Comic books don’t just feature heroes in colorful spandex saving damsels in distress.
Some of the heroes involved are drawing the characters and writing the stories.
Comic books help to shape the moral fabric of our youth by presenting characters in morally questionable situations and making clear who was right and who was wrong.
As children this influences us like few other forms of media can.
We know that Batman is a hero, and we want to be like Batman. Why? Because he has a cool car, is basically a ninja, has an awesome costume and cape, and the batcave.
What we don’t even notice when we’re young is that we’re learning how to interpret the world around us.
We know that Batman is a hero despite his darkness because he refuses to kill. He stops bank robbers, jewel thieves and kidnappers but works with the police. He is a weapon of justice, not of revenge or hate. Writers separate him from his enemies. These morality lines are clarified and revisited often.
The moral messages seep into our brains without our letting them.
This sway over children makes it interesting when a company like Marvel chooses to do something like have a major character be reimagined as a Muslim as they did in “Ms. Marvel” in the fall of 2013 with 16-year-old Kamala Kahn.
Given the social stigma around the religion of Islam post-9/11 the choice seems a bold one – that is, unless you’re familiar with comic book history.
You see, comic books have been eroding social barriers and destroying stigmas for a long time. They tend to use that power they hold over children to foster understanding between groups instead of portraying harmful stereotypes.
In the late 1960s, during the height of the social rights movement, Marvel created two black characters. One was an African king named Black Panther and another an African-American named Falcon.
In the 1970s Marvel made a major character an African woman named Storm as part of the X-Men. In the ‘70s black women were just starting to explore their role in society as strong independent members. Storm embodied this.
In the early 1990s a character named Northstar, member of Alpha Flight, came out as the first homosexual character in comics. Fans didn’t bat an eye. He actually became more popular afterwards.
It isn’t just that Marvel created these characters at times of social stress around their character types; it’s that they overwhelmingly succeeded.
All four of these characters are fan favorites; especially Storm. She’s arguably the most powerful X-Men, and considered by many to be the coolest X-Men since Iceman.
Comic companies other than Marvel have tried to break social stereotypes.
They present to us new ideas of social acceptability and demonstrate the power and usefulness of our differences and unique backgrounds by using our commonness as a social lubricant.
Just as Ms. Marvel has the ability to empower young Muslim-American girls, so do comics offer us hundreds of characters that give us the ability to relate to and to learn a well-defined structure of moral balance.
Maybe it is the ability of comic books to fly beneath the popular social radar in a world of their own. Maybe it is because they aren’t taken with the grand sense of seriousness that literature is. Whatever the reason, it works.
Comics are powerful beyond their characters’ abilities to freeze time or shoot lasers from their eyes; they have the power to help shape our culture, and they have used that power with great success and with great responsibility.