State of the (Superhero) Nation: Faiza Hussein in British Comics

Faiza Hussain is a British Muslim super heroine of Pakistani descent, introduced in the 2008-2009 comic series, Captain Britain and MI:13. For people who are unfamiliar with the shared universe of Marvel Comics: in 2008, there was a large scale alien invasion in the Marvel universe, and in order to reflect the international nature of this crisis, the new title, Captain Britain and MI:13, was brought out, bringing back some older Marvel UK characters in a new team. This being a definition of international that included both the U.S. and Britain. After the crossover event, MI:13 ran for two more story arcs: Hell Comes to Birmingham, and Vampire State, comprising 15 issues and an annual.

From the moment of her introduction (giving medical aid to those affected by the crisis), Faiza is immediately likeable. A superhero fangirl, a normal person encountering an extraordinary world – we are supposed to identify with her. A Muslim woman who isn’t criminalized, or intended as an object of the audience’s pity, but is normalized and made identifiable! “Normal” for a comic book character means that she’s a medical doctor who is given supernatural abilities by an encounter with an alien, and soon becomes the wielder of Excalibur (yes, that Excalibur), and later takes on the codename Excalibur, possibly because she holds the spirit of the nation (I admit, my eyes glaze over any kind of overt nationalism1).

Faiza Hussein pictured in middle.

While the idea of a non-white, Muslim woman embodying the spirit of Britain is on some levels, the title does seem to view British nationalism, and nationalism in general, as an un-problematically good concept, which is hardly the case, especially for someone whose parents come from one of Britain’s former colonies.

Dracula (yes, that Dracula) comments on the incongruity of Faiza working alongside Black Knight, who takes his name and costume from a Crusader. But Dracula is the only person who negatively comments on Faiza’s religion in the entire run of the series. Interestingly, the series’ take on Dracula is a xenophobic imperialist2 (Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia, commonly known as “The Impaler”) who, having fought against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, sees Islam itself–and by extension, Faiza–as his “old enemy.”

Almost uniquely among both superhero comics and stories about Western government agencies, Captain Britain does not cast the ethnic/religious minorities/real socially marginalized groups as villains, but shows MI:13 facing down supernatural threats3, which for the most part seem to represent powerful empires intent on colonizing humanity—with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland standing in for humanity.

Strangely enough, Dracula decides to leave the Republic of Ireland be. The entire series walks a fine line between glorifying nationalism and British-ness in a way that is intensely discomforting to my British self, and subverting the narrative of might as right that I associate with that kind of patriotism.

As one of the few (heroic) Muslim characters in mainstream American comics, Faiza received a lot of buzz before the series ran, with writer Paul Cornell describing her as the series’ point of view character, like the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde. I’m not very familiar with Kitty Pryde, but Faiza certainly succeeds (for me) as a viewpoint character. It’s clear that a lot of effort went into making Faiza a believable, relatable character, her religion is neither the focus of her characterization, nor entirely ignored, and – within the context of the series as a whole – she’s a success.

Despite Cornell’s assertion that she was going to be “an everyday British Muslim,” there were still expectations that her background would be… more sinister.4 In that same interview, Cornell reveals that he had a panel of Muslim women that he consulted about the development of the character.

While Captain Britain and MI:13 was canceled last year due to poor sales (despite being critically well-received), Faiza recently appeared in Age of Heroes: Issue #1, and will be appearing in an ongoing series starring fellow MI:13 operative Jacqueline Falsworth (Spitfire) later this year.

Wanna read these comics? The first person to email MMW at tips@muslimahmediawatch.org will win the Captain Britain and MI:13 Volume 1: Secret Invasion, Volume 2: Hell Comes to Birmingham, and Volume 3: Vampire State in trade paperbacks! Congratulations to Benazeer Noorani, the first person to email us this morning!

1 Which makes anything with “Captain [Country Name]” in the title an incredibly hard sell for me, and Captain Britain a difficult read at times.
2 Following on from other portrayals of the character within Marvel continuity.
3 One of the team members reassures Faiza’s parents that she is not entering government service to fight against human beings (specifically Muslims), but to face otherworldly evil.
4 To a whole lot of controversy. Which was entirely deserved, but I will avoid focusing on.

  • http://ajnabieh.dreamwidth.org Emily

    I love the look on her face in the first image; everyone is like WHOO GIRL, YOU’VE GOT EXCALIBUR! And she is all, um, I totally have Excalibur, thanks for asking.

    Also, I think any comics arc that includes space aliens and Dracula is pretty much guaranteed to be awesome. Just because.

    The entire series walks a fine line between glorifying nationalism and British-ness in a way that is intensely discomforting to my British self, and subverting the narrative of might as right that I associate with that kind of patriotism.

    This is the problem I have with a lot of superhero comics–when does a critical attempt to engage with problematic discourses end up reinforcing them? Actually, scratch that, I have that problem with almost any attempt to be critical via pop culture. It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s hard. But I think Faiza looks like an excellent corrective in the middle of it. (I’m thinking also of Lois Habiba in the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries: a black woman with a Muslim name becomes the conscience of the nation in a moment of inhuman crisis.)

  • http://riyadhsharif.blogspot.com/ M Riyadh Sharif

    Though I’m not a big fan of comics I’m certainly interested to know more about the character Faiza. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

  • http://burdenedmary.blogspot.com Khadeja

    As someone who loves graphic novels and wrote her thesis on Marjane Satrapi, THIS IS BIG NEWS. I can’t wait to get my hands on this!

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  • http://arwaaburawa.wordpress.com/ Arwa

    This is sooo cool. I’m going to have to expand my comic book reading beyond Joe Sacco…
    Arwa,

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