A New Kind of Superhero

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Assistant Professor Andrea Modarres will discuss Kamala Khan, the first American Muslim character to headline a comic book, as part of the Grit City Think & Drink speaker series.

Wedgies aren’t the kind of things superheroes traditionally talk about. Yet, this is exactly what Kamala Khan grapples with in the first issue of Ms. Marvel. “I love this moment because it’s talking about gender and how we represent the female body,” said UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Andrea Modarres. Modarres is giving a talk about Ms. Marvel on Tuesday, June 12 as part of the Grit City Think and Drink speaker series.

Kamala Khan is the first American Muslim character to headline her own comic book. In the storyline Khan assumes the role of Ms. Marvel from Carol Danvers who took over the mantle of Captain Marvel. In this latest incarnation of the franchise, Ms. Marvel is a teenager growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey. “What makes her so interesting is there’s all these ways you can approach her identity,” said Modarres. “We see her dealing with teenage angst while also navigating life as a second-generation American.”

Modarres will give her talk on Tuesday, June 12 at 6:30 p.m.at The Swiss.Modarres’ interest in the comic stems from a love of both the Middle East and graphic novels. Her father worked for the United States foreign service as an agricultural economist. “I was born in Kenya and lived in Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen and Ethiopia,” said Modarres. “When we finally came back to the states I knew I wanted to try and abolish some of the misconceptions Westerners have about the Middle East and about Islam.”

Modarres teaches a range of courses at UW Tacoma within the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. “I’ve had classes focused on science fiction or children’s and young adult literature,” she said. “A lot of my training is in Middle Eastern American literature.”

Modarres decided to give this talk in part because she wants people to see the power of graphic novels and comic books. “I think a lot of people dismiss them as entertainment or only for a certain demographic,” she said. “I contend these genres should be taken seriously as objects of analysis.”

Which brings us back to wedgies and, more specifically, the costume choices traditionally given to female superheroes. Consider Wonder Woman. Over the years she’s been presented as both a strong female and an object of beauty, complete with plunging necklines and really tight clothes. The reimagined Ms. Marvel almost travels down the same path but Kamala Khan ultimately decides to change her look, to frankly, slip into something more comfortable. “She chooses a more modest costume that fits within Islamic dress code while also being Western,” said Modarres.

Ms. Marvel has been a huge success for Marvel. The comic is part of a growing trend in the genre, one that bends toward diversity. “I think the success of Black Panther and Ms. Marvel speak to the importance of representation,” said Modarres.

There’s a scene in the first issue of Ms. Marvel that shows Kamala, her friends, and her family practicing their religion in varying ways. “This is great because it gives the reader a different view of Islam,” said Modarres. Getting people to expand their worldview is Modarres’ biggest goal for her presentation. “I’ll be happy if I can open someone’s mind just a little bit, just as I like to have my mind opened up,” she said.

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / June 8, 2018
Photos by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu