On Tuesday Marvel announced the newest Ms. Marvel - an American teenager who happens to be Muslim. She's the latest in a long line of women willing to take up the cape in the name of justice!
Just to be clear though, I'm not a fan of the terms "heroine" or "superheroine." Sure, I've used the term from time to time (including the title of this article) for simplicity's sake, but honestly, it feels like saying "police officerette" or "lady doctor." Just a personal preference thing, I guess.
It's generally agreed that the first female superhero - that is, a hero who is female and has powers - was Fantomah, by Flecher Hanks. It's a story for another time, but trust me, it's worth looking up. The most famous female hero - and deservedly so - is Wonder Woman of course, but again, her creator is as interesting (if not more so) than her own story.
Marvel though, had heroes of their own. The 1940s had heroes like the Satanic Black Widow, the slightly racist (though endemic of the times) Zara, and the interesting-but-briefly-appearing Silver Scorpion, not to mention various hangers-on and also-rans.
The first hero to get her own comic at Marvel was Tarpé Mills' Miss Fury, but - and this is an important distinction - she was not originally a Marvel character. Miss Fury was a newspaper comic strip licensed to Marvel (much as Blackstone the Magician was licensed for his own comic). Miss Fury eventually fell into public domain, but interestingly enough, Marvel now owns one version the character in a round-about sort of way. In the 1990s Marvel bought Malibu Comics (and the Ultraverse, but again, that's another story), including the Protectors and both Miss Fury and the Black Fury.
The more significant hero, and the one who is the direct spiritual ancestor of the new Ms. Marvel, is Miss America. Her story begins simple enough, with Madeline Joyce gaining powers in a freak scientific accident. Prof. Lieb Lawson had accidentally created a machine that grants superpowers, but was too freaked out by his own powers to do much good with them; as soon as Maddy got her powers though, she donned a costume and fought crime. She was super strong, super smart, could fly, had x-ray vision - the works. And to top it off, she wore red, white and blue. The archetypal hero. Her comic lasted dozens of issues and ran for a decade, but strangely enough, she only appeared in the first five. There rest of the comic's run was co-opted by Marvel's popular Archie riff, Patsy Walker. Some have even dubiously connected Miss America to the famous pin-up Bettie Page. Regardless, she did once appear in Spider-Man's animated series.
Later comics revealed that she joined the Invaders alongside Captain America and the speedster called the Whizzer (he wore yellow, called himself the Whizzer, got his powers from mongoose blood and had a racist caricature of a sidekick. What more can be said about him?). The Whizzer and Miss America married and retired by 1950, and at some point had at least one son, and through a roundabout sort of way, were once believed to be the parents of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (before Magneto owned up to the deed).
Several other female heroes have gained various levels of fame over the next few decades, including Miss Patriot, Venus, Sun Girl, the Blonde Phantom, Invisible Girl/Woman, Marvel Girl/Woman (aka Jean Grey), and the Cat, who has since become better known as Tigra, although her original Cat costume has been co-opted by Patsy Walker (her again!).
The Ms. Marvel that the new Ms. Khan actually takes her name from began in the 1960s and '70s, nominally as the "female version of" Marvel's most prominent Captain Marvel, the Kree Mar-Vell, but quickly grew into her own. Carol Danvers' first costume was laughingly embarrassing, but she later covered up her exposed belly, and later still adopted her now-iconic black swimsuit look. Say what you will about swimsuits being inappropriate uniforms for heroes, on her, it kinda' worked. Although she had a few storylines that are better off forgotten, she eventually joined the space pirate Starjammers, the Avengers, and in a strange sort of way, the X-Men. Now of course, Carol Danvers is better known as Captain Marvel, having taken Mar-Vell's title (see Marvel's history with the name "Marvel").
Following in Danvers' tradition somewhat was Monica Rambeau, best know, perhaps infamously, as the other Captain Marvel. Monica, as fans tend to call her, is a powerful hero in her own right, being able to transform herself into, control and use, any energy wavelength imaginable. Despite her formidable abilities, and the fact that she was made leader of the Avengers early in her career, Monica is often overlooked, and has had to give up her name more than once. She gave up Captain Marvel to Mar-Vell's son Genis, taking the name Photon, then gave up the name Photon to Genis again, when the fickle young hero decided he wasn't yet worthy of the "Captain" title. She's now back in the limelight again, this time under the name Spectrum (sadly a name that has also been tossed around at Marvel before), as a member of the Mighty Avengers.
More recently, new young heroes have attempted to take up the mantle of heroes gone-by.
One Ms. America has shown up with little fanfare and less explanation as a member of the Liberteens.
There's also Ultragirl who was not a "Ms" or "Miss" or anything along those lines, but she took on a version of Carol Danver's original costume, unofficially taking her mantle until she was forced out of it by Moonstone, who briefly became an ersatz Ms. Marvel in the Dark Avengers (a title held even brieflier by Superia).
Then of course, there is Sharon Ventura, who has been known as both Ms. Marvel and She-Thing at various times (but not Miss Thing, that's a different Marvel hero). She has had an unfortunate career, once having a crippling fear of men, dating Ben Grimm while SHE was trapped in the Thing-body (and he wasn't, at the time), having been forcibly transformed into a grotesque Thing-like monster and, most recently, having been abducted and replaced by Skrulls - not that anybody noticed.
Another Miss America is, appropriately enough, not using a codename. Her name is America. America Chavez. Her story is still unfolding, but she can be found regularly in the Young Avengers. She comes from the multiverse to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and she's all out of bubblegum. (Here, lovingly rendered in a motion-comic on Tumblr.)
That catches us up with Kamala Khan. Here we have the latest in a long tradition of independent female heroes, ready to take up an iconic name and memorable look for a good cause.
It's worth noting that, at least for now, it seems that Kamala's religious and ethnic background are not intended to be her defining features. She's not the first Muslim hero at Marvel, and she won't be the last. Sure, early attempts at inclusion were, to say the least, embarrassing (so much so that Kurt Busiek made it a point to pointlessly kill off the Arabian Knight), later characters have been much more palatable. Most notably is the X-Man (er, woman) called M. Monet St. Croix comes from a very mixed heritage, as she self-identifies as Muslim while other members of her family celebrate Christmas, but interestingly, she has not shied away from the topic publicly, taking umbradge with religious persecution when she sees it.
Now it's Kamala's turn at bat.
Welcome to the Marvel Universe Kamala, hope you survive the experience!
(EDITED to include Ultragirl, Moonstone and She-Thing.)