Contributing writer Aldwin Romero contributed to this article. Illustration by staff illustrator Sakura Siegel.
*Disclaimer: Adrienne and Aldwin are Asian-Americans who were born and raised in Jersey City.
This article is spoiler free!
This past Wednesday marked the second episode of Disney Plus series “Ms. Marvel.”
But before Marvel’s first Muslim and South Asian superhero hit the streaming service, the name Kamala Khan meant something much more for the people of Jersey City.
And if you’re not from the 201, you might not understand the goosebumps.
“Part of [the show’s] tagline is ‘Brown girls from Jersey City’ and I think that’s really appreciated,” Nara Altobar, a senior at McNair Academic High School, told Slice of Culture.
Between Seventh and Eighth Street
Khan, played by Pakistani Canadian actress Imani Vellani, is a Pakistani-American teenager living in Jersey City who gains superpowers to become Ms. Marvel.
In the comics, she is able to shapeshift and uses it to fight crime in her home of Jersey City while balancing her studies, family and life as a Pakistani and Muslim American. In the show, she projects energy from her glowing hands.
Khan’s character was introduced in 2013. The original comic book series was released the following year by G. Willow Wilson, who was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and drawn by Adrian Alphona.
Though none of the character’s creators are from Jersey City, Holly Smith – a teacher at McNair and member of the school club – said Wilson “wrote the book about us for us.”
Smith had met Wilson in February 2014 with students at Word Bookstore.
Fast forward to today, sitting across from Smith was Altobar, who was one of four students who were working on a Ms. Marvel photo backdrop for their high school club, Coles Kamala Korps.
The club is named after the school Khan attends in the show – Coles Academic – and is also a nod to Coles Street, which is where McNair is located in the real Jersey City.
The four students worked at a table together and cut up different colored pieces of paper. When asked how long it would take, one student laughed and replied: “A long time.”
But, the school club was able to get it done just in time for the series’ premiere.
Beside Altobar was Nicole China, a sophomore. China, who described herself as a big Marvel fan, said she learned about Ms. Marvel when she was a freshman. She was surprised that her high school was in the comics, let alone the Marvel universe.
Also cutting up paper was sophomore student Noran Nazir. Nazir read the Ms. Marvel comics when she was heading into eighth grade, but she didn’t learn where the superhero was from until her older brother – who attended McNair at the time – told her.
“It was like, ‘Woah, this is so cool’ because this is in Jersey City… [this is] a brown female superhero,” Nazir said. “It was empowering to see a character like that – someone that I can look up to.”
Sitting next to a window – of a noisy and busy street on a Thursday afternoon – was Fatimah Khalid, a senior. For Khalid, she said watching the trailer really hit home.
“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of hijab representation. Even if I did see something, it wouldn’t be positive,” Khalid said. “There’s small times [Khan] wears a hijab herself. She lives in that world.
“She celebrates that culture. It’s part of her identity… I’m really happy that young girls will be able to see something like that empowering.”
But Khan and her story doesn’t just symbolize a bigger meaning for high school students, but other Jersey City natives too.
For Jersey City
McNair isn’t the only Jersey City place that made it into Khan’s universe.
Founded in 2007, FJB Comics & Games was a comic shop located on York Street in downtown Jersey City. The store was later moved after a tree fell, snapped the store’s power lines and set it on fire.
But this seemed to be fate as it rose to the city’s top entertainment store at its new Coles Street location. It was immortalized in the MCU as Roy’s Comics & Games and is seen in Ms. Marvel Issue 6, Volume 1 and Issue 1 of Volume 2.
This is Khan’s favorite comic shop.
Floyd Bennett owned FJB Comics & Games and lived in Jersey City for his entire life.
He told Slice of Culture that he was excited about the Disney Plus series and had been following “Ms. Marvel” since she was first announced in February 2014. He teamed up with Word Bookstore to host Wilson – the same event that Smith, of McNair Academic, first met Wilson.
Bennett added that the trailer captures the teenager angst and adventure of the comics and that “it’s great” for Jersey City.
“It seemed to capture the overall feeling of the comic and Jersey City which is important because G. Willow Wilson tried to make the comic JC authentic, even going as far as asking residents to send in pictures of the area for inspiration,” he said.
And it seemed like Wilson was authentic.
Back at McNair, Altobar shared the one time that she hung out with Wilson for four hours.
“What I remember most was us relating over APs [Advanced Placement exams] and she really understood the grind of a McNair student,” she said. “… She’s been through what every McNair student has to go through in order to graduate, which is to take a single AP test.”
As for Bennett, he now owns Final Boss Comics & Games in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
“[To me] it means more fun things to come, more kids and adults reading comics because they will see new characters coming out and hopefully relate to them,” Bennett added.
“Although FJB Comics & Games is no longer in Jersey City, I reopened an hour south in Lawrenceville, NJ as Final Boss Comics & Games so I’m hoping Kamala will swing by and pay Roy’s Comics & Games another visit.”
Dev Solanki worked with Bennett when FJB Comics & Games was on the rise. Seeing “Ms. Marvel” become a Disney Plus series made him happy.
“Being brown, and growing up in the city, it’s cool to see one of the newer generation of characters make it onto the big screen,” he told Slice of Culture.
“Characters like Miles Morales, Robbie Reyes, Kamala Khan, are all from around the same time, and seeing companies take chances on these characters is nice.”
Kamala Khan first appeared in the comic “Captain Marvel #14” before appearing in her own comic “Ms. Marvel” in 2014.
The Disney Plus series “Ms. Marvel” is her debut before appearing in the MCU film “The Marvels” in 2023. Bisha K. Ali, who is British Pakistani, created the Disney Plus show.
Vellani won the role of Kamala Khan via Zoom because of her Avengers fandom, just as Kamala Khan herself.
Solanki said when Ms. Marvel was introduced in 2014 – and the comic book shop held the event – it was a big deal.
And though the show wasn’t actually shot in Jersey City, he still thinks the series is important for the Hudson County town.
“She’s an inner city hero who wants to do the right thing, but has a million things to balance in the process. She has religion, and cultural factors that you don’t get to see brought to light too often,” he added.
Altobar felt the same way.
“…I think it’s messed up that [the inclusion of diverse characters] is only happening now, but I think for Generation Alpha, they’re really lucky with what they have. We all grew up with skinny, white girls as our role models and now we’re gonna have Kamala Khan, we have Miles Morales. We have MJ from Spiderman and like that’s just from the Marvel universe,” Altobar said.
“… it’s not like a white America anymore. And it hasn’t been for a long time. And I just think that as an immigrant, as a child of an immigrant and I have a niece, who’s paying attention to stuff. And I just think that she’s so lucky. And we’re also lucky that we’re living at this time right now.”