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Ms Marvel (2014- )

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Artist: Adrian Alphona

Color Artist: Ian Herring

Editor: Sana Amanat

 

Ms Marvel

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.

Sauron-Xmen115-1

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 SandmanPreacher, 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.

everybody gets to be normal

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.

i want to be you

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.

cultures are so interesting!

nggh

KAMALA KHAN

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.

saved all of mankind

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.

the most amazing girl from Jersey City

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.

wannabe hipster punk

 

Read Ms Marvel at Comixology, or, better yet, pick it up at your local comic shop!

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Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Saga cover

I wish I had written Saga. It’s the kind of brilliant mash-up of science fiction and fantasy that I loved as a kid, complete with robot princes, adorable animal people, and a bounty hunter wearing a superhero cape. It’s so far from hard science fiction that the moon people cast magic and the space marines have giant feathery wings. As far as I can tell, every starship in the galaxy runs on an abundant supply of handwavium. And with all due respect and affection to the hard stuff, this kind of space opera is where my scifi heart lives. Brian K. Vaughn has taken the idle imaginings of a kid and turned it into a mature, fantastic, slam-bang epic of a story. And I can’t get enough of it.

Gwendolyn doesn't trust reviews

The setting is a galaxy locked in a seemingly endless war between the winged and tech-reliant inhabitants of Landfall and the horned and magical inhabitants of its moon, Wreath. Unwilling to risk catastrophic damage to their homeworlds, the belligerents have taken their war into the galaxy at large, fighting on remote worlds and dragging nearly every other intelligent race into a genocidal, galaxy-wide proxy war. And into this hostility, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love, conceive a child, and run.

Meet cute

The story is intermittently narrated by Marko and Alana’s daughter, offering reflective commentary and the occasional foreshadowing. It’s clear from this – and the title, I suppose – that this is the beginning of a long arc, an epic tale, and it’s likely that not everyone will make it to the end. The pace of the story, however, is action-movie quick and the retrospective narration never intrudes on the immediacy of events. The action rises and falls like the perfect rollercoaster, and I’m so caught up that I keep re-reading as if hoping that one day I’ll turn to the end of the second volume and find the next issue picking up where it left off.

robot sex

The writing is Vaughn at his best, maybe better than he’s ever been. The dialogue, even the expository passages, is quick and punchy, unencumbered by archaisms or futuristic slang, no matter what strange creature you’re looking at. Marko and Alana are strange aliens in a strange alien war, but they are recognizable as young people in love, as new parents, as people. Even the Stalk, an alien Freelancer who I think is best described as unsettlingly beautiful, speaks profanity-laced contemporary English like a Hollywood assassin or Elmore Leonard hitter. And this comfortable Leonard-quality dialogue meshes seamlessly with a wonderfully strange galaxy of creatures and events, incorporating death threats, incorporeal babysitters, and cosmic eggs as easily as observations on love, politics, and parenting.

Izabel babysitter

I sometimes have a hard time evaluating art in comics, but the art in this book is goddamn beautiful. Fiona Staples is really more of a co-author in visual form, her style integral to the telling. Lying Cat communicates whole stories about her and her relationship with the Will, even though she never says more than “Lying” or “Mrrn”. When ghostly babysitter Izabel complains that Alana is being dumb, the way Staples draws her is what kicks her voice in my head to an exasperated teenage whine. The narrative itself is punctuated by broad panels and full page illustrations that drive the drama home. Every now and then we’re even treated to a double-page splash of some amazing beautiful thing. It’s a perfect match between writer and artist, and just completely gorgeous to look at.

The Will and Lying Cat

Although Star Wars is a pretty good comparison in terms of genre, Vaughn doesn’t seem to be telling a story of predestined heroes and plucky rebels trying to change the course of history. Firefly might be a closer comparison in terms of stakes, as right now it’s tightly focused on this one family and their survival rather than the fate of a free galaxy. Vaughn already told his Most Important Boy in the World story with the excellent Y: The Last Man, and although Saga has some similarities, it’s clearly a very different tale, and not just because it’s set a million lightyears from Earth. Alana and Marko are not exceptional through a quirk of fate like Yorick or Mitchell Hundred, but because they decided they wanted a life different from the ones chosen for them. Even when being pursued by gray-moraled assassins, war-scarred aristocrats, and vengeful ex-girlfriends, even riding a magical rocketship from a planet full of psychic ghosts, it’s a story about romance, family, and people. Vaughn and Staples have put together a brilliant world full of amazing characters, and they are telling a fantastic story. If you aren’t already aboard, now is a terrific time to hop on.

harp seal and walrus

Buy Volumes One and Two on Amazon(1/2) or Barnes & Noble (1/2), or pick them up with the latest issue at your local comic shop.

 

Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor

hip hop family tree cover

I’m not proud. It took an awful lot of white people to get me to recognize the value of rap and hip hop, and that is, I think you’ll agree, kind of fucked up. In high school, DJ Screw was a big deal, but I didn’t know it. I just knew the lockerroom was filled with Chopped and Screwed, and I wanted to listen to Queen. Or Jimi Hendrix. I spent the turn of the 21st century stuck in the 70s, afraid of liking something uncool. It wasn’t until I read somewhere that, in order to be cool, I had to have a favorite member of the Wu Tang Clan that I paid any attention to rap. Shortly after that I saw Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and realized, with a shameful amount of surprise, that RZA is an exceptionally gifted musician. Much later, I heard “Smells Like Compton“, a mashup of NWA and Nirvana, and found out that Ice Cube is a stone cold badass and gangster rap is more than just noise and violence. And then, much later, when the mainstreaming of rap had me thinking that maybe dismissing an entire genre of music made me kind of an asshole, Ed Piskor started publishing Hip Hop Family Tree on Boing Boing.

hip hop don't stop

Hip Hop Family Tree started almost accidentally as part of Ed Piskor’s regular “Brain Rot” feature on Boing Boing. His comics, with their distinctive newsprint style, influenced by the kind of pulp comics he grew up with, weren’t about anything in particular until he started talking about his love of old school hip hop. It started with a comparison of hip hop to superhero comics, and then went all the way back to DJ Kool Herc and his house parties, often credited as the origin of hip hop 40 years ago. And Piskor is still just getting started, tracing the spread of hip hop and rap from its origin on the streets and in the clubs of New York to its place as a pillar of the American music industry.

grandmaster cas

The way Piskor tells this story feels comprehensive and authoritative. It feels true, and I think that feeling comes from both thoroughly researching his subject and his clear enthusiasm for it. His love for hip hop is apparent in the way he crafts the stories, the way he draws the characters, the way he inserts bits and pieces of rap lyrics wherever he can. He loves it enough to learn everything he can about it, from the definitive moments, like the formation of Sugarhill Records or the production of Wild Style, to obscure bits of hip hop apocrypha, and his enthusiasm for one is equal to his enthusiasm for the other. And yet somehow he also manages to sound like a detached observer. He acts as a historian, not passing judgement on, say, the business decisions of Sylvia Robinson except by implication. That, also, creates a feeling of authenticity to his work that makes me wonder how real world Robinson, if she were still alive, would feel about the Robinson we see on the page.

sylvia lays down the law

The project started with a joke about the way hip hop artists have alter egos just like superheroes, and Piskor takes special delight in crafting unique visual styles for Russell Simmons, Kool Moe Dee, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash, and all the rest. Hats, shades, and hairstyles become a visual shorthand for key players, with more minor figures often wearing shirts with their names on them even as he develops their unique style. Rick Rubin is drawn in such a different style from Afrika Bambaataa that he might as well be in a different comic, but that’s part of what makes it so terrific when they all come together. They are so distinctive that they stick in the brain, and even one panel illustrations of Bad Brains or Henry Rollins are fun. And when these characters come together it often is for something of comicbook-level epicness, such as Kool Moe Dee’s showdown with Busy Bee Starski, or the battle between Grandmaster Flash and the Brothers Disco. Or, and this includes what is probably my single favorite splash panel, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force premiering Planet Rock.

hip-hop-strip-57

The actual family tree has gotten a bit unwieldy at this point, and difficult to parse. The user interface for the comic is also super unfriendly; each page is simply a tagged post on Boing Boing, so there isn’t really an easy way to navigate and pick up where you left off. However, this is my only complaint about Hip Hop Family Tree as a project. It takes in street corner DJs, night club MCs, Freddie Fab5 and Blondie, the Treacherous Three and the Beastie Boys, drawing lines and making connections. Piskor sets out to document the “viral propagation of a culture”, and does so with incredible style and a great sense of pacing and narrative, managing a sprawling cast of characters with panache. It’s exciting to see the origins of familiar names like Doug E. Fresh or Public Enemy, and watch the culture spread to the west coast, with Ice T and Dr. Dre.

chuck d

It’s embarrassing how long it took, but I’m on board now.  I’m excited about this music. I have a better understanding of where it came from and what it means, and I’ve started exploring what else is out there. Understanding the origins of hip hop gives me a foundation from which to experience Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur, Tyler the Creator and Kanye West, and UGK and the Screwed Up Click. So if you are the sort of person who has ever said “I like all kinds of music except rap”, pick up Hip Hop Family Tree and start relieving your ignorance. I give many thanks to  Jim Jarmusch, Ed Piskor, and especially mixmaster Lindsay Schmitt, for relieving mine.

hip hop afrika bambatta

Read Hip Hop Family Tree online at Boing Boing, starting from the beginning here, or pre-order Volume One at Fantagraphics or Amazon. Check out Piskor’s other work at his site.