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 (FOX) 24 and CBS (PARA) 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 (DIS -0.34%) Marvel and Time Warner's (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.








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.