The heroes can still be super, but they have to be human like us too, says Marvel editor
Pakistani-American Sana Amanat grew up wanting to be white like her favourite comic-book characters. Now she’s working to make comics more diverse
Sana Amanat may help guide a diverse range of comic-book superheroes now, but when she was a child, such images weren’t as common in her world. Instead, growing up as a Pakistani-American in a predominantly white New Jersey suburb, she looked at images of women who were blonde and white as if that were the ideal for beauty. And in that world, young Sana wanted to be white herself.
Amanat, director of content and character development at Marvel, recalled those feelings last week at the United State of Women summit in Washington. The gifted Muslim comics executive was on a panel focusing on diversity in the media, and she shared the stage with Gloria Steinem, TV’s Shonda Rhimes and “Muslim Girl” editor Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.
“When you grow up being very conscious of the fact that you are the ‘other’, it cultivates a sense of uncertainty and shame within you that can take a long time to overcome,” Amanat says. “My desire to be white, while covert, fed a delusion in my self-identity that I only broke away from towards the end of high school and truly in college.”
Her delusion, she says, “spun out of the anti-Muslim sentiment that arose in the ’90s, and the realisation that the truth of who I was got lost in the images being spewed out by the media. My protest was embracing my background fully, immersing myself in my faith and culture and finding ways to share that with others.”
Today, Amanat is known for such achievements as steering Marvel’s 2014 launch of Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American and Muslim teenager who is Ms. Marvel in the popular comic-book line. Amanat says she is dedicated to creating works that change what images and characters are available to young readers.
“My hope is that the next generation doesn’t experience that sort of identity rejection – and that the superhero culture can be a filter through which we can share our unique points of view,” she says, “as well as the commonalities of the human experience.”
What did you think of the event in Washington – from the day of dialogue and focused messages to the collective spirit?
It felt like a celebration. While I strongly believe that women’s summits really need to make an effort to include men, the importance of having them is the sense of camaraderie and community they create. This is actually the exact reason we’ve been doing the Women of Marvel panels and podcasts – because we want to carve out [for women in comics] a space to connect with one another and celebrate their love of comics.
On your panel, you spoke about the accessibility of superheroes across all backgrounds – how anyone can become Spider-Man. What is it about superheroes that allows us to invest ourselves so freely and fully, no matter our heritage or background?
Superheroes are the equivalent of modern-day gods and goddesses. They encompass the high ideals so many of us aspire to have – empowerment, courage, integrity, to name a few – and those ideals don’t have a racial identity or gender qualifier associated to them. At the same time, our heroes come with their own vulnerabilities and issues that make them relatable. It’s the balance of the mundane and the fantastic in the superhero world that is intrinsic to the human experience – the obstacles we face, the efforts we make to overcome them and the belief that we have the power within ourselves to succeed. That’s really the tale of every kind of hero.
You noted how much has changed at Marvel in the past six years in terms of character diversity – essentially, since about the time that Axel Alonso was named editor. What factors and forces brought about this shift?
Marvel has a history of creating characters that are as unique as they are diverse. From the Black Panther to Storm to She-Hulk, the company made strides in representation. What’s happening today is the continued evolution in the creative strides of the company – as our audience has expanded so have the creators behind the scenes. Gone is the typical fanboy/fangirl, as is the typical writer. From Willow Wilson to Ta-Nehisi Coates to our broad editorial staff, the voices creating our content are bringing their own distinct point of view to the stories they tell. There was no company dictate – just an organic expansion in creative opportunity.
You say: “If we ignore populations, we lose money.” Do you think superhero-property publishers and filmmakers are fully awake to that now?
I think they’re waking up, yes. It’s a great time to be in entertainment, as I see this awareness being activated in key decision-makers. It will take time, because while audiences are becoming more vocal, there are still audiences out there who are afraid of the shift in the status quo – or who misunderstand the damage that is being done by reinforcing it.
You said that your job at Marvel is to be “an eloquent pain in the butt” to your superiors – that this is how you help effect change. What can you do to be an eloquent pain in the butt?
Being thoughtful about how we talk to our superiors about the issues that we believe in. Change happens from the ground up, and if what you’re fighting for has truth in it, and fundamentally makes corporate sense, they will listen. You may have to repeat it a few times and show them small successes of it working.
Superhero comics at the biggest publishers have decades of character history that can work against truly dramatic change. What does it take for readers to move the needle?
I think we need readers to have a big response like they did with Ms. Marvel. That being said, we can’t take them for granted and expect them to support us if we don’t have the stuff to back it up. Ms. Marvel is selling because it’s a good story about an engaging and relatable hero with universal struggles. Her being Muslim may been a hook for some, but the continuation of the success of that series rests on the strength of the story.