This Tuesday, Bwog Arts Editor Riva Weinstein and EIC Betsy Ladyzhets attended Being The First: Reinventing Superheroes, a conversation with Sana Amanat (BC ’04). Barnard’s Being The First series showcases trailblazers, pioneers and women who were the first in their field.
In August of 2013, a new superhero burst onto the Marvel comics stage in a blue dress and a billowing red scarf. To young fans, she was a funny, relatable teenage protagonist hailing from Jersey City. Longtime feminist critics praised her non-sexualized design and realistic personality. But it wasn’t these facts that had the comics world convulsing with debate, backlash, excitement, and an instant mountain of fanart. It was the fact that Kamala Khan, co-created by Sana Amanat (BC ’04), is the first Muslim superhero in an American comic.
On Tuesday evening, Barnard’s Sulz Parlor was packed with eager listeners. Like her heroine, Sana Amanat was warm, funny and down-to-earth. Amanat, the child of Pakistani immigrants, worked in magazine publishing after graduating from Barnard. From there she moved to an indie comic book company. She was hired by Marvel in 2009, where she currently works as director of content and character development.
Interviewing her was Professor Hussein Rashid, adjunct professor of religion at Barnard, whose work focuses on Muslims and American popular culture. He starts with the most important question of all: How did her time at Barnard inform and prepare her for her work as a comic book editor?
Amanat described her pre-college self as a nerd coming from a conservative, sheltered background. The Columbia-Barnard community surrounded her with radically different experiences and perspectives, both inside and outside her own Pakistani-American identity. When asked about professors that particularly inspired her, she mentioned Prof. Joseph Massad’s class on Israeli and Palestinian politics as one that opened her eyes to issues outside of her personal experience that were still “an extension of [her] background.”
Her first instinct was to become a journalist. “I wanted to change people’s perspectives of Muslim narratives and Muslims in the world,” she said. She never expected to become a comic book editor, but now, she feels that mainstream superhero comics are one of the best ways of telling diverse stories – not in spite of their unrealism, but because of it.
She gave as an example the X-Men, a Marvel series about a group of superhumans who are ostracized by society. “You get to the crux of the message if it’s told through metaphor,” she said. Likewise, for Kamala, “we deal with her Muslim story through the metaphor of her being an inhuman.”
Kamala Khan is the first Muslim superhero, but she’s not the first Marvel character to take up the mantle of Ms. Marvel. She’s part of a larger trend that has Riri Williams and James “Rhodey” Rhodes, two Black characters, as Iron Man; Jane Foster as Thor; and America Chavez as Miss America. Some critics have complained that recycling old superhero mantles in new characters is not truly inclusive, and that these minority characters should have their own, unique super persona. Amanat disagrees. “The mantles are these ideals that we should try to embody,” she explained. “We’re sending a message of acceptance. We’re sending a message of inclusion.”
When asked about “being the first” editor of a superhero comic with a Muslim protagonist, as well as the first South Asian comics editor in the U.S., Amanat said she feels intimidated by her responsibility. The pressure of creating art is much higher when that art will be seen by mainstream audiences as representative of a minority group, even if its intention is otherwise.
“People have to be paying attention,” she said. And for people to pay attention, the art needs to not just be good – it needs to be broadly relatable, subtly educational, and all-around exceptional. Based on the critical and financial successes of Ms. Marvel, it seems clear that this story is setting an example for other creators in all of those areas.
Throughout the conversation, Amanat included tidbits of wisdom for current Barnard students in the stories of her own experiences. One major challenge was figuring out the steps toward her eventual career. Unlike becoming a doctor or securing a job on Wall Street, there is no precise formula that can take someone from “student” to “Marvel editor.” “You have to hone in on what gets you excited and passionate, and work towards that,” she said. She emphasized that this honing-in process can take a while, as she described “bouncing” from one idea to the next — a process that is still going on, as she looks towards the next step in her career.
Amanat additionally cited the importance of finding a community that can provide both personal and professional support. For her, that community was CU Bhangra, of which she was one of the founding members.
After Amanat’s talk with Prof. Rashid, there was a Q&A. Questions ranged from a comics nerd asking about continuity, to a young storyteller asking for Amanat’s advice on how to tell broadly relatable stories focused on biracial characters. One of the most meaningful questions came from Karen Green, the comics curator of Columbia University Libraries, who asked, “What does it mean to have mainstream acceptance in a world [comics] so based around people who feel like outsiders?”
Amanat said that she hopes this appreciation lasts. “Mainstream acceptance” values the talent and hard work that goes into comics, and expands the audience of this medium, especially for readers who are seeing themselves in comic narratives for the first time. As the comics audience grows, so does the medium’s potential for bringing truth and connection to the world. It is editors like Amanat who are spearheading the movement to keep this art form new and exciting, while also remembering the values that caused people to love comics in the first place.
Photo via Barnard College Twitter