Over the past few decades, Vietnam has become one of the most revitalised countries in the world. The Vietnam War left its mark and the political landscape changed forever. A comic character that represents the struggles of the Vietnamese is Karma. She was among the boat people who fled the country after the rise of Communism. As a culturally important superhero, Karma is a representation of Vietnamese resilience. A founding member of the New Mutants, Karma is one of the most believable X-Men characters.
Escaping to a new life
Xi’an (Shan) Coy Manh was born to a father who served as a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. Forced to bring his wife and children on missions, the colonel exposed his family to danger. Xi’an’s twin brother, Tran, was attacked by a Viet Cong soldier, which caused Xi’an’s mutant powers to manifest. She took control of the soldier’s mind and protected her sibling. Tran displayed the power as well, though he chose to use it cruelly.
Karma’s father was killed during the fall of Saigon and she escaped in a boat with hundreds of others. Her mother, younger brother and sister went with her. Tran stayed in Vietnam, having been rescued by his uncle General Nguyen Ngoc Coy. On the way to America, the boat was attacked by Thai pirates. Xi’an and her mother were raped, with the latter dying before they could make it to the States.
Karma arrived in New York and she was able to find work with the help of Catholic priest Michael Bowen. The meeting turned Karma into a devout Catholic, which has been an integral part of her character. General Coy soon caught up with her and kidnapped her brother and sister, Leong and Nga. Karma was forced to use her powers on Spider-Man to try and rescue her siblings. A battle between Xi’an and Tran ended in Karma absorbing her brother’s consciousness.
Joining the X-Men
Reed Richards referred Karma to Professor Xavier and she became one of the original members of the New Mutants. Xi’an had been working full time to support her brother and sister, which made her the most mature member of the team. She became the leader of the New Mutants, working with the X-Men until Nga and Leong went missing again.
Karma returned to her uncle, helping him become a crime lord on Mandripoor in exchange for finding her family. On Wolverine’s request, Karma worked against her uncle to bring him down. Eventually, she was reunited with her siblings and continued to look after them.
A historically important superhero
Karma’s experiences during the Vietnam War contributed to her upbringing. Her devotion to family is a defining trait. After her mother died, she needed to become the provider, working tirelessly to support Nga and Leong. She joined the X-Men as Xavier’s secretary until she decided to move on to librarian work. Due to her upbringing, Xi’an speaks with a French accent, which stems from France’s influence on Vietnam.
With her mind possession ability, Karma is one of the X-Men’s most versatile members. She’s capable of emitting psionic energy that overwhelms the consciousness of another. Karma is able to control a person through altering their memories and commanding their body. She’s able to control multiple hosts, though it can be draining as she needs to constantly shift her attention.
In addition to being a notable Vietnamese superhero, Karma is one of the first major lesbian characters to appear in mainstream comics. She appeared in 1980, a time where comics were starting to take on realistic themes. Karma’s sexuality didn’t define her, so much as it added to her backstory as a fully realised character. Although her orientation has been mentioned, she was never explicitly shown with a woman until Uncanny X-Men #508.
The trials and tribulations of Karma’s life is a reminder of what people experienced during the exodus of Vietnam. A lot of immigrants would’ve felt terrified when they arrived in the US, yet many were able to make a new life, just as Karma did. I think Karma is one of the most strong-willed superheroes out there and a great role model for young readers.