Weighting for Representation: On Karma and Why Reclaiming Fatphobic Stories Can be Valuable by Levi Tompkins

Levi’s commission of Karma by Karen Charm

Bad Karma


Xi’an Coy Manh, also called Karma is an often overlooked character in Marvel’s sprawling
x-franchise. She’s hardly unique in this, there are so many mutants that it can be hard to keep
track of all of them, but it is perhaps a bit strange that Karma is so often underserved. She was
created in a collaboration between Chris Claremont, probably the most influential writer in
x-men’s history and Frank Miller whose 1980s work is still influential to this day. After first
appearing in the 100th issue of Marvel Comics Presents Xi’an or Shan as her friends would call
her would go on to be a founding member of the very first X-men spinoff team, the New
Mutants. All that said, if you know who Karma is at all you probably only know four things about
her.


1 She’s a New Mutant (You can tell because she’s always in one of those black and yellow
costumes.)
2 She’s Asian (Specifically Vietnamese, though she’s rarely written particularly authentically in
that regard)
3 She’s a lesbian (You probably can’t name anyone she’s dated though)
4 One time she got really fat.


That last one, number four, that’s what I’m here to talk about today. I wanna talk about the story
where Karma gained a large amount of weight, why it was pretty bad, why a couple things about
it were good, and most of all, why Karma might be a better character today if she had stayed a
fat person.


Very early into the run of New Mutants Karma seemingly dies, around twenty issues later it’s
revealed that she is alive, but that she has been possessed by the psychic entity known as the
Shadow King and forced to take over her family’s crime empire. The Shadow King, long
removed from having a physical body, uses Karma’s body to gorge himself causing her body to
gain around 400 pounds. When it’s eventually revealed to the New Mutants that Karma is alive
they have to defeat the Shadow King’s minions and help Karma reclaim her body. It is not a bad
story overall, but it’s deeply problematic. The Shadow King/Karma’s portrayal leans into bad
asian villain stereotypes and their fatness is portrayed grotesquely and as a symptom of
Shadow King’s evil nature making it pretty deeply fatphobic, especially with the New Mutants
constantly using words like blimp or fatso to insult their former teammate. At the end of the
story Karma confronts the Shadow King in a mental battle. He tries to convince Karma that she
wanted him to take over, that she wanted to stay safe from the world to be waited on hand and
foot. Karma rejects this utterly and forces the Shadow King to flee from her, Karma is left fat
and fearful the Shadow King might once again return and use her for evil, but bolstered by her
friends she continues on. This seems like a somewhat positive ending with Karma at least
taking back some of her agency and confronting her abuser. However I think in the long term,
her victory here has hurt her both as a person and as a character with a defined narrative arc.


Now, by no means am I trying to suggest that Karma was at fault or that she wished to hide her
head in the sand and indulge in extreme hedonism. However a technique the Shadow King
used against the other New Mutants was to make them doubt their own inner desires to weaken
them spiritually. To banish the Shadow King, Karma had to completely deny the fantasy he
showed her, and I think in the long run that denial has only reinforced her tendencies towards
self denial and self sacrifice, a life where she can never forgive herself or let the possibility of
good things in.

Karmic Cycle


Karma is a character who from her first appearance has had a complicated relationship with her
powers and morality. As a child she and her brother Tran both developed the power to take
over peoples minds. Tran used it to work for her uncle and become a criminal, while Xian found
her powers immoral, and would only use them to help her and her family survive in the war torn
Vietnam she grew up in. Eventually fleeing Vietnam for the United States, Karma’s ship was set
upon by pirates, her father killed, she and her mother abused. Her mother died before they
were rescued. She dedicated herself to raising her brother and sister, until they were used as
hostages by her uncle in order to get Karma to work for him. She rescued them with aid from
Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, but in doing so she ended up killing her brother and
absorbing his soul. Ever since then almost every Karma story has revolved around Karma
choosing to put her brother and sister, or some other young or otherwise needy person ahead of
herself.

Constantly leaving stable situations to go after her brother and sister when they get into trouble
instead of asking friends or teammates for help. Putting her personal struggles on hold to take
care of the uncommunicative mutant Face in the 2000s, and moreover constantly worrying
about the fact that her brother’s soul, her family’s criminal connections, or her mutant gift make
her evil. It’s been a repeating pattern for the character with very few instances of her breaking
out of it, and in many ways one has to wonder, has Karma become completely locked in this
cycle of denial and complete self sacrifice because she remains afraid of what the Shadow King
showed her about herself. She has been made to believe that the only reason that she was
ever able to persevere over strong people like her brother or the Shadow King was that she had
a strong soul, and it seems like she has conflated the idea of that strength with the idea that she
must only live for others and its held her character back to this day.


Asgardian Self Care Lessons

The truly frustrating thing is the story does address this. Following the end of the Shadow King
arc the New Mutants including the still several hundred pound Karma are transported to Asgard.
It’s a classic and beloved New Mutants story where the team is separated with everyone having
their own magical mini adventure that helps develop their character. Karma’s story is one of
complete and utter genius. Karma is miserable, she finds herself monstrous because of her
weight and contemplates ending her life. When the New Mutants are scattered about Asgard
she is alone in a great desert and is content to let things end for her there, but before her
appears a young girl running from a monster. Karma forces herself to overcome her sorrow and
save the girl. Even though she thinks she is sinful and unworthy of life she dedicates herself to
protecting someone who is innocent.

Magically months go by in the desert as she protects the girl, using her powers even though
she hates them to help them get food and survive, through this time she sheds all the weight
she has gained, and when she meets her friends again at the end of the desert she now has a
strong warriors body, however the young girl she was protecting disappears. She was just a
shade sent by the Norns to give Karma the motivation to save herself.. It’s a clear metaphor,
Karma herself is innocent, worthy of protection and love from others and herself, but she never
sees it that way, always framing herself as the person who has done something wrong. Always
denying herself, she can only act when she can justify doing it for someone else. It fits the
character and her themes, and is a really wonderful lesson. Frustratingly, in no way shape or
form does Karma actually learn it. Instead of Karma taking from this that she needs to be kinder
to herself, to act for her own good and accept using her powers can do her and others good
without her being forced into using them, the situation is just used as an excuse to make her
thin again in a single story. At the end of the tale, when everyone goes home, the
transformations and magic they found in Asgard stripped of them, Karma is an exception,
getting to keep her now thin body and honestly, I think that was a huge mistake.


Acceptance and Agency


There is no way Karma could have stayed as she was at the end of the Shadow King story. She
was unhappy with the way her body looked, and moreover her physicality was representative of
how she’d been used by the Shadow King. However that does not mean that the best option
was going back to the kind of slim but well toned superheroine body found in most comics., If
instead of the Asgard story being used as a magical weight loss cure, it instead taught Karma to
love and value herself, that even if she was very fat she was still an innocent soul worth
protecting like that little girl, then Karma could have returned to Earth and dealt with her body in
ways that would have been less fatphobic. Karma could have lost weight and reclaimed
ownership over her body in a way that was more organic.


If Karma was forced to live more time as a fat person she would be forced to internalize the
lessons of self love instead of being able to forget them the moment she had a body that
conformed to her idea of acceptable. Perhaps more importantly, she needn’t have shed all the
weight. A Karma who actually learned the lesson that her life is worth something on its own is
also a Karma who could perhaps reconcile the fact that it might be all right to indulge herself,
that complete denial of desires isn’t necessary to keep her from becoming evil. She could lose
much of the weight that the Shadow King caused her body to gain, but as she gained more
physical and mental strength she could also begin to accept that her larger body was not a sin
and that doing things for her own pleasure is something that can actually give her strength.
Having Karma decide to lose some weight but stay fat grants Karma so much more agency over
herself while also addressing the character traits that often keep her unhappy as a person and
falling into the background of narratives. This resolution not only strengthens Karma as a
character giving her a constant visual metaphor that reminds her to balance her self sacrificing
nature with self care, but it helps address the earlier fatphobic story and gives her the
opportunity to address the way the other New Mutants referred to her body during it in ways that
could make for valuable discourse.

The Importance of Normalizing Fat Characters and Gaining Weight.


So you might ask what the point of all this is. “Sure,” you might say, “it’s an interesting head
canon, but that story is over 30 years old, what does it matter now?” You wouldn’t be wrong to
ask that. The fact is though, superhero comics are still very fatphobic. There are exceptions
like Valiant’s Faith, recent runs of books like Runaways or X-Tremists, even the last run of Great
Lakes Avengers did a lot to reclaim the character of Big Bertha. It’s not enough though,
especially in something like the x-books. The entire concept is accepting people as normal and
valuable no matter what they look like, but only recently have those books made any real strides
in doing so in ways that intersect with real world body image issues. More fat characters can
only be good for comics.


More importantly than just having fat characters though, is normalizing weight gain as
something that isn’t seen as automatically bad. Saying that getting fat doesn’t make you a
lesser in any way. What happened to Karma under the Shadow King was awful because she
had no agency, but she wasn’t a monster (even if the art tried to portray her that way), she was
just a person who gained weight. This is a year that I’m sure many people can relate to that, and
while I’m sure there are many people for whom it was an awful experience, I’m equally sure
there are plenty of people for whom it was not a big deal, or even found themselves happy with
the changes to their bodies.


With the arrival of the Hellfire Gala previews, X-Force writer Ben Percy tweeted that people
should pay attention to Beast’s appearance in X-Force. That he was going to be going through
a physical transformation and that he was “bloating with hubris.” If you haven’t followed Percy’s
X-Force, Beast has become less and less ethical as the series has gone forward. That’s the
example of character gaining weight we are getting this year, a character becoming less ethical
and gaining weight. There are so many stories where characters could realistically gain weight
in positive ways out there. Cannonball gets a little heavier do to domestic bliss, Polaris goes on
anti depressants, Maggott or Husk gain weight to better utilize their powers, Banshee being a bit
older develops a sexy dad bod, or Karma, whom Vita Ayala is exploring right now alongside the
Shadow King, could decide to stop punishing herself so much and indulge herself and gain a
little bit of weight, without going “Oh my god, I am selfish and evil.” These are all stories that
could develop characters in healthy ways and be great strides for representation, but no, we are
getting the Beast bloating with hubris.


I’m a fat person, I’ve been told I was fat all my life, and shame at that only ever made me get
fatter. Eventually though I realized that I thought fat people were often gorgeous, and that
helped me realize that being fat did not make me bad or worthless, or at least most days it does.
Ever since I realized that I’ve wanted to see more fat people in comics, ones that weren’t jokes.
Since the first time I heard about Karma back when I was a teen I’ve thought “Now that’s an
opportunity to explore something that makes a lot of people outsiders.” If that’s not what the
X-Men books are about, I don’t know what is, so while I doubt they ever will, I fervently wish for
a day when Marvel decides to reclaim Karma as a positive fat character, to let her embrace her
trauma and reclaim agency over it in a way that says “I am a good person, no one is perfect and
no one should feel they have to be.” I think it’s a lesson almost everyone needs to keep in mind.

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