Waiting to meet Sana Amanat, the co-creator of Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Ms. Marvel, I tried not to be intimidated. This is the woman whom former US President Barack Obama once called “a real-life superhero”. In her nine-year career at Marvel, the American comics juggernaut that created blockbuster characters such as Black Panther and Iron Man, Amanat has worked her way up from an assistant editor to her current role as vice president of content and character development. Amanat’s is not a small job—she oversees the expansion of Marvel’s content across the company’s various platforms and into the hands of global audiences. The impact she has had on her industry, and on thousands of fans around the world has already gotten folks up and listening.
Illustration by Jorge Molina/Marvel
When Ms. Marvel, earlier a blonde American woman named Carol Danvers, was relaunched in 2014 as Kamala Khan, a teenaged Pakistani-American Muslim girl from New Jersey, I was already well into my forties. But I wondered: if I had had a superhero like this to look up to when I was an Indian kid growing up in America, what might have been different for me?
When I was young, I wasn’t really into comics. Sure, I watched Star Wars and Superman on screen, but apart from Archie comics on long train trips while visiting my family back in India, I pretty much gave comic books and superheroes a skip. But encountering Kamala Khan is when it dawned on me that the main reason I hadn’t ever developed a real interest in comics was that I couldn’t relate to the characters. Not that I needed to have special powers in order to imagine what it might be like—I often fantasised about being able to fly around the world like Superman. But by and large, the comic book characters, and really just everyone represented in mainstream American media, were white.
Then along came the new Ms. Marvel, in a salwaar kameez-inspired superhero costume, complete with flowing red dupatta, and she kind of looked ike…me. And my daughter, and her friends. Ms. Marvel was, in a way, a bit of all of us. On the opening page of her first issue, she has her nose pressed up against a glass display with a BLT (bacon lettuce tomato) sandwich inside, hilariously saying, “I just want to smell it…”. I knew that feeling. Finally, here was a superhero I could relate to.
Amanat breezed up to our coffee date looking much like what I imagine a grown-up thirty-something version of the new, reimagined Ms. Marvel might be. It is no wonder her young niece and nephew remain convinced she is actually Ms. Marvel in real life, something Amanat’s family hasn’t corrected them on to date.
Coffee in hand, Amanat and I eased into a conversation about the rebirth of Ms. Marvel, disrupting mainstream media, and what comes next for this real-life superwoman.
ON HER EARLY INFLUENCES:
Raised Muslim by Indian and Pakistani parents in a predominantly white town in New Jersey, Amanat’s parents were always supportive of her creative interests. Her father once said to her, “Whatever you do, just make sure you do something good with it.” But her older brother was a key creative influence early in her life, whether or not he knew it at the time.
“One of my brothers was a big sci-fi fantasy nerd, and he introduced me to Star Wars and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe [the fantasy novel by CS Lewis]. I watched every single superhero cartoon when I was little, and I liked comics growing up too, like Calvin & Hobbes, Archie, and the Sunday comic strips. It was just a different way of taking in a story.
“My brother also had a telescope, so we would talk about the planets and the stars, and the concept of what was out there. It was an amazing springboard for my imagination. If you ever look through a telescope and look at the moon, it gives you a sense of wonder, and makes you aware that you are so small in relation to the universe, both in the literal and spiritual sense. “When you watch stuff at a very young age, it definitely stays with you. And those things I saw when I was young, are the elements I go back to creatively. There was always this connection for me with the world of superheroes and sci-fi.”
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ON HOW SHE GOT INTO THE BUSINESS:
On graduating from Barnard College in New York City, Amanat initially wanted to be a journalist. She never really thought about getting a job in comics, but would often find herself poking around different comic companies’ websites for openings.
“I had a friend who was friends with Gotham Chopra [Deepak Chopra’s son], who ran Virgin Comics [now, Liquid Comics] at the time. He gave me my first job in the field. And my boss there, who is a mentor and one of my best friends now, really taught me the craft—how to work with talent and bring out the best stories from them. She also showed me that I had an incredible instinct for art direction. From there, I eventually landed a job at Marvel.”
ON THE BIRTH OF MS. MARVEL:
“My editor was very aware of the limits of his experience as a white man. We would chat about my childhood, and out of those conversations, he would say ‘Can we make a character for the young Sanas of the world?’ The first person I thought of when we started developing Ms. Marvel was G Willow Wilson, a seasoned Muslim writer, who is really funny. At first, she thought we were crazy [for wanting to do this]. “I wanted to do a young adult story, not a post-9/11 story. I wanted it to be about a young, normal girl who happened to be Muslim and South Asian. When we pitched it to the Marvel Creative Committee, they were like, ‘Oh, this is basically like a brown Peter Parker!’ and we were like, ‘YES!’
“There is as much of me in Ms. Marvel as there is of you in her. She is this character that is so reflective of this very specific minority experience growing up in America. And she definitely captures a lot of the experiences I had growing up. But she reflects a lot of Willow and other non-South Asian experiences too. I genuinely believe Ms. Marvel has resonated with a lot of people because it reflects those smaller human moments, and what an individual does with those [moments], and what they can turn into.
“This girl in Jersey City is looking across the river watching these majestic, powerful beings flying across the city saving the world every day and they look amazing and they are beautiful, tall, powerful, blonde, and they look nothing like her. And in her head she thinks ‘That is who I have to be.’ And then she looks at herself and says ‘What is this? What is this shape of my body and why am I stuck in it?”
ON THE NEED FOR DIVERSITY IN MEDIA:
“When you are a young brown person in America, you don’t have images that look like you outside [in media]. Looking at things like Seventeen magazine when I was younger, I remember realising, ‘Oh my hair will never look like that, I will never be able to wear make-up like that, my body will never look like that, clothes will never fit me like they fit those skinnier white models’. The images that you have around you look nothing like you. That sense of self-rejection starts so young with minorities.
“I grew up only consuming content about white people. For so long, we were completely starved of relatable material, and we had no idea. I never thought that people would want anything else. I didn’t want anything else, because that was all I knew. We were striving to become something we are not. And now I am like, ‘Give me everything; not just the white experience!’ Now, we realise that not only is it important, not only is it needed, but that we are in a position to create it ourselves.We have the power to start inserting our stories into the zeitgeist.”
ON BEING A ROLE MODEL:
“People have been building me up to be a pretty powerful person, with an agenda that I don’t have. I am really a big nerd, and I was a nerd before it was cool to be one. What I love more than anything else, is putting together a great story. Often, South Asian Americans feel like they need to compete with one another, and there was a weird sense of, ‘If they get it, I’m not going to get it.’ But now, our community is beginning to understand that we are so much more powerful if we strive towards things together.”
ON INSPIRING YOUNG FANS:
“Superheroes have big aspirations, but they start as regular people. Everyone wants to be some version of a superhero, or has a son, daughter or non-gender conforming child who wants to be one. So do I. But children not only want superheroes, and like superheroes, they need them.
“If you think about Kamala looking at Carol Danvers [the former Ms. Marvel, who is now Captain Marvel] and saying, ‘Okay, I can’t be her, but I have strange powers and they are my powers, and I can do some cool things with them’…I hope young girls look at me and these characters and realise that what is unique in them is their superpower. I want these girls to feel wonder and satisfaction, and a strong sense of self at the same time. And to realise you don’t have to look a particular way to be powerful.”
ON WHAT’S NEXT:
“Marvel Rising, an animated series with the next generation of heroes. It is a really diverse group, which includes Ms. Marvel. It is exciting to see all these other characters out there for young people to relate to. Seeing kids at Comic Con dressed up in Marvel costumes that they made themselves makes me so happy.
“I want to keep building characters and content. I would like to start writing at some point. Maybe a mix of a memoir with visual moments of my childhood.”
Photograph: Porus Vimadalal
Styling: Malini Banerji
Hair: Yukiko Tajima
Make-up: Ashleigh Ciucci
Production: Alexey Galetskiy Productions
Assisted by: Divya Gursahani and Ujjwala Bhadu (Styling)
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