‘Ms. Marvel’ #1: Embracing The Paradox [Review]
James Baldwin once described America as a "country devoted to the death of the paradox." He was right, of course. We're more comfortable seeing things in extremes, in black and white. A person from one culture or background can be instantly labeled as an upstanding citizen, exemplifying everything good about "real America." Superman is from Kansas, not San Francisco.
But if you're from another background, you can be instantly labeled as something else entirely: lazy, entitled, a thug, "Un-American." To many, there are those who fit into a certain label based on where they grew up, what school they went to, what church they attend. To think otherwise, to consider that there is more to us than blanket, largely basely assumptions, isn't as easy. And for many, it's too uncomfortable. It's too much work.
Ms. Marvel #1 stands in stark contrast to that sentiment. Written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona, each major character introduced in this first issue is a celebration and exploration of the paradox. It is a book full of characters who remind you of people you know, or people you knew. It's a book that's unique, but nonetheless familiar. It is also, by almost any measure, one of the best first issues of a superhero comic in years. And, if we're being honest, it probably needed to be.
Between DC Comics line-wide New 52 relaunch and Marvel's initiatives both NOW and All-New NOW, we are nearing over 100 #1 issues from those two publishers in the last three years alone. Yet this one stands out. Wilson, Alphona and series editor Sana Amanat put an incredible amount of time, effort, and careful thought into this book, and it shows on every page.
From the beginning, Ms. Marvel feels like the best kind of young adult fiction. Page one introduces you to Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American and the star of the series, as she longingly smells some bacon she describes as "infidel meat."
It's a cute scene, that serves to both let the reader know right from jump that this series will embrace and address aspects of Kamala's culture while simultaneously telling you that she's just like so many other teenagers: in this case, wanting something she can't have. Again, it's the perfect YA story: instantly relatable to someone Kamala's age, but if you're older, it reminds you of that time in a very welcoming fashion.
(On a personal note, it definitely reminded me of junior high. One of my best friends at the time was Muslim, and when he thought no one was looking, he would take deep, long sniffs of my bacon egg and cheese sandwiches in the morning before class. I had completely forgotten about that until I read this comic, and it helped me fall in immediately.)
The most impressive thing about the comic may be the amount of significant topics Wilson manages to touch on in just the first issue, without the story feeling the least bit crowded. First and foremost, we get to know Kamala, who is intelligent, funny, frustrated, wildly imaginative, and obsessed with, among other things, the Avengers. After just one issue, it seems Wilson will address social issues that affect so many teenage girls, particularly feelings of isolation and socially dictated definitions of beauty (the cliffhanger of this issue instantly reminded me of one of the most memorable scenes from the film Precious).
Wilson and Alphona also introduce Kamala's supporting cast, a wide array of characters that includes her working class parents, her deeply religious brother, and her friend and potential romantic interest, Bruno. But maybe the most interesting supporting character is her best friend Nakia, who Amanat recently described as a "born again Muslim." She's a Turkish-American teenager who has recently become more connected to her Muslim background, as evidenced by her insistence that everyone now call her by her full name instead of the nickname Kiki that she'd presumably gone by for years (think of President Obama reaching his teenage years and asking everyone to no longer call him Barry), as well as her choice to start wearing a Hijab; she even reveals that her father wants her to stop wearing it, as he calls the decision "a phase."
Through Kamala, Nakia, Bruno and others, Wilson has already set up several familiar teenage paradigms. Even if you aren't all that knowledgeable of the various cultures, you know the dynamics, and you know the feelings, because those are universal.
And then there's Alphona's art, which is the best of his career. Alphona has always excelled at illustrating young characters, and his linework and layouts have only improved. His facial expressions say so much even without dialogue, and his character designs are all great (I particularly love the look of Kamala's father). Further, Alphona will insert seemingly little things to bring an extra feeling of energy and dynamism to the page, like action lines around a stomping foot or coming from a quickly moving hand motion. Colorist Ian Herring brings a kind of softness to the art that accentuates Alphona's line (which our own Janelle Asselin noted in her most recent Best Sequential Art post). It's only one issue in, but every member of this team seems to be doing the best work of their career, and that is really saying something.
There's a quote by Toni Cade Bambara that I keep coming back to every time I think about this book: "The responsibility of an artist representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible." On the surface, that is a plainly unfair position to take on Ms. Marvel. It shouldn't fall on this book to be some sort of revolutionary moment in comics history. In an ideal world, we'd all just be able to discuss its strengths and flaws as a story, and enjoy the beginnings of what will likely be an outstanding addition to Marvel's lineup of titles. So why do I keep coming back to it?
Maybe because this isn't an ideal world. If you launch a new Aquaman book and sales are low and the book gets cancelled, we all know that Aquaman will eventually get another chance. He's a blonde haired, blue eyed square jawed model of what many people expect heroes to look like. And aside from that, he's been around for 73 years. Make all the jokes you want about Aquaman -- and most of us do -- but he'll always be there. He'll always come back.
Kamala Khan doesn't have that benefit. The character is female, Muslim, and new. Because of that, there are some readers who simply won't give the book a chance and some retailers who won't even bother to order it. In that sense, the pressure on the Ms. Marvel team to put out a good product far exceeds that of creators on other books. Chris Rock once said his father told him that if he wanted to succeed as a comedian, it wouldn't be enough to be as funny as the white comedians around him, and then complain that they got jobs ahead of him. He had to be funnier than them -- much funnier -- in order to make it. He had to give people no choice but to acknowledge his talent. It's not fair, but but it's true. I think that's the position the Ms. Marvel team finds themselves in. Sadly, it isn't enough to be good; they have to be better.
Fortunately for us, they were up to the task. Maybe this is the revolution.