Killing off a popular character is a classic—some might say overused—marketing tactic in superhero comics. Longtime fans are used to the cycle of characters dying and being resurrected, but this latest example at Marvel has already backfired. (Spoilers incoming!)
On Tuesday, rumors of a major spoiler leak spread across Twitter, with Marvel fans sharing blurry screencaps from a future issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. The screencaps showed the death of Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan.
This provoked immediate backlash, for reasons that the comic’s creators should have foreseen. Ms. Marvel—a beloved character who made her MCU debut last year—is the most prominent Muslim and South Asian superhero in American comics. Overlapping with the ongoing criticism of killing female characters to fuel male characters’ stories (in this case Spider-Man’s), most reactions frame Kamala’s death as a wildly tone-deaf storytelling choice.
Characterizing Kamala’s death as sexist, racist, and exploitative, detractors pointed the finger at Amazing Spider-Man writer Zeb Wells (who had already attracted accusations of sexist storytelling in earlier comics) and Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski (a divisive figure due to his history of adopting a fake Japanese persona). Some also expressed concern about Zeb Wells’ role as co-writer of The Marvels, the upcoming Captain Marvel movie featuring Kamala Khan.
Kamala was launched in 2013, quickly gaining popularity and becoming a figurehead for Marvel’s push for diversity and inclusion. This put the character and her fans in the spotlight for racist backlash, and in turn, fans are very protective of her. So instead of being an attention-grabbing tactic to boost comic book sales, a lot of readers just see Kamala’s death as a betrayal.
While superhero comics have a long history of temporarily killing off A-listers like Superman or Captain America, Kamala Khan’s death is more politically and emotionally frought. There’s a big difference between killing off a long-established white character, versus a relatively new Pakistani-American girl with a young readership.
Tellingly, this storyline is already being celebrated by comicsgaters who have led sexist and racist hate campaigns in DC/Marvel fandom.
As the spoilers spread on Tuesday afternoon, Marvel went into damage-control mode. Entertainment Weekly published an official reveal of Kamala’s death, as Marvel’s official Twitter account posted a warning about spoiler leaks before publicly spoiling Kamala’s death less than three hours later.
The EW article explains that she’ll die in The Amazing Spider-Man #26, followed by a special issue covering the fallout from her death—teasingly refusing to confirm whether she’ll return to life in future comics.
With Amazing Spider-Man #26 arriving on May 31st, this entire situation was woefully mishandled. First off, as many fans have pointed out, Kamala isn’t even being killed off in her own book. She’s dying in a Spider-Man comic where she plays a tertiary role.
Secondly, there’s the question of why she’s being killed off. The cynical real-world explanation is that splashy character deaths sell comics. The cynical in-universe explanation may be connected to the MCU, allowing the comics to reboot Kamala in a way that aligns more closely with the movies. There’s widespread speculation that Kamala (currently an Inhuman) will return as a mutant, coinciding with her MCU role and the advent of a new X-Men movie franchise.
Regardless of how and when Kamala returns, her death is already an immensely unpopular decision, damaging the relationship between Marvel and Kamala’s readership. It’s hard to see this as anything other than an unforced error.