Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Artist: Adrian Alphona
Color Artist: Ian Herring
Editor: Sana Amanat
It seems like last week, when I should have posted this entry, I started seeing write-ups and video reviews of Ms Marvel all over the place in comic and geek circles, with everyone talking about how well done and important and all around great it is. Well, let me tell you something: it is great, and important, and very well done. And before I can tell you why, I need to tell you something about myself.
I got into comics through Spider-man and the X-Men (with a detour through Alpha Flight and The New Mutants, but I’ll talk about that some other time). Peter Parker was a huge nerd who transforms into a super-powered hero with a quick wit. The X-Men develop powers around puberty and suddenly are both extremely special and extremely different, alienated from a society that doesn’t understand them. When I was a kid, I wanted that! Like Parker, I was a nerd, with big plastic frames on my glasses and a fascination with Magic: The Gathering that left no room in my brain for the rules of sports games. I wanted nothing more than to spontaneously develop super-powers through accident or birthright, and be capable of astonishing feats and incredible adventures.
Also, one of the villains on the X-Men cartoon show was a DINOSAUR MAN.
Of course, the 90s were also the Age of Wolverine, whose tough-talking, cigar-chomping, anti-heroism was so popular that he began to eclipse Spider-Man as Marvel’s mascot and began, as Lore Sjöberg said, to be displayed “on the cover of comics in which he didn’t actually, technically, appear.” I, and probably most of my friends, began to be drawn more to grim-faced badasses like Cable, the Punisher, or Batman, and eventually I left wish-fulfilling superheroics behind altogether and discovered Vertigo titles like The Sandman, Preacher, and 100 Bullets.
I’m not necessarily trying to extrapolate from my own experience to describe a trend in comics, but it’s clear from this Vulture article about Captain America that I wasn’t the only one who fell into the trap of thinking that stories were for babies unless they reflected the gray moral landscape of the “real world”. There is, of course, value in deconstructing standard superhero tropes like Alan Moore did in Watchmen or Warren Ellis did in NextWave. Those are superlative comics, and it’s important to not just passively accept, in a cultural sense, the stories we are given. I think the problem comes from assuming that because those kinds of stories have value, the other kinds of stories have none. This leads to a lot of Missing the Point, with writers glomming on to the sex and violence and “oh what if The Flash were alcoholic” and then everything is The Boondock Saints and we have to dynamite the Earth to prevent the infection from spreading.
Ms Marvel is the other kind of story, and it has everything to do with the best things about Spider-man, and the X-Men, and the Captain America we’re seeing on the big screen these days. It calls back to the classic tropes of superheroism while updating them and interrogating them in a very smart, very thoughtful way, one that is totally relevant both to contemporary teens and the kind of conversations we, as adult comics fans, are having about our favorite media. The new Ms Marvel is a hero we can understand and empathize with as well as aspire to be, and it is written in the new spirit of inclusivity and diversity that Marvel is clearly making a concentrated effort to get in front of. It is, quite frankly, everything that we need in comics right now.
Kamala Khan is, like Peter Parker, a huge nerd, and way more of an outsider than I, or Parker, both cisgendered, heterosexual white boys, could ever claim to be. She’s a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl from a Pakistani immigrant family. She writers Avengers fanfiction, and idolizes Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, the blonde, buff fighter pilot who punches giant robots and can fly in space. She wants to be normal, but she also wants to be exceptional. This is her central conflict.
There are lots of great things about this comic. The art, for one thing, is wonderful and expressive, and the writing complements that with geeked out teenage whimsy. Together they work to bring characters as disparate as Aamir, Kamala’s devout, unemployed older brother, and Zoe Zimmer, the blonde, popular “concern troll” who Kamala wishes would accept her, to instantly recognizable life. G. Willow Wilson also does a great job of writing a classic superhero origin dilemma in a recognizably contemporary world with text messaging, Internet searches, and online gaming. The series feels classic and contemporary at the same time, and similarly marries genuine, heart-felt characterization with laugh-out-loud humor.
But what makes great is the way the story offers a new take on the aspirational superhero story. Kamala’s struggle bears a lot of similarity with Peter Parker’s realization that with great strength comes great responsibility. And I see it in a similar vein as the cinematic interpretation of Captain America, as someone who is recognizably human (as opposed to classic, flawless pulp science heroes, or indeed, most anti-heroes) while also being undeniably good. So good, in fact, that he makes others aspire to be better. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury says “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be” and Steve Rogers emphatically rejects that viewpoint. This is what makes him a hero. And what we see in Kamala Khan is a real effort, upon being granted tremendous power, to live up to that standard.
And what makes this so important, and so much more than just a Good Old Days throwback superhero story, is who Kamala Khan is. She’s brown. She’s Muslim. She’s female. She is American, definitely, but she is also Other, and reminded of that fact often by her peers. The heroes she aspires to be are all white and, with the exception of Iron Man, blonde. No one in her entire pantheon of superheroes looks like her. That’s what makes it so powerful, and so difficult, as she struggles to figure out how to be the kind of hero, and kind of person, she wants to be. And in a “real world” in which women in the comics community are still routinely subjected to sexist abuse, in which we still don’t have so much as a promise of a Wonder Woman movie, and in which attempts to add some diversity to the heroic universe are greeted with vocal racist opposition, a hero like Kamala Khan is exactly the kind of hero we need.
G. Willow Wilson, herself a Muslim, has written a great story, and a great character, one that hearkens back to all the best things I remember loving about superhero stories (before the Dark Times…before the Empire). She has done so with a consummate awareness of the ongoing growth of comics as a medium, in terms of narrative complexity and depth of character, as well as the pressing need for more diverse voices in our superheroic universe. The Ms. Marvel team have put together what may be the most important superhero book in years, so let me add my voice to the increasing number of people speaking up about Kamala Khan and Ms. Marvel: do yourself a favor. Read this book.
Read Ms Marvel at Comixology, or, better yet, pick it up at your local comic shop!