 years, the comic book industry has brought us heroes of different genders, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations -- showing generation after generation of comic book fans that heroes can rise anywhere, despite the labels that society forces on them.

Moreover, now that the comic book publishing, TV, and movie industries are increasingly intertwined, it's likely that this progressive style of thinking that Lee and Kirby championed will continue having a positive influence in other forms of entertainment as well.

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Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 1:32 PM, tmanAllen wrote:

    Love the article and this is what makes America the greatest country, all these other countries hate America but we still give them proper respect because we know it is not everyone with the "Hate America" speech. Good for Marvel and DC. Kind of embarrassed though because I have always compare Charles Xavier to Dr. King and Magneto to Malcolm X but never knew the characters were based on them. That is pretty cool because they are real similar.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 2:06 PM, TMFSunLion wrote:

    @tmanAllen -- Thanks for reading! You might find this much more thorough analysis of Professor X vs. Magneto interesting as well:

    http://www.ign.com/articles/2006/05/05/xavier-vs-magneto-a-p...

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 4:56 PM, comicguy wrote:

    The article shows the overall sales figures but neglects to mention that the UNITS sold has remained consistant through the last 15 years. The same customers are just paying more for the product they buy. It is an unsustainable model, as no new readers come into the fold.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 6:56 PM, 00klaTheM0k wrote:

    The author cites Homeland as a source of poor image for Muslims. Yet another article from this site that shows a lack of knowledge of the material.

    Muslim characters in comics are fine like everything else: If it is good writing. If its just about teaching tolerance then it is trash. Save it for the free hand-outs in school.

    The sad truth is that there are some severe human rights issues entrenched in Muslim culture that are ignored by the left and over emphasized by the right. Yet they exist. These comic characters play it like the Left. Soft.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2013, at 8:41 PM, Iwaki795 wrote:

    When we the last time you saw a Hollywood villain that wasn't:

    (1) An old white male American businessman/politician.

    (2) A mid-30s to early-50s white male European evil genius.

    (3) A Middle Eastern man who is portrayed as justified in his actions because the evils an old white male American businessman/politician.

    I'm exaggerating a bit, but only just a bit.

    Your Homeland example is only applicable if you ignore the actual content of the series. The main terrorist in Homeland was a white male American (Brody) who eventually became a politician. And his and others actions were justified in the story because they were going after an old white male American politician (Walden) who bombed innocent civilians. Not to mention that with the terrorist married couple (the white American woman and the male Middle Eastern man), it was the militant white American woman who was encouraging the reluctant male Middle Eastern man into becoming a terrorist.

    And often the villain in 24 ends up being some white guy (American/European/Russian). Not always, but often enough. Logan and his staff being the best examples.

    Not Middle Eastern related, but they couldn't even let The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 be the actual villain (as he is in the comics). They had to change it so some white male European evil genius who was pulling all of the strings.

  • Report this Comment On December 03, 2013, at 1:01 AM, rkzdm wrote:

    @tmanAllen "all these other countries hate America" - yet you ignore WHY they hate this country..this country is the one invading/occupying and murdering their civilians..this country is the one dictating how other nations should act and govern..I find it funny when people say the President of the USA is the leader of the free world..a leader that was elected by only one country, but has powers over others who had no vote...

  • Report this Comment On December 03, 2013, at 1:07 AM, rkzdm wrote:

    @00klaTheM0k There are human rights violations in this country. No country/culture is perfect. It's why I am not "patriotic" I realize that people are evil no matter what land mass you happened to be born on

  • Report this Comment On December 03, 2013, at 1:43 PM, Richard233 wrote:

    "In a sad age when most Americans can't identify the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims"

    Why should they? Most Americans can't explain the differences between the flavors of Christianity, and it is far more prevalent.

    And you are likely to see mostly ambivalence about the Muslim characters introduced into comics in the same way you do for Gay characters. I've seen no increase in demand for Northstar comics and Kevin sells poorly. Oh, there is a niche market, and some sales are better than none, but lets get real.

  • Report this Comment On December 03, 2013, at 5:12 PM, misterfrost wrote:

    They call it pandering to a demographic. Trying to appeal to one group in order to profit. I don't mind it... I just wish they were honest about it..

    I hated the "Marvel blacksploitation phase of the 70's and eighties. It just seemed so phony..but it was tolerable and they actually developed some decent characters.

    Ones like The Black Panther, Black Lightening, Luke Cage, The Falcon, The Prowler/Hobie Brown (a criminal but really a good guy who needed a break?). Stereo typical and kind of "racist" in a weird way the one thing they had on their side was they were original characters. They weren't a rehash of an old hero, The Falcon was Black dude who could fly and had wings.

    They could have called her anything but Ms. Marvel and I would have been all for it. What's her powers a shape-shifter? Next thing you know they'll have Peter Parker swinging both ways.

    They use comics now the way they did years ago and that's to shape a generations values. I understand this but why reboot an iconic character like Ms. Marvel/Carol Danvers with someone who should be called something else.

    (I guess they're afraid to go all the way and want to brand "Islam and Marvel" together in some sick corporate marketing kind of way.

    I guess it just seems so obvious to me that what they are really doing is shaping young minds to think a certain way.

    Although I don't like their pro-government "remain silent on War" and and "submit for the greater good" messages they seem to be pushing..that's not what Marvel did in the 60's..sure they invented S.H.I.E.L.D. and sold war comics back in the day but the message was "War is Bad".

    It's a shame really, I think they killed Captain America/Steve Rogers off is because he wouldn't stand for the s**t going on now. I don't follow it but I heard he's a Black guy.

    Pandering is more racist than actually using a word..because you have to work out a strategy..with a word its said and done..but it's OK because they just want your money..It's bull.. Now I got to go and nag at them on Facebook..lol

    Too bad Tim didn't write this..he would reply..lol

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 6:05 AM, TMFSunLion wrote:

    @Richard233 -- Understanding Shia and Sunni conflicts is as important to history as understanding the rift between Catholics and Protestants.

    Without an understanding of these religious conflicts, it's easy to misinterpret historical events. Many Americans still classify Iranians as Arabs when they're mainly Persians. That's honestly as ignorant as calling the Vatican a Protestant institution.

    @misterfrost -- I'll gladly reply to your post. :)

    I understand your point of view. It sometimes seems strange to reboot characters as an entirely different race. However, I think Marvel is just changing with the times.

    After all, comic book continuity is very pliable -- look at the 52 Earths that DC ended up with, so it leaves a lot of room for re-imaginings and re-tellings. They're like our modern-day Arthurian legends.

    So really, nothing is permanent in the comic book universe.

    It's true that some characters who represent diversity are "flimsy", but that's true in TV and movies as well.

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 6:07 AM, TMFSunLion wrote:

    @Iwaki795 -- Good point about the puppet masters often being Westerners.

    Yet I suppose that is an accurate reflection of what happened with the American involvement in the Middle East, which indirectly created the Taliban, caused the turmoil in Iran, and led to pointless wars to remove leaders that we put there in the first place.

    Nothing is really black and white in the end.

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 6:24 PM, Iwaki795 wrote:

    No. That was not my point at all. Completely not my point. Nearly the exact opposite in fact

    I don't believe there is a concerted effort by the media overall to stereotype anybody. So let me get that out of the way. I don't believe that's what's going on. But (again, I don't believe this is what's going on) if you were to make an argument that the media was stereotyping any group of people, it would be westerns (specifically old, white, male westerners). But not because the media hates westerners, but because it is much easier and less controversial to simply have an old white guy as the villain. And I say that because the villains in movies and TV shows nowadays seem to typically be some old white guy (American or European).

    Like I said, they couldn't even allow The Mandarin to be the villain in Iron Man 3. Maybe because they want to sell the movie to China and they thought that the Chinese will be offended by a Chinese villain (Chinese-British villain actually). I don't know. But either way, The (actual) Mandarin in Iron Man 3 ends up being some white European guy.

    And this is understandable from a Hollywood movie executive prospective. If you want a safe villain that won't offend most foreign movie goers (and especially their wallets), making the villain some old white guy is the way to go. Who is going to complain? Are the old white guys of the world going to organize a boycott the movie? Of course not.

    As a movie goer (and non-white movie goer at that), I would want more variety in my action and thriller movie villains than just some old white American or European male. I'm personally not going to be offended if the villain happens to be the same race as I or from the same part of the world as my ancestors. But if I was an executive at one of these movie studios and I wanted to make sure not to offend a foreign movie ticket-paying audience, I'd probably make most of the villains some old white guys as well. Not because Hollywood hates old white guys, but because it is the easy way to not cause any controversy. That and Hollywood isn't exactly known for its creativity anymore.

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 7:54 PM, SuntanIronMan wrote:

    @misterfrost

    They didn't really reboot Ms. Marvel (well, they kinda of did, but not the character who played the character Ms. Marvel). Kamala Khan is just the new Ms. Marvel. She technically isn't even the second character to take up the mantel Ms. Marvel. She is either the third or forth (I forget which). Although she will likely be the second major Ms. Marvel (if that makes any sense).

    The old Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers) was just upgraded to Captain Marvel. Now I'm not a super fan of having character assume the super hero personas of older heros (like Flash, the new Flash, the new Flash, and the new Flash... is there a 5th yet?). But whatever, that's what they do in comics. Carol Danvers is still around. She has just assumed the persona of Captain Marvel (not sure she number Captain Marvels we are up to now).

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 8:45 PM, SuntanIronMan wrote:

    *(not sure what number of Captain Marvels we are up to now).

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2013, at 8:53 PM, SuntanIronMan wrote:

    Darn it. I really need to complete my full thoughts before I hit the post comment button, haha.

    I'm looking forward to the new Ms. Marvel book when it comes out. I have no idea who is writing it, but I hope they are able to do it justice.

  • Report this Comment On December 06, 2013, at 11:31 AM, TMFSunLion wrote:

    @Iwaki975 -- Honestly, the Mandarin from the Iron Man comics was kind of racist, especially with his previous Fu Manchu depiction in the earlier comics.

    I thought Marvel smartly updated that character, although the end result in Iron Man 3 was kind of a mess.

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