At some point, roughly three years ago, Sana Amanat decided to tell her bosses what her new role in the company should be.
It all worked out well—she is currently the director of content and character development at Marvel Entertainment based in the US—but such a bold move can come only from a person sure of her abilities.
She admits she has a “natural knack” for small creative collaborations, working with artists and writers, and with people who have “great ideas”.
Amanat is herself credited with having come up with a great collaborative idea—of Kamala Khan aka Ms Marvel, one of the comic book giant’s newer superheroes. First published in early 2014, the teenaged, Muslim, American girl Kamala has the “superpower” of being able to shape-shift.
“Culture is informed by—a lot of times—pop culture and the entertainment we have,” Amanat says over the phone from Singapore, where she was attending the Asia TV Forum and Market earlier this week. “Comics, in particular, movies, films and books inform the way we perceive individuals, certain experiences and the socio-economics of the time.”
“As creators and storytellers, we have to be mindful of how we are portraying those experiences and characters. It’s exceptionally important that you have representation, but accurate and authentic representation in a way it isn’t about stereotypes.”
“Comics back in the days used some crass stereotypes like every (other) form of entertainment. As much as there may have been some stereotypes, it’s also about challenging them,” she adds.
The 34-year-old’s own experiences with typecasts gave birth to Kamala Khan. The Pakistani-American Amanat grew up in New Jersey and put her own relationships—with race and gender—into the character of Khan.
She was talking with an old boss about her experiences growing up as a south Asian and Muslim in the US. It helped develop the character of Ms Marvel and the initial story, in collaboration with writer G. Willow Wilson.
Kamala Khan’s story is of a young girl trying to figure out who she is in the world of superheroes—she is constantly comparing herself to these “beautiful, powerful, superheroes who look nothing like her”. She is a regular teen, trying to survive high school, when she discovers her own gift.
Ms Marvel is, by all means, a distant leap from the age-old traditional comic book superhero—a Caucasian, muscular all-American man.
“Our objective was to tell a different kind of story and also, hopefully, break some stereotypes about Muslims, South Asians and minorities who feel like they are outsiders,” says Amanat, who was promoted from an editorial position to a corporate role after six years in the company.
“We wanted to tell a story with heart and humour. That was our goal and because it happened with good stories, it’s resonated with people from all backgrounds.”
The comic series, launched in February 2014, was declared a hit, according to American media reports. The paperback collection of the first five issues was a New York Times bestseller.
Kamala Khan is just one of the many shifts being made by Marvel over recent few years. The company has launched over a dozen new comics series with female leads (Angela, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Elektra, Gamora, Ms Marvel, She-Hulk, Silk, Spider-Woman, Spider-Gwen, Storm, Squirrel Girl and Thor). It has a television series with a female lead in Jessica Jones; it launched a Women of Marvel podcast and a Women of Marvel Instagram account.
The company also announced two new films in development, Captain Marvel—to release in 2019—and Black Panther—releasing early next year. The former has a female lead (Brie Larson), the latter a black male lead (Chadwick Boseman).
“Comics are a wonderful form of understanding visual storytelling, wonderful form of art and literature because it gets audiences of all ages,” says Amanat. “You can give someone one kind of comic and they can learn reading for the first time and understand visual relationships to storytelling. You can give a teenager, someone older, another kind, maybe a dark adventure or Wolverine.
“It will never be stagnant, every time you read a comic and across the world too, people have different relationships with comics.”
Amanat’s career in the comic book industry started with Virgin comics in 2007, sometime after she graduated from Columbia University in New York with a degree in political science. She moved to Marvel Entertainment as associate editor in 2009 and climbed up the ladder to an editor three years later.
With a strong passion for comic books, and storytelling in particular, it was a natural career choice.
“I went up the ranks but we had so much content coming out, I wanted to figure how we were engaging with different kinds of audiences and what kind of platforms actually engage with those audiences,” she says. “I talked to my bosses. I pitched my job to them. That’s how I ended up at content character development.
“I am on both sides (she continues to be an editor—of Daredevil, Captain Marvel, Hawkeye and Rocket Raccoon comics) and get to see how characters are produced from the beginning and help develop them into other areas of businesses.”
Amanat says Kamala Khan is not about sending out a political message in a divided and polarized world. “We want to tell powerful stories that are relatable to everyone and we want to make sure that there are positive and hopeful messages. Sometimes we dabble in terms of political statements if you will—X-Men was an analog for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, talking about minority experiences through the lens of being a mutant.”
“We can tell different experiences through that metaphor. Some may say there is a political agenda but its focusing on a larger mission of telling inspiring stories about human characters.”
She is happy to break another stereotype—that women are not as much into comics as men are. “I started out late in being a superhero comic fan and in Marvel, they say, you have to treat every comic like it’s their (reader’s) first. There is this belief that comics or superhero content is not for women and I disagree. We have found a way to engage with female audiences in a way that is much more relatable to them.”
“That’s a passion of mine. I have seen that first hand with more females and minorities coming in and that’s going to continue to grow.”
Facebook data almost three years ago put nearly half of all comic books fans as female. Data from Graphic Policy, a site for comic books, endorses the same, though popular assumption persists that more men read comics than women.
The choice of more female heroes is also a reflection of that change in consumers. Even with movies, the flagging fortunes of DC Comics—Marvel’s competitor in the field—got a leg up with this year’s Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot.
Marvel Entertainment, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, has over 8,000 characters—including Spiderman, Iron Man, Avengers, Doctor Strange, Captain America—many of which have been blockbuster Hollywood films. Since 2008, Marvel Studios has released 16 films that have a combined worldwide box office gross of more than $12 billion. The day Amanat spoke to Mint on Sunday saw the release of the first trailer of Avengers: Infinity War (to come out in May 2018).
But Kamala Khan has some distance to go before she makes it to the TV or cinema screens. Amanat says she can keep bothering the powers that be, but fundamentally it’s up to them (the studios division).
She says there is no process to creating a new character and it happens organically. Sometimes it’s based on conversations people are having, sometimes a writer says this is what he/she wants to create.
“The best kind of creation comes from sudden inspiration,” she adds.
Amanat cites the example of writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis, co-creator of Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager who took on the mantle of Spider-Man, because Bendis wanted stories for his adopted African-American daughter.
She says the reason superheroes appeal across races, genders, ages and nationalities is because the characters’ civilian identities make them relatable; they too have struggles, vulnerabilities and desires.
“The mantle that they hold on to means something—they represent ideas, ideals and aspirations that everybody wants. Those elements make superheroes universal. It’s not about Ms Marvel being Muslim or Peter Parker being Caucasian; their challenge is to make sure that they embrace that gift and are okay with the difficulties along the way.”
“It’s fundamentally who we all are as human beings and want—for the world to be a better place. It’s everlasting.”
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