New Muslim superheroes are springing from the pages of comic books

In the late 1930s, when Batman and Superman first punched their way through comic strips, the formula for a superhero was simple: a white man with unusual powers and a sense of vigilante justice. It remained that way for years. Then DC and Marvel, the two publishers that dominate American comics, began to feature a broader range of protagonists, starting with Black Panther in the mid-1960s. Today their roster of characters includes an ethnic minority, indigenous and gay heroes, as well as figures with mental illness. This diversity has attracted a wide fan base: in 2020 sales in America and Canada reached nearly $1.3bn.


Film and television are following where comics have led. “Black Panther” (2018) and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021) featured African-American and East Asian superheroes respectively. Both were hits at the box office. “Ms Marvel” (pictured), a series coming to Disney+ on June 8th, will be another first for the franchise. Its protagonist is a Pakistani-American teenager, the first Muslim superhero Marvel has brought to American screens.

“Ms Marvel” strips have featured Kamala Khan since 2014. Within five years it had sold 500,000 print copies and topped Marvel’s digital-sales chart. Its audience is global, as comics are popular in Muslim-majority countries. The United Arab Emirates held its first Comic Con, a festival for fans, in 2012; Pakistan followed suit in 2014. Saudi Arabia has held conventions since 2017.

Muslim artists were long absent from the comic-book industry, and representations of Islam scarce. Kismet, the first known Muslim superhero, appeared relatively early, in 1944, briefly fighting Nazis in wartime France. Yet “it was written by people who, plainly, had barely even heard of Islam,” says A. David Lewis, a Muslim artist who has resurrected Kismet. “They just threw the word Mohammed in.”

More characters showed up after the oil shortages and Iranian hostage crisis of the 1970s, as America’s geopolitical focus turned towards Muslim-majority countries. Most were caricatured villains, typically sheikhs or bandits. A study of more than 200 American comics featuring Arab characters between the 1950s and the mid-1990s found no positive representations. After 9/11 terrorists populated strips. At the same time, clumsy attempts at positive portrayals proliferated: Dust, a female hero from the “X-Men” series, who fights terrorists in a sexy abaya and veil, has been widely criticized.

Recent heroes, written or drawn by Muslims, have been more rounded. Many are produced outside big publishing houses. “Indy comics is definitely the r&d [research and development] department,” says Mr Lewis. His stories featuring Kismet imagine the character arriving in America after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and trying to unite the country through activism. Artists often push at the boundaries of what heroism is. Qahera, the subject of an Egyptian superhero satire strip, fights misogynists and patronising white feminists on the streets of Cairo. Deena Mohamed, its creator, describes Qahera as a form of fantasy. “When I drew things that a superhero doesn’t have to worry about, I was implicitly talking about the things I worry about,” she says.

Despite this relatively growing interest, Muslim heroes are still rare, even in Islamic countries. “The 99”, a Kuwaiti series featuring heroes based on the 99 names of God in Islam, ran for several years. Latifa, an illiterate Saudi superheroine, fights mutants in a post-apocalyptic world. “Burka Avenger” is a popular Pakistani children’s cartoon. Many creators are still searching for a way to make the form feel culturally appropriate and not simply like an American import. “Superhero stuff in Arabic just never works out 100% because it always feels translated,” says Ms Mohamed.

There are practical barriers too. Adil and Kamil Imtiaz, brothers based in America, created the web comic “Buraaq” to offer Muslim children a hero who reflected their religion. Named after the steed of the prophet in Islam, he flies, fights evil in a cape and speaks openly about his faith. Adil says the animation industry in Pakistan, where they are from, is growing, but that it is difficult to compete with American giants. He has animated a number of short videos of Buraaq himself.

Taking Muslim heroes mainstream remains hard. “Whatever individual artists, writers or editors might aspire to do, in the end it’s about selling books,” says Martin Lund of Malmo University, who researches portrayals of religion in comics. Strips about the metaverse or lethal viruses have become de rigueur in America (and if publishers look outward, it may now be towards Russia, a favorite source of villains). A sizeable—and dependable—portion of the industry’s fan base rails against what it claims is forced diversity. Ms Marvel will have her work cut out.

“Ms Marvel” will be streaming on Disney+ from June 8th

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