“There’s a difference between being sexualized and being sexy,” says Sana Amanat,?VP?of?content and character development for Marvel, as she gets her hair and makeup done in artist Mickalene Thomas’s studio in Brooklyn. Posing for an editorial shoot may be slightly out off the beaten path for Amanat, who travels often between the two major capitals of the superhero world: Los Angeles and New York, where she lives, but fashion’s interest in comics is coinciding with a cultural moment. Between Black Panther breaking box office records, Netflix hits such as Jessica Jones, and a global fan base in the billions, Marvel has never been more influential. As the woman responsible for giving Marvel Kamala Khan, its first Muslim superhero with a standalone series, and bringing high-profile authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates and G. Willow Wilson?on board as writers, Amanat has been at the forefront of the company’s renaissance.
Amanat lights up when she talks about comics. While growing up in New Jersey with three brothers as part of a Pakistani-American household, she fell in love with the upbeat adventures of Archie, X-Men’s civil rights allegories, and Bill Watterson’s seminal serial Calvin and Hobbes. Still, she never viewed the medium as a potential career. She studied political science at Barnard College with journalism as an end goal, but moved from wanting to report on international affairs to falling in love with creating fictional stories at indie imprint Virgin Comics. “Taking a single idea and having it manifest into an actual story within a matter of months was incredible,” says Amanat, who credits mentor and fellow editor Mackenzie Cadenhead with fostering her talent. “Though, I did feel very much like an outsider within the comic book world.” And yet she knew the secret to being a good editor was to think beyond herself, to think mass.
Amanat admits to feeling daunted by the industry’s male-dominated culture and sometimes sexist online fan communities. “I found that men could be very territorial,” she says. “There can be a snobby mentality of, ‘If you haven’t been there from the beginning, you’re not authentic.’ ” She was approached by an executive at Marvel in 2009 and discovered that her status as an outsider could be a positive. “I remember my current boss saying, ‘Look, you have something different to offer than the regular fanboy who has read comics since he was a kid. You have a different voice, and we need your voice in order to change Marvel,’ ” she says.
Nearly a decade later, Amanat has been a force for change. The characters she’s brought to the fore may have supernatural powers, but their lives are informed by real-world issues. Whether politics, race relations, sexism, or issues of class, their stories are about more than fending off bad guys. Take the case of Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, Amanat’s most personal creation. A Pakistani-American teen who discovers that she has the power to shape-shift, Khan gradually learns that outside appearances don’t dictate self-worth (though her uniform of lightning bolt minidress, scarf, and tights certainly makes for a bold look). The parallels to Amanat’s life are obvious. “[Kamala] lives in Jersey City, and she looks across the river and sees these powerful beautiful superheroes who are kicking butt and looking great doing it. She wants to be just like them and thinks that’s what being powerful is, it’s this individual who looks nothing like her,” says Amanat. “It’s important that we find a way to cultivate our own strength and formulate that identity on our own terms. The story of Kamala Khan is very much about that.”
The idea of building and reclaiming strength has been a focal point for Marvel’s female superheroes during Amanat’s tenure. She and her team have ditched the male gaze–driven approach, shaping the presentation of Marvel’s women to reflect their inner power. Starting with Carol Danvers, the iconic Captain Marvel, they gave characters the comic equivalent of wardrobe makeovers. “One of the things that made Carol not relatable was that they put her in a bathing suit, thigh-high boots, and a sash, and they thought, ‘Okay, yeah, this is what a superhero would look like,’ ” Amanat says. “It’s not a very practical outfit for someone who’s going to be taking on the biggest villains of the Marvel universe.”
The changes have done more than modernize Marvel’s aesthetics; they’ve helped to foster a space where women feel welcomed at the table. “It actually was a great sign of change within the comic book industry, because women started showing up to Marvel events,” Amanat says. “For the first time, they had a superhero who was obviously one of the most powerful within our universe, but also one that was relatable.”