In September 2011 DC Comics attempted to create their first major Arab Muslim American superhero, a new rendition of the Green Lantern, a staple character in the DC lineup dating to 1940. This new superhero, Simon Baz, made his appearance in Green Lantern #0, written by Geoff Johns with art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy, and added a spark of diversity to the publisher’s largely white cast.
Unfortunately, they did so with a deeply troubling origin story in which Simon Baz stole a van that, unbeknownst to him, had a bomb in it. He was quickly arrested, taken to Guantanamo Bay and tortured. He was saved by the Green Lantern ring, which chose him as the world’s next protector. The ring allowed him to escape, whereafter he was pursued as a dangerous terrorist by the Justice League. All of this was published under the guise of authentically narrating the experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans.
Newspapers as respected as The New York Times reported on the Arab Muslim addition to the DC comic book universe, and interviews with writer Geoff Johns revealed his Lebanese ancestry — this, it was made to seem, gave him the credibility to write about Arab and Muslim American experiences.
Indeed, while it is critical that the experiences of racial prejudice, harassment, suspicion, and violence perpetrated almost daily against Arab and Muslim Americans be represented, there remains the damming potential for such representations to be the only way in which media consumers come to know Arab and Muslim characters. By default, these representations become the lens through which they come to view not only fictional people, but real lives.
The problem is one of character design: how the characters are created to be. This is a problem for all media, though it is particularly crucial for comics, since the industry is currently undergoing a push from fans and new creators to be more representative.
What this often means, as Green Lantern #0 shows, is checking off identities on a list of non-white/non-male categories, with the aim to please by name and number. Companies like Marvel Comics can now say, “Yep, we’ve got an Afro-Puerto Rican Spider-Man” and DC can say, “Yep, we’ve got an Arab Muslim.” But DC’s 2011 attempt at diversification also shows that diversity is limited, often to aggrandized stereotypical stories that, say, frame Arabs and Muslims as terrorists (even if by accident). So how about a little background on this issue.
To say that life has not been easy for Arab and Muslim Americans after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001 would be farce. As literary critic and self-identified Arab American Stephen Salaita pointed out in his fantastic study of Arab American literature, Arab American Literary Fictions, the concept of Arab or Muslim Americans as a unified, racially distinct segment of the population emerged in response to fears of foreign Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and the need to control potential threats at home.
Even before 9/11, Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism — that brand of racial ideology that fetishizes the Arab world, the East as a whole, and its cultural products as an exotic, mysterious, and must-have Other (i.e. “not us”) — had long structured America’s view of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the U.S. In the 1950s-1970s they were regarded as a model minority alongside Indians and Eastern Asians. Regardless, they were not considered a distinct group with identifiable and discernible characteristics.
In other words, unlike Blacks and Latina/os, Arabs and Muslims didn’t bother white middle-class suburbia. You know, those so-called “average Americans.” Arab and Muslim Americans were not disruptive enough to white society to need designating as a specific racial group. This is in part because before 9/11 “The Arab” and “The Muslim” were doofy Ottoman costumery, children’s parodies (Aladdin), and occasional bad guys (Indiana Jones).
In the wake of 9/11, violence against Arabs and Muslims, whether American or not, increased exponentially and was governmentally sanctioned via the stripping of Constitutional rights for the purpose of national security. Arabs and Muslims were widely depicted in film and on television as the enemy. Scholarship on the issue of Arab and Muslim representation has finally reached a headway, a result of the growth of Arab American Studies as a discipline emerging out of the long-established field of American Studies, and is best exemplified in Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media (NYU, 2012).
The violence, in many cases, is often spurred by the inability to read beyond media representations and to think critically about the plurality of Arab and Muslim lived experiences. Sikhs, non-Muslim Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, Muslim Arabs, and sometimes Jews are conflated with the identity of the singular, Otherized muslimarab-arabmuslim, a seemingly insoluble identity that is, according to government policy and popular belief, potentially engaged in fundamentalist Islamic activity or at least aware of such activity.
Not all Arabs are Muslim, not all Muslims are Arab. The United States hosts some 3.5 million Arab Americans, whose group identity is based largely in shared cultural and linguistic traditions which hail largely from the twenty-two members states of the Arab League.
Some are Christian, Jewish, atheist, Baha’i, etc. Muslims, on the other hand, number roughly 2.6 million, only 26% of which are of Arab descent. Many are from South(east) Asia, are black Muslims, white, or Hispanic, according to the 2006 American Community Survey, and in 2009 and 2011 they made up the largest percentage of immigrants to the U.S.
So where does this information, a context which we can use to critically read Green Lantern #0, leave us? Ultimately, it reminds us as readers who have market influence in comics more so than in almost any other format of Nerd media, that we need to demand more than stereotypes. I have not read Ultimate Spider-Man, but I have heard many fans attest to the sincerity with which Bendis writes Miles Morales. Gail Simone, likewise, writes female characters with an eye to their long history of being sexualized, fetishized, and abused by creators and fans.
We have to demand more than a story that, by all means, breaks boundaries but which simultaneously places other barriers to diversification. When “terrorist” and “Arab” or “hijab” and “Muslim (woman)” are binaries used to define an entire population of radically diverse lived experiences, we have to be willing to call bullshit. We have to be willing to exert the same kind of buying and petitioning power as when we got Orson Scott Card kicked offAdventures of Superman.
If anything good came out of Green Lantern #0, it’s the possibility to learn from a company’s mistakes and do “diversity” better. We’ll see how Marvel does with Ms. Marvel, and hope a lesson was learned.
I haven’t written in awhile, secluded as I have been in an ivory tower composed entirely of grad school reading lists and stacks of assignments I need to grade, held sturdy by a growing number of empty coffee tins piling up near the recycling. But the new Ms. Marvel announcement has brought me out of hiding—there’s just so much to be said!
The New York Times book section announced in a charmingly titled article (“Might, Muslim and Leaping Off the Page: Marvel Comics Introducing a Muslim Girl Superhero”) that, coming this February, Marvel will be bringing us a superhero who is not a white man, but is in fact the lovely new character Kamala Khan, a Pakistani Muslim American teenager from Jersey. This announcement comes after Marvel’s October teaser poster that simply had the word “Ms.” with a faded number “1” in the background, and which some suspected would turn out to be a new series for Jean Grey, whose first codename was Marvel Girl.
The new Ms. Marvel series, which will debut in February, is to be written by G. Willow Wilson, a fantastic sci-fi/fantasy author and comic book writer, as well as an ardent and well-spoken critic of Nerd media. Ms. Marvel is the brainchild of Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, Marvel editors who work largely of Spidey books, but also dabble in Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, and Hawkeye, to name a few. Joining Willow Wilson is artist Adrian Alphona, who co-created Runaways with Brian K. Vaughn, and whose art is engagingly beyond the frustratingly redundant, uninnovative style of so many mainstream books.
So what does this mean? That’s the big question, and the same question people were asking when Marvel announced that Ultimate Spidey would be a black Puerto Rican kid and when Batgirl introduced an openly trans* character this past year. The growing “diversity” (and, yes, I do mean the quotes, because that’s really the idea being interrogated here) of comic book characters’ identities, while miniscule, has two general meanings.
Primarily, the growing diversity of characters who aren’t white male heterosexuals signals a response to audience desires. Anyone with a tumblr account knows that there is a huge community of non-white and/or non-male and/or non-heterosexual comic book fans whose lives are just as devoted to Barda and Superman and the Avengers as the stock fanboy (yeah, I’m glaring at you, Big Bang Theory). Creators and executives at major comic book companies are not only trying to do good by their audiences, but also by their creators, who are becoming increasingly demographically diverse as well. This does not, however, signal a major shift in the industry, but is certainly part of a slightly growing trend at the Big Two.
The second meaning I read into the growing “diversity” might piss some people off. To be candid, I think economics motivates the creation of “diverse” characters. In a world where a black man is U.S. president and some women hold public office, the populace lives under the illusion that our society is a post-racial one devoid of gender disparities. This ideology ignores the persistent and growing inequalities of gender, race, class, religion, age, (dis)Ability, and ethnic/national identity.
I do not mean to accuse individual creators, like Geoff Johns or Gail Simone, of capitalizing or intending to capitalize on diversity, but I certainly accuse the industry as a whole for utilizing diversity as an advertisement strategy. Think, for example, what it means that the New York Times broke the news, which spread to a dozen other major media sites over the course of the day, and trickled its way into the usual comic book journalism sites like ours. Major announcements like this come from reputable news sources more often, but the racialized aspect of this announcement certainly calls for analysis.
What’s more, the announcement of a female teenage Pakistani Muslim character came at a surprising time for me. As of writing this, I had just finished up an article for Reading with Pictures about racism, critical reading, and Green Lantern #0, which featured the first major Arab Muslim American superhero, Simon Baz, as the new Green Lantern. That comic has disturbed me since I first read it, albeit a bit belatedly, this summer. It originally debuted on Sep. 5, 2012, just six days before the 11th anniversary of 9/11/2001. What struck as odd about that comic—and in fact what bothers me deeply about comics with “diverse” characters—is the overbearing reliance on the white lens to tell stories of diversity.
What’s disturbing about Green Lantern #0 is not that it introduces the first Arab Muslim American as the Green Lantern (hello, big huge deal! This guy’s been around since the ’40s and has been one of DC’s biggest heroes ever since!), but that the story forced the issue of terrorism, public bombings, and Guantanamo Bay into the plot. This is based, of course, in truth, as many Arab and Muslim American could testify; Geoff Johns, the writer, is himself a Lebanese American who grew up in Detroit.
To be sure, Arab and Muslim Americans became a homogeneous identity for many Americans in the wake of 9/11, and governmental policies stripped them of constitutional rights for the sake of “national security.” This plays out in Green Lantern #0, allowing for a simple reading: “this comic represents negative effects of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes, while creating a hero from the ashes of prejudice.” All good, right?
Sure. Wait…no! My problem lies in the fact that the audiences of comics—and of the large amount of novels, TV shows, and films published or made post-9/11 which featured Arab and Muslim characters—rely solely on the iconography of Arabmuslim-Muslimarab who is indelibly caught up in issues of terrorism, whether as an inaccurate accusation or actually as a terrorist.
Diversity, however, requires recognizes the plurality of lived experiences. Rather than typifying every character of Arab of Muslim background by a stock story interrelated to what (largely) white audiences imagine to be the homogeneous, singular lived reality of Arab and Muslim Americans, diversity requires drawing on experiences that break the status quo beyond simply being able to claim a Muslim superhero.
I don’t mean to say that Simon Baz as Green Lantern is a bad character, nor do I mean to suggest that there is no meaningful lesson to be learned from his story. Instead, I am suggesting that, while we can read Green Lantern #0—and any story of a “diverse” character—as a story that tells us something about the structural racism and violence enacted by individuals and governments against groups of people, we can also read the ideological lens that shaped the narrative’s creation. We have to look at both our society and the comic narratives to understand why certain “diverse” characters are being created and think beyond the wow-that’s-awesomes to question their social significance.
These questions have shaped my response to the Ms. Marvel announcement. I am thrilled, of course, because G. WIllow Wilson is a phenomenal author and Adrian Alphona a sensitive and wholly enjoyable artist. Kelly Sue DeConnick has done fantastic work with Captain Marvel, and in general Marvel has blown me out of the water of late with its publications, like Daredevil and Battle of the Atom (the event as a whole), which place emphasis on the emotionality of lived experiences, paired with lively, viscerally, at times painstakingly beautiful art.
I do believe that February 2014’s Ms. Marvel has the potential to deliver an artistic experience that will defy the consumer-driven “diversity” of so many similar publishing decisions. I guess we’ll see.