Singapore/Jakarta. Back in 2014, Marvel Comics' reboot of Ms Marvel as a Muslim, Pakistani-American girl named Kamala Khan was met with generally positive reviews. It won several awards, including the World Science Fiction Society's Hugo Award for best graphic story the following year.
Kamala was not Marvel's first ethnic minority character taking over an existing superhero. Other examples include Amadeus Cho as a Korean-American Hulk, and Miles Morales as a black-Latino Spider-Man.
Just last week, Marvel announced an upcoming animated series, "Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors," which will feature a diverse bunch of superheroes, including Ms Marvel, Captain Marvel and Miss America – Marvel's first Latina LGBT character.
Is Marvel pushing for more diversity? Content and character development director at Marvel Comics, Sana Amanat, who is also the co-creator of the new Ms Marvel, said there has never been a "diversity initiative" ever and she does not think having one is the right way to do it.
"Look, if we go and say that my objective is 'Let's make everything diverse,' then it sounds like I'm checking boxes. It sounds very corporate to me. For me, it's more about taking all the great characters we have and pushing them out into the world," Amanat told reporters on the sidelines of the Asia TV Forum and Market in Singapore last month.
Yet on a more personal note, Amanat admitted that she wanted to see more minority representation to "bring in any kind of Marvel fan."
"I want to showcase that Marvel is a truly inclusive place because of the fact that we have all these great, rich, distinct characters from all backgrounds and experiences. That's what I really want to present, that it's always been like that at Marvel," she said.
When asked about the main criteria to be introduced or rebooted, she said, "what makes sense from a financial point of view, what we think has a lot of potential in terms of audience engagement and who we're also excited about."
In the case of Ms Marvel's sales, it is not one of the top sellers in single issues, but it does well commercially in collections and digital comics.
Overall, Marvel has seen increased engagement with its comic-book fans in the past five years, indicating that people actually like the new characters because, as Amanat said, "they happen to be great characters, not because they're South Asian or Muslim or whatever."
Nonetheless, Amanat admitted that there is growing awareness in society about equality, which is one of the factors that contribute to why minority characters have been well-received in the media.
"People are now confronting issues regarding race and gender for real. We're actually talking about it," she said.
Though there are considerations to make before introducing a new character or refashioning an existing one, who does Amanat think should be better represented?
Amanat said she would love to bring transsexual characters into comics because she considers their experiences as "very much misunderstood."
"I'd love to be able to tell a story about that in a way that's really honest, true, engaging, exciting and not focusing on their sexual identity, but more on who they are as an individual," Amanat said.
Other than that, she thinks heroes with disabilities deserve a new point of view.
"Often when you tell a story about disability with a superhero, we overshadow the disability by giving them a superpower that sort of negates it, so how do you tell a story about someone who is living with the condition and yet is powerful in other ways? The challenge is to make it authentic but isn't didactic," she said.
Challenges to Introducing 'Otherness'
Introducing characters from minority backgrounds to Western audiences has the risk of "exoticizing" them or trapping them in stereotypes. Amanat said there are two key points: research and having the right people to consult for culturally sensitive elements.
"In some ways it's a very tricky thing to do because you have to make sure that you are very well-researched in whatever sort of culture that you're trying to discuss, and whether you have the right creative voices behind the scenes," she said.
It was not a big problem with Kamala Khan as the new Ms Marvel. As Amanat mentioned in many interviews, Khan's story was inspired by her teenage life. Both are South Asian, Muslim, from Jersey, and trying to look for role models they can relate to in a predominantly white community.
However, Khan's story is essentially a coming-of-age one that everyone can relate to in some ways. She is trying to deal with her insecurities and figure out her identity and role in society – a common premise in superhero tales.
Another is the "pictures say a thousand words" method. The word "Islam" or "Muslim" was not mentioned for 19 issues of Ms Marvel, yet the visual details captured that idea. For example, Khan goes to mosque, her best friend wears a hijab, and there is the world "Allah" written in Arabic on her living room wall.
"Those types of elements start introducing to the folks without banging them on the head that this character is a Muslim or South Asian. It makes for a richer story and visual experience," Amanat said.