In this episode I chat with PhD student Meher Shiblee.
Meher is a second year, full time, PhD student at LCC, UAL. Her research topic is titled; Considering 21st Century Muslim Superheroines and Issues of Representation: Comics, Creators and Readers in Context.
In addition to her studies, she has worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and an Associate Lecturer at her university, curating and conducting ‘Research Methods’ modules for MA students at LCC and CCW.
>Meher did her MA in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London and her BA (Hons) in English Literature from Aberystwyth University, with a semester abroad in Washington State University.
Links to everything discussed, including all of Meher's reading recommendations can be found on the podcast padlet.
Follow Meher on Twitter at @mehershiblee
What I'd like to start off with is just finding out a little bit about people's history with comics. When did you start reading comics? Is it something, is it purely an academic interest for you or do you, do you read for pleasure comics at home?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
So I've always, been interested in comics. I, you know, I grew up reading Archie comics as. Uh, youngster. You know, I would sneak the comics out of my, aunt's room because she would have a big stack of them and I would read them there. But at one point I sort of stopped reading comics. Between, when I, I grew up in India, so, and then I moved to UK when I was around 13. Uh, so for a couple of years when I was living in the uk I stopped reading comics. Um, but then my, one of my best friends, they gave me a copy of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for my 18th birthday. And that just reignited my love for comics. I, I read that graphic novel. You know, people have different classifications of what Count says comics or graphic novels, but I read that graphic novel and I just fell back in love with, with them. And, um, that sort of took me on a journey of buying more graphic novels, going to the library, getting more of them out. Which then led me to wanting to do, um, my undergraduate dissertation on comics and graphic novels. and yeah, that was basically it. I guess My best friend gave me a graphic novel and that started me off.Lucy:
And you are back in. Yeah. I, for me, I, I love Persepolis and um, I think that was probably the first graphic novel that I read that. was about women's stories as told by themselves, and that really opened my eyes to that whole kind of subset of comics, which is about, yeah, female creators and their life experiences. That kind of autographic side of comics, which is really what. I love to read now for reading for pleasure as well. So yeah, that's a great book. If anyone is listening who hasn't read it, definitely definitely get hold of a copy. So we'd love to find out a bit more about your, what your research interests are and what you've researched in the past into comics. I know you said undergraduate studies there as well, and also your current PhD studies. What are you looking into?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
So, my PhD project is looking at the issues of representation of Muslim superheroes in contemporary comics. So I'm looking at two different comics. I'm looking at G Willow Wilson's, Ms Marvel. And I'm looking at Qaheera Webcomic and I'm basically asking the question about why it matters to us to have. As fans to have that representation as specifically seeing Muslim superheroines in contemporary comics in the mainstream media. And you know, why it's a good thing to have that representation and why they should be more of it. So, for my research in particular, something which I'm really interested in doing is. Not just looking at the texts or the images themselves and doing an, an analysis, but also going out into the, into the world and asking fans of the comics and the creators of the comics about their experiences with this literature, their experience with these characters, and why that representation matters to them and why they want to write these stories. What it means for them to see themselves on the pages and have. I guess have a role, uh, play a role in like, putting these characters out into the world?Lucy:
And have you started to already collect perspectives on that? What sort of things are you hearing from people?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Um, yes. In the summer, so June and July, I started conducting a survey. I shared it on various different social media platforms, to gauge an interest about, fans experiences with the comics. And why do they think that we need more representation or do they think no, we actually do have enough representation. from what I've heard, it's, you know, a huge majority of the fans of, just comics in general, not just these comics do feel that, you know, there isn't enough representation of, specifically Muslim superheroes or Muslim characters in comics in general. And at the same time also think that, there needs to be more representation within the creators themselves. They should be, uh, Diverse group of creators writing these comics because if only one sort of person from one sort of background has a monopoly on writing all of these, all of the stories, then we are not going to get, various different viewpoints. So yeah, the general idea does seem to be, yes, we want more representation, and yes, more representation is good.Lucy:
I guess it's the kind of a snowball effect. Once there's more representation, there might be more engagement with comics and then that might lead to more creators in the future. And kind of that intergenerational of being inspired by seeing what, seeing positive representations in what you're reading and then thinking, from a child. I'm a, I'm a primary school teacher, so I think of from a child perspective, being able to see that and then, It's not so far of a jump in your mind thinking, oh, I could make comics. Oh, I could be a creator. Once you've seen something and you feel like that's something that you could engage with, did you think that that's something, you know, that we'll start to see build up accumulatively over time.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Uh, yeah, and I think we are definitely seeing it. I mean, when Ms. Marvel first came out, when. Kamala, Ms. Marvel, came out. a lot of people didn't have a lot of confidence in the comic. I don't think a lot of people thought that it would be a success because it's, you know, 15 year old, Pakistani Muslim immigrant. Would people be able to relate to her Would it just be popular within a small niche or would the wider audience also want to read it? But it, it was so popular with everyone else because, there's this idea that, oh, if there's, you know, people have this notion that if there's a brown character, In a book, then other people will not be able to relate to it. People who are not Brown may not be able to relate with that character, but through Kamala's experience, people saw that No, I can see myself in her. She's a teenager, she's growing up. She's going through the same issues that we're all going through as well. So there's still aspects we can relate to and the diversity that we are seeing, the differences. it's not necessarily bad that those differences are there. They just inform us better about other people's experiences and other cultures. So, now that, you know, Kamala has been so popular, or I think that also increases people's confidence in boosting other characters, boosting more comics, and we are seeing those things also in picture books. I mean, I myself, growing up I didn't see a lot of representation picture books. But now when I go to a bookstore or a library, I see like, so, so much diversity just on the pages of picture books. And I think it's just, you know, it's a long time coming. But I'm glad that now we are paying attention to itLucy:
are seeing more of it.Lucy:
Yeah, it definitely has been a long time coming and I know, C L P E, a literacy charity, one of their reports that they release every year focuses on the level of representation in picture books in particular, and they've shown. The character and the breadth of character representation across across different races and ethnicities has definitely been increasing year on year since they, and largely, because of their scrutiny. You know, they've, they've demonstrated that there was a real need for, the publishing world to kind of sit up and take notice and change something. And that has been, Part of that development over the last few years. I just wondered whether you think that's reflected in comics? there's a couple of high profile, comics that we've, we've mentioned, but do you think across the board there is more range starting to come out? More diversity in characters.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
I think it's, starting to grow, a lot. I mean, in terms of, just Muslim representation. I think there is a lot of room to grow. I don't think there's enough representation right now, but there's certainly a movement towards having more representation. But, yeah, comics in general, I think as a medium, it has a lot of potential. And you know, you can always have more. It's been a bit slow, but I think it's getting there.Lucy:
Historically comics is a very male dominated, industry. So there's also still room there, there for that to be developed. And so, are there any, female Muslim comic creators that we should. Adding to our repertoire, who's out there that, that we could start to diversify our own reading if we are not, not aware of them at the moment.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Well there are two, creators who have been on my radar recently and who I am really. Interested to explore more of one. Obviously Deena Mohamed who's web comic Qaheera I'm looking into for my research. You know, for my thesis, she's coming out with a graphic novel called, Shubeik Lubeik in Egypt, but in the uk. It's called Your Wish is My Command. and I am very excited to read that graphic novel because it focuses on, it's not just, you know, when people talk about Muslim representation, we don't just wanna see people, in one certain role. You know, being sort of typecast again, again takes on a very much, you. Kind of plays on this idea of like, oh, be careful what you wish for. And it's got fantastical magical elements and it's got a diverse range of characters. So as I try to talk about a lot in my research, is even within like Muslim representation, there is. you know, there's so much room for diversity even in that representation itself. It's not just enough to. have, you know, hijabi women in your story and say, well, there you go, that's Muslim representation. Or just have one guy call Mohamed in your story books and say, well, there you go. You've got Muslim representation now. So, you know, there needs to be a di diverse range of stories being told. There needs to be diverse representation and, Shubeik Lubeik by Deana Mohamed, and then the Squire by Sara Alfageeh I dunno if I'm pronouncing her name correctly, but, again, it squire takes on a quite fantastical element. And the artist is Muslim. And she's done like an amazing job with how she's told the story and how she's drawn the characters. And it's really just beautiful.Lucy:
You're the second person. Amend that to me and I haven't read it, so I'm definitely gonna be getting hold of, of, of that. It sounds amazing and I think you are right. We can't approach, when we are looking at diversifying published content, we can't just look at. from a tick box perspective of how many characters are there, it needs to be about quality and breadth of representation. Whether or not characters have agency within the story. Are they shaping the narrative? How much are they speaking compared to other characters? And think that all of those things are really important to make sure we get that, equity across representation. I know that in your ma studies you focused on Shakespeare, and then now you've moved on to comics. So is, is there a, a difference in the way that those two areas are perceived? What's your, what's been your experience, as a student studying those two different area?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Well, I mean, honestly like, we previously mentioned I did my, dissertation on comics and graphic novels, and at that point I did not have a background in comic studies. Like I didn't study, there were no modules during my time at the university, which, focused on comics. in my school we didn't have any, classes or any lectures or talks or on comics. So for me it was, I was very much, going into it myself, teaching myself and getting external support from my tutors you know, if they were interested in comics as well, then I was sort of relying a lot more on that rather than any other. Resources. Now, of course that has changed slightly. I know in a Aberystwyth University where I did my ba, they now have a module which looks at comics and graphic novels, which obviously is a great step forward. But yeah, as we mentioned, uh, my ma in Shakespeare studies very traditionalist, very much, uh, what you can expect Shakespeare studies MA to look like. When I did my ma Why I chose Shakespeare was I thought, well, everyone studies Shakespeare. So it's, Shakespeare is always going to be there and there's always going to be an interest in Shakespeare, so obviously I'll, maybe it'll be the more practical decision for me to study Shake. But, while I was studying Shakespeare, well, I did, you know, enjoy my time at Kings and at the Globe. Um, I realized that actually I really, I enjoyed studying comics a lot more for my BA even though it was self-taught. And you know, I was leading myself, um, and teaching myself about, all these comics. I thought, well, actually, there's more to be studied and there's more to be explored and I had to take a leap of faith almost, with my PhD. And even though comic studies are just starting to emerge in academia, people are starting to take the field a bit more seriously. People are starting to look at. Just what the, potential can be. People are starting to see that a lot more. So there are few MA courses out there now. I know there's one in the University of Dundee, which focuses on comics and graphic novels, but I think, you know, they can always be, more and I hope that, academia, diversifies. You know, it's a beautiful field, which it just has so much potential and there's just so much we can learn from it.Lucy:
Absolutely. And do the two ever cross paths? I'm just thinking. I know that there's lots of. comics, versions of Shakespeare, plays, even manga versions of Shakespeare, being retold in in modern settings and different things like that. What, what's your view on those? Good to have in the library? Uh,meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Like, of course they do cross path. And in, even in my school, I remember, think I read, um, I came across a graphic novel version of Macbeth. But, uh, more than just having Shakespeare stories being, you know, adapted into the comic format. um, you know, sh my ma really informed my thesis and my MA dissertation, I was looking at how are women represented on stage certain way, and what sort of, how are people interacting with the women on stage in a certain way? And now similarly for comics, I'm looking at. Different people interacting with Muslim women on the page. So, you know, there's a transition between like stage, we're still like seeing, you know, we're not just reading words, we're seeing people perform, and on the page you sort of see a performance in itself. So there is an overlap which has led me down some interesting parts. But here, there's, you know, there are always overlaps.Lucy:
That's really interesting my undergraduate studies were, I, I did filmmaking. So I of often think of, comics as films on, in a book a very simplified way of saying it. it's interesting to hear someone making those comparisons to a play as well. That's something that I haven't, I hadn't thought of. So it's interesting how we are all bringing our own perspectives. And backgrounds to the text when we, when we come to come to it,meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
I remembered I was reading Scott McLeod's Understanding comics. I think he mentions, you know, film, if you look at a film, film reel, it's just a very like slow moving comic almost because you're moving from like you know, frame to frame. It's basically a very long comic,Lucy:
You mentioned, that you. grew up in India for, for part of your childhood it's something that I don't know at all anything about the comic scene in India? You know, I think, I've got, you know, relatively okay knowledge of American comic scene, maybe the sort of French speaking, BD comics and, and manga. But I don't, I don't know much about the Indian comic scene. What does that look like?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
I mentioned like the Archie comics, they were very Americanized. So you would get your superhero comics, you would get your American comics, but I can't remember the names of the characters now, but you would get, you know, sort local, uh, characters who would reappear on newspapers or you could get their comics and they were goofs and they would make mistakes or they would really not. So you would get, you know, your Traditionalistic comics now think, you know, um, there has been. growth, in India as well in terms of, you industry. Um, think one of the notable comics, which I, I really want to read list, um, it's called Kari, a r i. Um, And I think that's good sort of challenging graphic novel. Which is, you know, produced in India by an Indian creator, and I'm interested to see how that is and see if that sort of takes me down another road into exploring Indian comicsLucy:
That does sound really interesting. I wanted to look back a little bit to, Ms. Marvel and, and Kamala Khan, the role of, obviously that's, a TV series on Disney Plus, which I love, just gonna put it out there. But what's the role do you think, if you see, obviously DC Marvel, film. Bring the comics universes to wider audiences and obviously still got their, their core comic fan base as well. But do you think that these kind of high profile television vision programs can be beneficial to widen access to, to comics and to these sort of stories?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Yeah, definitely. And I mean, this is one of the reasons why my focus was more on superhero comics rather than like other genres as well. Because superhero comics and these Marvel and DC shows they exist in the mainstream and they have a certain status. You know, in our like, popular culture you know, they bring with them a lot of visibility. So if someone, may have not watched, you know, a really niche or really specific show, which might be, you know, really good and offers a lot of representation, You know, not a lot of people are seeing it. Not a lot of people are hearing about it, but when you bring Miss Marvel, you know, it's Disney Plus so, everyone's heard about it. When I talk about my dissertation, I have to talk about the show before I talk about the comic because that's how people recognize it. and you know, it can be people's first exposure to, seeing young Muslim women in positions where they are not, shown as, silent or submissive, or where they just have these awful parents who are just so strict and there's no other dimension to them. With Ms. Marvel, you see, she's Muslim, she still has strict parents, but that's not seen as a, oh, they're strict because they're Muslim, or oh, look at these brown parents. Everyone can relate to. Having really strict parents, but also everyone can relate to going to these, uh, weddings. Having a really good relationship with your grandmothers, having the loving relationship with your siblings and it's not just one dimensional, like with Kamala's relationship with her parents. Of course they're strict, but she also has a very loving relationship with them.Lucy:
Yeah, I think it's very realistic family dynamic, isn't it? And yeah, I, I love the family. I think all the different members, the different personalities and how they interact.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
that's, something we haven't seen. A lot of, I mean, I, I know like there's so many shows, which I remember seeing where the Muslim girl who's a hijabi, she just has a really, uh, contentious relationship with her parents. And she decides, okay, I'm going to take off my hijab and I'm going to, go out with the white guy and, you know, I'm just, I'm free now. You know, I got my freedom. and that's not the experience I don't wanna speak for everyone. That's not something which I personally relate to when I see those characters on screen, I think actually I don't have a bad relationship with my parents. Why are all the Muslim girls shown on tv? Why do they have such contentious and difficult relationship with their parents? I have such. You know, love who doesn't have a love-hate relationship with their siblings. We all do. But, um, you know, I, I love my brother, but I have arguments with him constantly, but also he's the one who sort of supports me a lot. But when you see brothers, on. These shows, they're always super strict and they're just so restrictive and they're just constantly rude to their like sisters, and it's just, you know, that's not how it is. And that's very you one dimensional, very stereotypical. So Ms. Marvel brings a lot more diversity with it, with people seeing actually there are other sort of stories which can be told the different sort of. Representations for Muslims on tv. And you know, I, I'm not saying that Ms. Marvel is the end all be all for representation. Obviously there will be people watching Ms. Marvel and saying, I don't relate with this, and that's completely valid as well. And that's why we need more diversity. Now that we have Ms. Marvel, that's good, but. Now we have room and we see that, okay, telling these stories works. So now let's tell more stories. Now let's tell different stories. And now you know, let's tell diverse stories.Lucy:
Absolutely. And do you think that, the superhero or superhero in element helps to disrupt the stereotype? More than if it was, just a, a normal person without any superpowers. What kind of role does that superhero element have, do you think?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
I think it disrupts things in a different way. I don't know. Does it do it more or less? That would depend on people's relationship with these characters. But seeing Muslims as superheroes rather than as people who need to be saved or people who you need saving from. No, those are the two things we usually see. So there was one, In previously in X-Men, this was back in 2002, we did get a Muslim superhero who was called Dust, but her origin story came from like Wolverine rescuing her from this. Saharan Desert from these, Islamic terrorists. And she needed to be saved and she needed to be rescued from these evil Muslim men. And then you have, Frank Millers, holy Terror, where he wrote this comic about people having to be saved from Islamic terrorists. We've had these representations of, oh, you know, they are like submissive, quiet people who need to be saved and rescued from their oppressors, or they're people who we need saving from. So come Miss Marvel, who's a superhero, who's doing the saving, that's, you know, that's quite unique and it's quite, you know, it's quite refreshing to see a Muslim character being looked at as a superhero or as someone who. you know, helping people rather than causing problems, I dunno if you've heard about this, but it's called the Riz test. it's mainly used for like films and TV shows, but it's called the is test in inspired by, speech Riz Ahmed gave, back in 2017. And basically, you know, if you want to judge how you feel about the representation or Authentic or good. It talks about five main points, which is, if there's a Muslim character on screen or in your books, is that person a victim of terror or, or perpetrator of terror, like I mentioned, you know, is the person just. Do they need saving from or do they need to be saved? Is the person presented as irrationally angry, or is the person presented as suspicious or culturally backward, or is this person seen as a threat to western life, or is that person presented as male who is presented as misogynistic or its female? Is she presented as. Oppressed because these are some of the things which we see stereotypically when we look at Muslim representation. On screen, we see Muslims being sort of typecasted into these roles. So if we, if you know, someone tells you, well, there was Muslim representation, you saw so and so on TV and you saw so and so in the books, it's like, well, actually, does it pass the Riz testLucy:
That's, that's such a useful tool And I could see that being used with like in the classroom as well as a kind of critical literacy tool. To give children, young people the tool to be able to provoke these conversations themselves when they're coming across things sort of outside of education. That is j That's just such a useful set of questions to prompt deep thought about, about representation. Thank you. That's really, really useful.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
Yeah. And it's, you know, it's about having those conversations. Obviously. I'm not saying that we should start failing movies or books because of these points. But it does, you know, start a conversation and, talk to see about, what exactly are we getting and what, what sort of media are we consuming and what is it telling usLucy:
I wondered what the main takeouts you'd like to leave educators who might be listening to this podcast with, to take away and think about, maybe put into practice in their own educational.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
first of all I would say, start introducing comics. Obviously that's the biggest one, but, comics are hugely accessible. I always talk about this a lot. Comics are not a genre, they're a medium. So, there's a lot of variety in the stories that can be told using comics, they're a great way to expose people to, uh, literature. They can provoke a lot of conversations. So just start introducing comics into students curriculum, or if you don't have the space to introduce them in the curriculum, just. introducing them to students as recommended readings. I think that starting conversations using the Riz test is a, is a great one for people to take away because I can see that being really, really useful. You know, it's something that you can put into practice straight away, isn't it? To start giving you some tools to actually do a bit of analysis into the representation.Lucy:
Even if you are not, you know, necessarily changing what's in your curriculum, you can start looking at it with more of a critical literacy eye using those tools.meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
I think we, in academia at large, and this is not just about, universities or specifically in schools, but just overarchingly, we have to be sort of more open to conversations in general, and open to different. Opinions and different thoughts and different ways of, learning and different ways of teaching and understanding. I think comics generally, have been sort of historically they've been dismissed as quick media or they have not been taken as seriously. And I think that's, you know, that's something we really need to change, perspectives on. As educators. We need to, stop that train of thought and detect actually, you know, comics can be used in various different ways. encourage teaching in different ways and encourage learning in different ways. So we just need to be more openLucy:
That's brilliant. Thank you. And just one final point, if we were to add one comic or graphic novel or perhaps even an academic text to our two be read piles tomorrow, what recommendation would you leave us with?meher-shiblee--she-her-_1_11-28-2022_123355:
I mean, obviously Miss Marvel, Ms. Marvel's a great way to start. And as I mentioned, I am very excited about Deena Mohamed's, Shubeik Lubeik and I think everyone else would really enjoy it as well. From the sneak peeks I've gotten of the graphic novel, I think it's going to be a know, a brilliant story.Lucy:
Thank you so much, meh. Has It's a fascinating conversation. it's great to speak to someone who's such an expert in their field and has such a wealth of knowledge, and some really useful practical takeouts, to put into practice in the classroom as well. Having some tools with which to have meaningful conversations about that is just absolutely fundamental. So thank you. It's been really, really useful.