A Whole New People of the Book: A Review of Lewis and Lund, eds., Muslim Superheroes

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Lewis, A. David and Martin Lund, eds. Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. $24.93 (paperback).

by Aaron Ricker

Lewis and Lund’s book is literally one of a kind, which is saying something given the exponentially productive academic field of comics and religion. I was accordingly impressed by the generous research shared by Lewis and Lund in their “Introduction,” and convinced that books like theirs are necessary given the ignorance and hostility that often greets their topic. The facts and figures included here all point in one direction: Muslims are underrepresented in comics, even as villains where their numbers spike uncomfortably. Working with the assumption that the productions of pop culture can reveal important mainstream cultural attitudes and trends (and in turn shape them), Lewis and Lund argue that facts like these deserve more serious attention.

In the volume’s opening essay, Nicholaus Pumphrey addresses the problems of representation and visibility raised by the depiction of Dust, a member of the X-Men who wears a niqab. Though explicit attention to the details and politics of a superhero in niqab makes good sense in a volume dedicated to Islam and pop culture representation, I would like to have heard more about the representational problems of her superpower being the ability to turn into a sandstorm. Would a new Inuit X-Man have the code name Frosty and have the mutant power to turn into 50 distinct kinds of snow? Of course, I’m only assuming that there is a Person-of-Color dimension to Dust’s story because I’m told she’s from Afghanistan, and Pumphrey makes reference to the gaze of white male readers. I don’t actually know what she looks like. In fact, the reader is not referred to any images. Ignoring the image on the page is a common and dangerous habit in comics studies. We academics primarily used to dealing in texts and texts about texts often produce analyses of comic books that sound like the reviews of a film critic who’s only seen the screenplays. At a launch event for Muslim Superheroes hosted at the most recent national meeting of the American Academy of Religion (Nov. 18, 2017), Lewis said he and Lund had been a little confused by the scarcity of images requested by contributors, but felt unsure about how to understand and address the issue. It would have been better if they had pressed the question, though, because the volume suffers as it unfolds from this unfortunately common habit of rushing past the visual. Kevin Wanner’s piece on Faiza Hussain, for example, examines how Muslim superheroes are stuck with Western liberal standards of “good religion” versus “bad religion” (good religion being a personal matter that just happens to encourage mainstream social values), and gives a little more attention to visual cues. Readers still don’t get any analysis, though, of panels or pages or the deliciously smelly cheap printed matter we’d be holding in our hands.

A second troubling habit discernible in Muslim Superheroes is an abiding interest in the question of Muslim superheroes conforming to a given cultural consensus versus Muslim superheroes resisting assimilation into a given cultural consensus. Chris Reyns-Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz argue that Ms. Marvel is not an “assimilationist” work in the way it depicts her Islam as a positive “cultural and “personal” thing that supports positive public values. It feels jarring to try to follow this argument in light of the question just raised: Depicting “religion” as positive if it stays within the private sphere while serving values depicted as universal—doesn’t that amount in itself to a honeymoon with liberal consensus ideas about what religion is? Dwain C. Pruitt’s historical look at how the face of Islam in comics was for a long time black uses the Wise Son series to trace a similar pattern: religion is good provided it serves values assumed to be universal.

Mercedes Yanora’s essay examines the ways in which “good Muslims” in comics relate to American foreign policy, not just “bad Muslims.” Liberal ideas of good versus bad religion once again pass uninterrogated in her discussion of Davood Nassur, who “does not practice his religion overtly,” but is rather a hero who just happens to be a Muslim. The heroism of Ms. Marvel is praised in a parallel vein as “unhindered by Islam” (128)!

Fredrik Strömberg’s contribution discusses genre-bending in superhero comics from the Middle East, paying attention for example to the local expectation that comics will be educational. When Strömberg noted that AK comics were intended to express “universal values,” I wished once more that Wanner could fly in for a crossover cameo, and when Ken Chitwood’s essay discussed hybridity and the postcolonial idea of the “third spaces” created in colonial situations (irreducible to either the colonizing cultures or the colonized cultures involved), I found myself wishing that every essay in Muslim Superheroes had started there. In the essay after Chitwood’s, for example, Aymon Kreil explores the tangled “universalism” found in the Muslim superheroics of an Egyptian woman named Qahera, and the kind of frame just described would have helped greatly in clarifying and guiding the analysis.

The final essay is the second to incorporate images, and Hussein Rashid’s attention is on relating the succession of images to the progression of the stories involved. Rashid suddenly introduces a new focus by discussing comics made about Muslim “super-hero” Ali, the fourth Caliph, without explaining why or how the phenomena involved might relate to the study of Muslim “superheroes” per se. A. David Lewis says in the “Conclusion” that he himself has done such work elsewhere, but this just makes me wonder why Rashid didn’t either engage that work here, or go join Lewis and others there. The rest of Lewis and Lund’s “Conclusion” is as earnest and interesting as their “Introduction,” for example in their point about Muslim superheroes needing to be female to sell—interesting given what theorists of Orientalism have said about the “feminization” of the Muslim other. The notes included on teaching using comics are also solid and appreciated. The scholarly yet readable language of Muslim Superheroes certainly lends itself to such classroom use, as do its bite-sized topics and editorial overviews. I only wish that such ideas had been digested and engaged by all of the collection’s contributors, instead of ghettoized in its editorial bookends. As Lewis himself acknowledged at the AAR launch event mentioned above, Muslim Superheroes is a valuable and “noble effort,” in part precisely by virtue of offering a very imperfect “first step,” and a “blunt instrument” inviting further sharpening.

Aaron Ricker is lecturer in Religious Studies at McGill University. His work can be followed on Academia.

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