On the last day of New York Comic Con, Sana Amanat begins the annual Women of Marvel panel with what is now a yearly tradition.
"How many of you want to make comics? Women, men, everybody — stand up right now," she says. Young girls dressed as superheroes — there's Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Thor, and even a Loki — shoot up. Many women and men, both teens and adults, join them. Some are more nervous than others, but eventually they get to their feet.
"Look at each other right now. Wave to each other. This is your community. Everyone in this room, continue this conversation outside these doors. We're here — we're here to stay, and this is a safe space for everyone," Amanat says.
The future artists and writers look around the room and smile, awkwardly. The joy in the room starts to swell. They grin at each other; they grin at Amanat. And even though I'm still in my seat, I start grinning, too, as if I've won something. Everyone applauds. But before the next generation of comic book creators sit down, they look toward Amanat.
She's what they want to be.
Over the last few years, Amanat has become one of the most powerful people in the comic book industry. Her flashy, fancy job title — director of content and character development at Marvel — is corporate code for a job that a million comic book fans would kill for. After six years as an editor for the company, Amanat was promoted to the role in February; now she's charged with making Marvel's superheroes bigger, brighter, bolder, and, most important, reflective of the rich audience that idolizes them.
As a woman and a Pakistani American, Amanat has made it her mission to redefine what is possible for women and people of color in an industry dominated by white men. Through her work as an editor on comic books like Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel, she has helped reimagine what superheroes can be. Last year, the first issue of Ms. Marvel — a series and character that Amanat co-created with editor Steve Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson, and artist Adrian Alphona — went into its seventh printing, a level of success that's extremely rare. Earlier this year, Amanat was introduced to National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates — that initial introduction would later develop into a successful deal orchestrated by editor Will Moss, Marvel's VP of Publishing Tom Brevoort, and Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso to bring Coates to Marvel and write the new Black Panther comic book series.
"My long title of director of content and character development — I always forget it," she tells me about four weeks after New York Comic Con. I've caught her on a busy Monday.
"I still double-check my card and ask, 'What am I?'"
"Just call yourself Ms. Marvel," I joke.
"That's what my nephew calls me. He's 5 now. It's super cute. I think he's kind of messing with me."
He's onto something.
Sana Amanat is the Shonda Rhimes of Marvel comics
There's something poetic about the fact that Amanat is a huge fan of Shonda Rhimes, one of the most powerful showrunners in the television industry and the woman who created the hit shows Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. Rhimes has mastered the art of what Amanat calls the "oh no," the gasp-inducing moments that pepper her sudsy, kinetic dramas. And when you think about it, Rhimes's TV shows, with their hyper swerves and hurtling dialogue, are a bit like live-action comic books.
"You need the 'oh nos.' That's the beauty of serialized storytelling. That's what Shonda does so well," Amanat tells me.
But Amanat and Rhimes have more in common than a love of drama and the utmost respect for Scandal star Kerry Washington. What Rhimes has done for ABC — create great, diverse work that's gone on to inspire more diversity in the network's programming — Amanat is doing for Marvel.
Since her promotion, her editing duties have been streamlined to Captain Marvel, Daredevil and Ms. Marvel, three books she's very passionate about, to make time for an endless array of strategy meetings. Amanat's goal is to determine how Marvel can evolve and make its superheroes more representative and diverse, and then to ensure that it happens. By doing less hands-on editing, she's able to work with the company on a grander scale and across multiple titles.
Rhimes has stated on more than one occasion that "you should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe." Amanat's objective is to give her audience, Marvel readers, the same kind of opportunity — she wants them to be able to open a comic book, see their tribe, and feel less alone.
"I ask myself, 'Are there other audiences that we're ignoring?' It's really more about the fact that comics are for everyone, and Marvel wants to remind people of that," she tells me.
A great example of this is Secret Wars, the company's gigantic, ambitious crossover event that's allowed it to better address the question of who it can better serve. Secret Wars has made some big editorial changes to Marvel's status quo by shaking up teams, recasting heroes and villains, and, in a sense, kicking off a reboot of the Marvel comic book universe. Its conclusion has allowed for the launch of new, exciting titles like The Ultimates, the continuation of hit stories like the revitalized Thor series (in which Thor is a woman), and the reaffirmation of Marvel's commitment to diversity — that aligns with Amanat's vision for the company.
"People have this perception, 'Oh, comic fan is one type of person.'" Amanat says. "You have this perception because a few years ago the comics industry wasn't very inclusive. It wasn't comfortable to be a woman in a comic shop or at a convention."
What Marvel means to Sana Amanat
"I just didn't think I was good at it. I had some experiences where people had doubted that I was valuable," she tells me, explaining that people regularly questioned her knowledge of the institution instead of judging the stories she was producing. Like every great superhero origin story, there was a moment of doubt in Amanat's life. Before she joined Marvel in 2009, she considered quitting the comic book industry altogether. She'd been editing comics since 2007, and back then, the industry was a lot different, a lot less welcoming than it is now. There were no discussions of representation or diversity.
"You didn't grow up reading comics like we did. 'What do you actually know about how to make a really good story, how to make a great comic?'" she recalls, mimicking her doubters.
This kind of gatekeeping doesn't start in ivory comic-book-making towers. It actually starts at local comic book shops. Men, especially straight white ones who read comic books, enjoy building exclusivity around the things they love. They believe only true fans know trivia like Captain America's birthday or the full origin story of Bova, a sentient cow turned midwife who lives on mountain called Wundagore. Women often become targets of these nerdy pissing matches because their love of comic books is seen as more facile or shallow.
It should go without saying that women can love comics just as much as men, for whatever reasons they want. But for Amanat, the comics she read as a kid weren't about trivia or what happened in specific issues. They were about seeing herself.
Comic books — specifically Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's X-Men — were the only place she could find characters she related to. The mutants known as the X-Men, who came in all shapes and colors — a black woman from Africa with white hair; a Southern belle with the power to steal people's life force; a telepathic bald dude in a wheelchair — became the people Amanat identified with, her tribe, after pop culture failed to give her any other options.
"Everywhere I looked, particularly in the media and pop culture, were versions of people that looked nothing like me," Amanat said. "What happens is when you see that, you think that you're not worthy enough, or you're not good enough, or you're not normal, really."
What Amanat had felt as a kid was also affecting her as an adult. People were questioning her because she didn't see the comic books the same way they did. If Amanat's life were a comic book, this would have been the part where she got bit by a radioactive spider or exposed to gamma rays and developed spectacular powers that allowed her to conquer her doubters.
How Sana Amanat found her power
Amanat's hero, her radioactive spider, is an editor and mentor named MacKenzie Cadenhead. As Amanat previously told Rookie, the two worked together at an indie comics company, and Cadenhead trained her as an editor. Cadenhead, who edited titles like The Runaways and X-23, encouraged Amanat to trust herself — and told her that the comics industry, Marvel included, needed new voices, new stories, and new perspectives.
"I had that person I could rely on," Amanat told me. "The point of change or that shift that happened for me is when I realized that I can't be Tom Brevoort [Marvel's senior vice president of publishing]. I can't be Axel Alonso [Marvel's editor-in-chief]. They do what they do, and they do it really well. I'm not going to try to do what they do. I decided to just try to do me."
For Amanat, that meant creating and shaping stories that she found interesting and sticking to those instincts. It allowed her to bring out the best in her writers and artists, who took pride in the stories they created together.
"I love fighting with Sana — the kind of fight you have with a friend, when you know there’s a level of safety and respect and you’re still going to want to work together once the issue’s settled," Kelly Sue DeConnick, the writer of Captain Marvel, which Amanat edited, told me. "Sana knows how to argue when everyone’s aim is to make the book as good as it can be."
Amanat's editing résumé includes some of Marvel's most instrumental and inventive titles: Hawkeye (writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja) presented a witty and crucial resurgence for the character; Ms. Marvel (Wilson and Alphona) is the crown jewel of Amanat's career and Marvel's wondrous hit; and Captain Marvel (DeConnick and artist Dexter Soy) became the pioneer of what's become a golden age for the woman superhero.
"Captain Marvel was really the signal of the change in the market," Amanat says, explaining the moment when it finally dawned on her that what she was a part of, and what she was doing with her writers and artists at Marvel, was making a difference.
Amanat, DeConnick, and Soy reimagined Carol Danvers, who was known as Ms. Marvel at the time, as Captain Marvel in 2012. They gave her a new storyline that leaned into her Air Force background, a new Rocketeer costume, and a leadership role on the Avengers. Captain Marvel — her values, her agency, her commanding presence, her imperfections, her humanity — became a kind of benchmark, a standard for female superheroes.
"When the community came out to support Captain Marvel, they were very loud and proud about the fact that they were not just Captain Marvel fans but comic book fans, and they were a group of young men and women being the flag-bearers of the Carol-Corps [the potent fandom of Captain Marvel]. That started telling us that [inclusivity] isn't something that is a trend that's going to go away," she says.
The effect is measurable. In the post–Secret Wars era, there will be a whopping 18 titles with female leads in production at Marvel.
With great power comes great responsibility
Amanat's current work goes much further than what gets put on the pages of comic books. Because the industry is still lacking in diversity, Amanat's gender and the color of her skin make what she says and what she does even more important. I ask her about the scrutiny of it all. I ask what it's like to sometimes be the only woman or person of color in the room. I'm imagining the pressure of having to singlehandedly represent the hopes and fears of a huge group of people.
"When you don't see yourself, particularly in positions of power, it starts becoming more of an impossibility," Amanat says, admitting that the scrutiny can be frightening at times. "You just need someone to signal that it's okay."
She views the pressure as a privilege.
"I feel very lucky to be in my position. I wouldn't change it," she says. "I think they need to start seeing that the possibilities out there are numerous and if you have the passion that you have, you should try to follow it and see what happens. There's obviously so many other women involved outside of me, of course."
She's quick to name past women editors and writers at Marvel like Jeanine Schaefer and DeConnick, as well as current co-workers like Adri Cowan, Judy Stephens, and Emily Shaw, who inspire her. She also outlines her many goals: to hire more creators from different backgrounds to tell Marvel's stories, to expand the Marvel community, to make Marvel's heroes more inclusive, and to do it all with a sense of optimism.
"I've started thinking about, 'Okay, how can I pass that forward? How can I give that to the next generation of people working in this industry, or who just want to participate in it in some way?'"
Ms. Marvel is growing up — and the comics industry is poised to follow suit
The grand slam of Amanat's career has been the creation of Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American and Muslim teenage girl whose shape-shifting powers have made her the defender of Jersey City. From its dreamy art to its splendid, effortless writing, Ms. Marvel is a gem of a comic. And in its first year, the book unfurled its wings and blossomed into the best origin story since a boy named Peter Parker was bitten by a spider. "It's hard to imagine a world without it," Vulture's Abraham Riesman wrote last year, naming Ms. Marvel his choice for best comic book of 2014.
And now, the next chapter of Ms. Marvel is being written — the first post–Secret Wars issue of Ms. Marvel hits stores this week. Kamala Khan is now an Avenger and a marquee name in the Marvel universe. Many fans are ready to see her take on the world — or, you know, property values and zoning.
"I actually love the first storyline. It's all about gentrification, which is awesome," Amanat tells me, laughing.
"In Jersey City?" I ask, knowing that Ms. Marvel/Kamala is Jersey City's protector.
"Yeah. Gentrification in Jersey City, which is awesome in itself. Just the fact that that is the tagline of the first arc. It's typical Willow [the book's writer]; it's very Willow," she replies, still laughing.
Between giggles, she reveals that Ms. Marvel has and will always be about the idea of growing up and identity. The two are intertwined. And this year, we'll watch the teenage Kamala begin to figure that out.
"I don't want to give away too much. She'll be dealing with her heroes and looking at them in a very different light," Amanat said.
With Kamala about to make her first foray into adulthood, I ask Amanat about the comic book industry doing some growing up of its own. There are some signs it's ready. Just this past year, DC Comics, Marvel's chief rival, stepped up its effort to produce diverse books and make an effort to hire nonwhite and female creators. Elsewhere, several fantastic, women-created books like Monstress and Lumberjanes are growing in popularity.
"Fundamentally, we have to think about getting the best kinds of stories from the best creators we possibly can," Amanat says. "As we start to have more and more people come [into the industry], we have more creators — maybe someone who can create the next Ms. Marvel, or have Ta-Nehisi Coates write another, different story."
Amanat chuckles at the idea of luring Coates into working on another Marvel title outside of Black Panther.
"I was one of the voices in the room saying if we're doing a Black Panther book, we have to push for an African American writer to write it," Amanat says. "We have to make the effort to be inclusive."
While her job requires her to be constantly looking toward the future, she's pretty quick to point out and appreciate how far it's already come.
"I think you just have to look at what has already been done within Marvel, and just look at the rich stories that we have in front of us and how many more people are passionate about comics because of it," she said. "That's something we can't forget."
But I can't resist pushing just a little harder and ask her one more question about the future of the Marvel — perhaps the most pressing one there is about the company, its commitment to diversity, and its female heroes.
"So, when are we getting the Kamala Khan movie?" I ask. I'm slightly joking, but Marvel still hasn't given a female superhero a solo movie (Fox owned Elektra's rights when that movie was made). Captain Marvel, the first (and only) solo female superhero film on the schedule, has been pushed back to make room for the upcoming Spider-Man movie and the Ant-Man sequel.
There's a slight pause followed by a tiny laugh. As powerful as Amanat is, Marvel's television and movies are separate, independent entities.
"That's a great question," Amanat replies.
"Well, what about a television show?"
"I'm crossing my fingers as much as you are. I'm still here. And as much as I can bug people, I will bug people about it."
Tell people to bug Marvel about it, she says. "I'm okay with that."
Ms. Marvel no. 1 is available online and in stores this week.
Written by: G. Willow Wilson
Art by: Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa
Cover by: Cliff Chiang
Publisher: Marvel Comics