Last semester I taught the first volume of Ms. Marvel in my honor’s multicultural literature class. Ms. Marvel was perfect for my class, which centered on how minorities used fantastic fiction to show disfranchisement and how old tropes become new when filtered through a different perspective. Superman and Batman are iconic, and that’s a lot of the problem. We need a superhero like Kamala who knocks us out of our comfort zone, makes the old new without losing that heroic spark that makes us swoon at Superman’s feet. For all of my students, this was their first look into Muslim culture and, surprisingly, their first comic book.
Comics are a hard sell in college, especially with honor students. They are hyped up to tackle Tolstoy and Joyce—to be handed a book with pictures is construed as an insult. So, first hurdle, make them understand the cultural relevance of comics. For comic readers the impact of comics on culture is hard to miss, but these students picture comic-book readers as overweight-middle-aged men living in their parents’ basements. In a world where people read 50 Shades of Grey on the bus, they saw comic reading as something to be ashamed of. One student expressed the fear that she would be seen as “childish” and even “stupid,” while another said he would hate to be seen reading any comic by his frat brothers. To them, reading comic books and watching superhero movies are two very different activities—one private, one social. They needed to understand that by the simple act of reading comics they had become part of a vast social network, one that was instrumental in starting the whole phenomenon of fan culture. I wanted them to see the impact of comics on society.
Instead of having them buy Ms. Marvel at the campus bookstore, I offered extra credit for students who trekked the two blocks to the local comic book store. Comics are community! Comics are connection! They should be purchased in a store wallpapered with Spider-Man posters and surrounded by likeminded readers! Soon pictures of students taking selfies while clutching their comics to their chest came pouring in. However, the pictures looked odd. Sure, they were smiling, but it seemed to be the smile of a hostage that has a gun pointed at them just off camera.
It seems I had forgotten what it is like to be young and female in a comic store. And I have never known what it is like to grow up in the south, as the majority of the students at the flagship southern university I teach at have, where cotillion training is the norm and being “a lady” means more than having breasts. More than one student expressed their discomfort with invading a “male space,” which they had been taught, both consciously and not, is no place for a lady.
Our local comic store is wonderful. It’s a large walkup filled with shelves that turn the open space into a labyrinth. It has all the standard titles, niche title, and independent titles. I love the large collection of zines. A room branching off to the side of the main floor has the look of an abandoned yard sale, with collectables of dubious value littering the floor. The manager (owner? I’ve never asked) is perhaps a bit rough looking, but is always polite and helpful. He is often surrounded by rather surly looking young men engaged in frantic debate. I imagine Raskolnikov looked much the same as he debated the murder of the unscrupulous pawn broker.
The store is also filled, as all comic book stores are, with posters of scantily clad women of gravity-defying proportions. One student said she felt like she was walking into a “porn shop,” while another more generously commented that “nudity seems to be a common theme throughout the store.” They were expecting to walk into a book store and instead they were instantly made uncomfortable. After a decade of frequenting such stores I no longer see the explicit posters or the X-rated comics and I shrug off the male gaze easily. But these women are young and uninitiated and they felt vulnerable and unwelcome. No harm was intended, they were treated well, but by its very nature the store repelled them. They were “ladies” intruding on a male-only space. They felt unwelcome and out of place.
And really, do I feel comfortable in comic book stores? Even though I almost always have an opinion about whatever the counter men are debating, I never share my views. Their surliness is off-putting and I won’t risk rejection. I don’t like to go right after teaching a class, as my skirts and high heels seem too showy, like I’m trying to make a spectacle of myself. I’m worried people will think I want male attention, that I’m a fake fangirl trolling for fresh meat. Like I’m asking for it.
Just as I can’t fully appreciate how my white skin allows me to pass uncommented upon in the halls of academia, men don’t understand the comfort of being able to blend in while shopping for comics. From how you dress to what you buy to how often you smile, you are being scrutinized. In my early teens I gave up reading Elf Quest as the cashier’s smirk was physically painful to the shy girl I was then. Even now, as I defiantly fling the latest issue of Squirrel Girl across the counter, I feel the need to stare the cashier down, daring him to say something. There is an assumption that my knowledge is lesser and my taste flavored by my gender. There is also the assumption that I am open to being flirted with, bumped up against, and that I’m open to comments about my appearance.
A week before we started reading Ms. Marvel a student came up to me before class and handed me a note: “This is from the guy at the comic store.” Panic shot through me as I fumbled with the paper—I actually trembled a bit. “We are currently out of Ms. Marvel. Please still give [student]extra credit.” I was left feeling a bit full of myself. My panic, however, was not unwarranted. A female in what is typically a male only area gets used to being either scorned or adored. We are rarely allowed the privilege of just existing.
I know there are people who will say that this is my problem and my perception, and they have a point. My feelings of not belonging perhaps cause me to project my own sense of my inadequacies onto others. This is, however, a perception I share with every woman I have ever known who frequents comic stores. The fact that The Geek Initiative, an online space for females in geek culture, has a list of female friendly comic store shows I am not alone. Recently I was discussing comics with a male professor who specializes in comic book studies. He was baffled when I expressed my discomfort with dressing too feminine while comic shopping. Another colleague chimed in, her feelings mirroring mine. We all had similar credentials, education, and research interests, but only one of us felt comfortable with the simple act of shopping.
As I’ve gotten older and more confident I have, to an extent, gotten over myself. I don’t care if I’m welcome or not, I’m going to buy me some comics. I also realize Elf Quest is just awful. But it took years to get to this point. So why did I think sending my students to the comic book store would show them community? Out of my 15 student class, 12 of them were women, and while comics themselves are becoming more inclusive to women and minorities, comic book stores are not. This experience, however, did foster community in our classroom. We discussed why we felt uncomfortable and bonded over what would be done differently if we ran our own comic stores. We found sites and forums that catered to women in comics and watched Anita Sarkeesian’s wonderful “Damsels in Distress” videos; we argued about Gamergate and white feminism and if Black Widow was a good representation of women in comics. (Our conclusion: nope.) We did what people always do when rejected from the mainstream—we talked trash about them and then made our own support system. More than one of my students went on to read the next two volumes of Ms. Marvel on their own—however, they ordered them through Amazon.
In the second part of this article I’ll look at the reactions my students to Kamala, both as a superhero and as a Muslim. Also, questions like, why are we either upset or thrilled that Kamala carries Wolverine on her back? Are we happy or sad she ditches the “sexy” costume? And of course, who would play Kamala in a movie version of Ms. Marvel?