We’re only 15 minutes into our conversation, and Sana Amanat has already cut to the chase. “Thigh-high boots and a bathing suit when you’re flying is somewhat impractical,” the director of content at Marvel Comics deadpans. Despite my limited knowledge of aerodynamics, I tell her I couldn’t agree more. She laughs. We go onto discuss why the female Thor is outselling her male counterpart by 30 per cent. And, just like that, 40 years of comic book sexism is dropkicked with a transatlantic, KA-POW!
Despite our jokes, and that 30 per cent, those thigh-high boots still symbolise a serious issue. Comic book industry sexism is rife and headlines on the subject abound. “Does the comic book industry have a women problem?” one blogger asks. “A new ‘gamergate’ is brewing in the world of comic books,” prophesies another. Yet, according to 2015 Facebook statistics, female fans now outnumber men by 53 per cent. Even to a comic outsider (such as myself), the landscape is confusing.
Although the comic industry’s patriarchal reputation is a regular hot topic, Amanat is quick to assure me it wasn’t always like this. Back in the day, a significant amount of stories were written for women, she insists. However, in the decades that followed Superman’s debut in 1938, women have struggled to achieve gender parity – both on and off the page.
What went wrong, I ask? “Somewhere along the way, we lost girls and women,” comes Amanat’s honest reply. “I don’t know whether it’s because the creators are mostly male or that eventually it became more of a hobby market for young boys.”
Either way, as 2017 fast approaches, it’s something both Marvel, and its female director, are determined to keep rectifying. It’s worth noting that up until Amanat’s appointment as associate editor in 2009, there were only a handful of female-led titles in Marvel’s comic portfolio. Now there are around 20 in production – including rejuvenated favourites, like Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel (soon to be played by Brie Larson on the big screen).
When Ms. Marvel first hit comic book shelves in January 1977, its cover star – Carol Danvers as alter-ego Ms. Marvel – was a revolution in the making. Strong, independent and empowered, she was billed as the “first feminist superhero”. And yet, despite riding high on the crest of second-wave feminism, alongside Gloria Steinem’s iconic Ms. magazine (a publication that also rebuffed the patriarchal ownership of ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’), editorial clichés about young, single women still let Danvers down from time to time.
“Technically she’s almost six feet tall and very muscular,” Amanat explains from Marvel Comics headquarters in New York. “She’s not a delicate flower. The problem was, sometimes the stories about her either victimised her; or she’d be sitting on her couch and crying, complaining about a guy, and eating ice cream.” For Amanat, it was clear what needed to be done. “At the end of the day she’s actually this strong, capable woman with these incredible powers – let’s tell a story about that.”
The latest Ms. Marvel is primarily about a young girl figuring out who she is. It just so happens that this young woman is Muslim
Thanks to an “all-new, all-different Marvel” initiative, Amanat is making good on this promise – telling stories that, in her own words, help unveil people’s true identities. In the case of Carol Danvers, the new “Captain Marvel” moniker has transformed her into the fighter pilot she always was. Thigh-high boots are out; the jumpsuit is in. Clothes are vital. Amanat quotes her colleague, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, when she says: “iIt’s not a costume, it’s a uniform.”
Diversity isn’t simply a passing trend for Marvel’s trailblazing editor. It’s at the heart of every decision she makes – and it’s captivating new audiences. I know nothing about comic books, I tell her, but even I’m a massive fan of Ms. Marvel’s newest recruit, Kamala Khan. In 2013, Marvel Comics announced their first solo series to feature a Muslim female superhero, co-created by Amanat herself.
To paraphrase Amanat, the latest Ms. Marvel is primarily about a young girl figuring out who she is. It just so happens that this young woman is Muslim. “We actually don’t mention the word Islam for 19 issues of that comic, which says a lot about what we’re going for in terms of universality,” Amanat says. “That’s the way you start normalising the conversation around what race and gender is – you get to know the individual for who they are.”
A lot has been written about Amanat’s own background in light of Marvel’s new Muslim superhero. It’s an inevitable talking-point once you discover that she grew up in the same New Jersey neighbourhood as her fictional creation. And she just so happens to be a Muslim-American, too.
“I was a very young, awkward girl growing up,” she tells me. “I think everyone feels like an outsider in different ways. I felt it in a very overt way because it’s painted on you. Literally, it’s on my skin.” In the past, Amanat has continually underlined that she doesn’t want anyone to feel like they aren’t represented, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. That doesn’t mean her groundbreaking decisions haven’t been made without online abuse.
“People are going to be upset, but I try not to take any of that to heart,” she says. “People have said some really mean things to me, specifically because I’m a Muslim. Probably because I’m a woman, too.” When I pin her for details, her reply shows why characters such as Kamala Khan are so important: “I’ve had people say very derogatory things about Kamala Khan in particular, and about Muslim women, which I don’t want to repeat. Broadly saying Muslim women are subservient to Muslim men. I’ve had people say I’m a Sharia spy – crazy stuff.”
If she reads this abuse and replies to it, she’s validating the trolls, she tells me. She doesn’t want to give them a voice. Instead, she’s focused on kick-ass characters like Kamala Khan, who – just like Carol Danvers in the late 1970s – are challenging and redefining the narrative.
The superhero narrative is powerful because they are aspirational stories, Amanat reminds me. “They are meant to make people believe in the eminent possibilities of the human experience,” she adds. And who needs a pair of thigh-high boots for that?