Ms. Marvel: Alienation, Exhilaration, And The Beating Heart Of Superhero Comics
As the daughter of two very different cultures, as someone who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, and as someone who has always turned to books to explain the vagaries of life, I’ve grown used to fiction aimed at “ethnic” young adults. It wears its consciousness on its sleeve, and ranges from the excellent — everything by the recently deceased Walter Dean Myers — to the execrable. The latter is didactic, joyless, and feels less written than assembled by a band of preening academics. There is no truth at the heart of it, only a clinical estimation of “otherness” that, in addition to feeling false, is nearly always boring. Comics have fallen into this trap for decades, though the character of color in question is almost never the protagonist. One weak swipe at relevance, usually in the introductory issue, is all we get before they slowly, implacably, fade into the background.
I was excited for Ms. Marvel from the moment it was announced. I reblogged it, retweeted it, called my mother about it, chatted it up at my local comic shop. But secretly, I was more than a little certain that it would suck in all the usual ways. Sure, the Jamie McKelvie cover was splashy, and sure, I was hearing good things about series writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona. But I was girded for — and expected — twenty or so lackluster issues before cancellation.
The first issue came out, and it was good. Really good. It was bright and fun and electric with personality in every way a comic can be, from its color palette to its ending splash. Still, though, I was unconvinced — fantastic first issues have given way to mediocrity before.
But the second issue was great. And the third. And the fourth. And with the fifth issue and the first arc completed, I feel that I can finally let out the breath I’ve been holding and say that Ms. Marvel is truly wonderful work.
The beating heart of the comic’s success is Kamala Khan herself. Wilson balances the elements of her world and personality deftly, ensuring that no one of them comes to define her. Kamala is a Pakistani Muslim. Kamala is a teenage resident of Jersey City. Kamala is a little sister. Kamala is a “World of Battlecraft” player who keeps careful track of how many hits her Avengers/My Little Pony crossover fanfic gets. Kamala is spunky, but a little more naïve than she realizes.
The story lingers on these facets individually, but never to the exclusion of the others, rendering our heroine that rarest of things: a female character in 2014 whose quirkiness feels genuine. In inept hands, Kamala might have been a Frankenstein’s monster of the preciously twee and the stuffily social conscious; an Important Lesson dressed in a thin skin of What Kids Like Today, Probably. Instead, her portrayal hums with truth — a truth that, I suspect, comes in part from actually being written and edited by Muslim women well-versed in geek culture; G. Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat, respectively.
What has surprised me more, though, is how unique in look, tone, and genre Ms. Marvel is. Visually, it is unlike anything else put out by Marvel or DC. Alphona’s art is loose and fun, capturing the strange, sloppy beauty of the city and the hidey-holes teenagers carve out within it in their search for autonomy. The Circle Q isn’t just a convenience store, it’s a scribbly Batcave of heat-lamp BLTs and possibility, where Kamala and pal Bruno can plan missions and costume choices. Ms. Marvel just doesn’t look like a superhero comic, whether one compares it to DC’s current house style or the more alternative work of a David Aja or a Tradd Moore.
And it doesn’t sound like one either. The story beats are fairly standard origin-tale stuff — how-I-got-my-powers, why-I-decided-to-fight-evil, etc. — but the details shape it into something that just feels different. It’s in the way Wilson lingers on Bruno’s pining for (sweetly ignorant) Kamala; the attention given to Sheikh Abdullah’s Saturday youth lecture; the frustration of becoming someone your parents don’t recognize as you sneak out after being grounded for reasons they’d never understand.
Ms. Marvel is rooted in the rhythms of high school rather than Avengers Mansion — but it’s more subtly done than similar stories like Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, entertaining as that series was, or DC’s 2008 Raven special. It feels different down to its bones. Ms. Marvel is a story about a girl who gains superpowers, not a superhero who happens to be a girl.
In effect, Ms. Marvel feels more like Vera Brogsol’s Anya’s Ghost or Raina Telgemeier’s work than anything else: a story grounded in the alienation and exhilaration of being a weird teenage girl. For years, I’ve daydreamed about a Wonder Woman comic like this, something I could hand to a curious 12-year-old with no excuses or explanations.
Ms. Marvel isn’t just different in subject — its tone is different, its priorities are different, and really, its genre is different. Introducing diverse characters doesn’t really mean much if we don’t start experimenting with different ideas of structure, conflict, and climax — essentially, different ideas of what constitutes a good story, rooted in experiences that aren’t white and male.
We need comics like Ms. Marvel to uphold the value of stories about high school, and of placing equal weight on scenes at the mosque and dinner table as the beat-em-ups. If we as a community want to entice readers who are inclined to give superhero fare a wide berth, we need to look at the comics that do resonate with them — again, see Brogsol and Telgemeier — and understand what they’re doing that superhero comics are not.
Ms. Marvel understands. It doesn’t apologize for being a superhero comic, which it absolutely is. The conflict that spans the first five issues could, under a different creative team, have been squished into the first. Some will complain that this is unnecessary decompression, and decry the use of “filler.” But really, it’s just Wilson and Alphona understanding that Kamala’s adventures in costume-making with puffy paint are just as important as the robots she smashes into bits. They don’t care about the conventional dos and don’ts of cape comics—and they don’t need to. They care about Kamala. And that is why Ms. Marvel succeeds.