Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal

This was another week of start-of-term madness; the flood of emails and eruption of small administrative fires hasn’t slowed yet. I didn’t make much headway in my library book. But I did borrow and blast through my 13-year-old’s copy of Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by Adrian Alphona.

I’m sure I’m the last interested person in the world to read this, and I’m neither a superhero person nor much of a comics person, so I’m not sure what my opinion is worth. But I’m trying to keep up the blogging, so here are a few shallow thoughts:

My favorite parts of superhero movies are usually the origin story and the learning to use powers/coming to terms with powers parts, before the big special effects battles. That’s a lot of what this volume (which collects the first five issues of the comic) is and watching Kamala Khan start to figure out how to be Ms. Marvel, and what she is and is not capable of now, was great. (For instance, she realizes that being small can sometimes be a more effective strategy than being big).

Maybe I’m making a leap from paranormal romance and urban fantasy here, but often supernatural or superpowered beings are read symbolically. Rather than writing about real life “difference” (like race or sexuality or disability) literally, authors explore it through werewolves or mutants. I know you know that. So it’s interesting to read a super-heroine who is also a Muslim and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. In some ways, the fact that she’s been “different” all her life makes it easier for Kamala to adapt to and understand her power. It’s just one more way she’s an outsider, but a way she can actually put to use.

Kamala Khan is rightly seen as groundbreaking in comics, but I found a lot of aspects of her teenage-child-of-immigrants, caught-between-two-worlds story familiar (I was reminded of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confusedboth of which I really liked). That’s not to knock Ms. Marvel–we can use more stories like this and Wilson is great at depicting small, everyday moments of culture clash or conflict. Like Smith and Hidier, she makes these moments funny as well as serious, often at the same time. That light touch is important. A superhero story should be fun, and in Wilson’s hands, this is, debunking any idea that it would have to get all After School Special Message-y just because the heroine is brown. (I’m not saying I came to it with that idea, but some of the commentary around Kamala’s creation tended that way). At the same time, Kamala’s ethnicity matters. There’s no tokenism here.

I liked Alphona’s art. He’s great with the physical transformations Kamala experiences as Ms. Marvel and her struggles to control her super-powered body, his distorted angles conveying just how weird and out of control these changes feel. And Kamala looks like an ordinary girl. Even as Ms. Marvel, she does not suddenly become a big-breasted, tiny-waisted superheroine stereotype and she isn’t drawn in sexualized poses.

I will be venturing into my kid’s very messy room to dig out the next two volumes and find out how Kamala grows into her new role.



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5 Responses to Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal

  1. lawless says:

    I’m offended when people assume because the character (or person) is brown or Muslim or Asian or female, OMG, they’re going to be nothing but a gimmick. That’s dumb and prejudiced.

    (I know I’m preaching to the choir, but anything that erases part of who I am or treats it as lesser irks me.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, I can understand some of the concern about a character being a gimmick or token in a comic (or TV or film). Because they aren’t the creation of one or two people, but also a corporate product in which some control is exercised by people with corporate values and goals. That doesn’t mean they can’t also want good representation. But sometimes history does not speak well for them. So a lot depends on who is chosen as creator and how much control that person has. In this case, I’d say the choice was excellent and Wilson was allowed to do the character and story justice. But I can see it going really wrong as well.

  2. willaful says:

    You weren’t the last, because I just read it yesterday. Really enjoyed it. The cultural aspects seemed so well done.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      They did. And it reminded me of early Buffy in the way that her developing powers worked partly as a way of exploring the travails and joys of being a teenager.

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