On Wednesday, I entered a comics shop for the first time in my life. I’d had plenty of opportunities hitherto but had never quite summoned the nerve to visit, figuring that entry required a secret handshake, a working knowledge of Klingon, and ownership of those box things which let you play games on your television. But the call of Ms. Marvel–Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teen superhero from New Jersey–would not be denied, and so I went to my local comics store, where I hovered pointlessly near Mad Magazines and Captain Underpants before seeking help. Would the salesperson out my graphic ignorance even as teenagers around me sniggered at my puffy jacket? No, he was very helpful, but I was too intimidated to stay and chat–I left immediately after making my purchase, and then I began to read.
So, a few disclaimers about the upcoming review. I have no Marvel Universe context for my reading–I’ve never read/seen any of the previous Ms. Marvels or Captain Marvels, and so I missed all the insider references in this work. Actually, this is the first comics issue I’ve read in about 25 years. I sought out Ms. marvel because I loved Wilson’s prior work and because a PoC Muslim female teen superhero is an incredibly important and timely creation in the reading world, one I wanted to support with my $3.26. I do own graphic novels such as The Sandman series and Watchmen, but those are pretty chunky; I haven’t bought one of these lightweight, insta-crumple 25 page affairs since I hoarded my childhood paise for Archie Andrews and Hostess Twinkie ads.
Sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan, who lives in Jersey City with her parents and brother, spends her time hanging out with friends and doing homework and writing Avengers fan fiction. She’s likeable and sweet and has her share of teen angst–the latter considerably magnified (rather than caused) by her outsiderness as a Pakistani-American/Muslim, wherein the family’s cultural script clashes with the American school system’s prescription for having fun. When her father refuses to let her go to a party (the sort with boys and alcohol), Kamala works herself upto rebellion. “Everybody else gets to be normal. Why can’t I.”, she grouses, and steals away to the party.
But wait a second! The party sucks–some folks think it’s cool to trick Kamala into drinking vodka, while another “friend” Zoe says she smells like curry. Kamala stalks away in rage and frustration to a deserted alley and then…
…mysterious teal-colored stupor-inducing clouds appear, and out step Captain America, Iron Man and Captain Marvel! Captain America asks Kamala what she’s trying to achieve by disobeying her parents and culture. She replies that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, or to be–Pakistani/Muslim or mainstream American. If she could choose, she’d be “beautiful, awesome, butt-kicking and less complicated.” Oh, and a superhero.
And when Kamala comes to herself, she’s a superhero, and you know her life just got a lot more complicated…
And the comic ends there. Freaking hell! I know this format is characterized by brevity and by cliffhanger endings, but still, damn. If you routinely consume 350-page novels the way others read magazines, you’ll find these aspects distressing and likely intolerable. So consider yourselves warned, fellow superhero-comic-reading newbies: these are horribly short reads.
But you should still buy this comic, and somehow withstand the dire wait for #2-#5, for the reasons listed below.
1. The cultural clash (done to death in my reading past) isn’t clichéd at all, because the writing is heartfelt and rings with truth, and because Wilson’s take on the topic is satisfying nuanced. For instance, Kamala recognizes that “because I snuck out [to the party], [Zoe] thought it was okay for her to make fun of my family. Like, Kamala’s finally seen the light and kicked the dumb inferior brown people and their rules to the curb. But that’s not why I snuck out! It’s not that I think Ammi and Abu are dumb… “
It’s interesting that while all superheroes must learn to negotiate dual identities, Kamala already has years of experience with the latter. I wonder if she’ll cope with her secret superhero identity easier than we think?
2. There are little subtle touches towards inclusion and diversity embedded all over this work. I love that it’s Captain America, starred and striped, who asks Kamala why exactly she’s disobeying her culture. I love that the superheroes enter the scene singing, and that they speak of flowering buds and twittering birds.
3. Plenty of non-subtle answers for stereotypes that some readers might harbor. One character wearing a headscarf explains that she wasn’t pressured into it; in fact her father wants her to take it off, because he thinks it’s a phase. The superheroes understand Urdu, because they “speak all languages of beauty and hardship.” Kamala’s overtly religious brother gets told off by his dad for praying all the time. “When you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something. Like a job, for example,” says the disgruntled father.
4. The richness of the story–Ms. Marvel packs a lot in 25 pages. Kamala’s cute-and-sweet-and smart potential love interest! A Turkish American BFF! The faux-nice “friend” who’s actually mean! Then there’s a character called Chatty Bob, who I think is a nod to (Jay and) Silent Bob? And there’s tons of satisfying detail in the illustrations. In one scene, Kamala’s father is reading a newspaper, and if you squint, you can see it’s called “Jersey Akhbar”, the headline is “Shocking Cricket Doping Scandal”, and there’s an ad for tea and a recipe for Chicken Salan.
5. The illustration. I bought this one for the writing and the character, but I must mention that I enjoyed the art and color very much. I love the way Kamala’s done–she looks like an ordinary South Asian girl with really good wavy hair. The illustrations have a lovely sepia wash to them–I went in expecting a lot of primary colors, but this one is very subdued, except when it isn’t. In general, I’m blown away by the subtlety and nuance of the whole thing.
G. Willow Wilson + Adrian Alphona have created something really special here–if I rave, it’s entirely due to the excellence of this production rather than the fervor of the newly converted. I’ll be heading back to the comics store–this time with confidence–for #2.