Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ms. Marvel #1 (2014)

No, I have no qualms about using my film blog to talk about a comic book. Sue me.

I’ve followed X-Men comics since 1992, and I’ve always had a particular fondness for Carol Danvers, a quondam Starjammer and Avenger (who has briefly shacked up with the X-Men herself) who plays strongly into the backstory of the X-Woman Rogue. I like Danvers’ character: opinionated but compassionate, powerful but just. Even so, my interest in superhero comics has waned dramatically over the years.1

Kamala Khan: Ms. Marvel

So I had a degree of trepidation at the idea of reading about a new Ms. Marvel, whose comic debuted today. I never particularly liked the idea of “passing” a superhero mantle from one person to another, but I’ve long accepted it as a part of the genre, like retcons or reversible death. I jumped at it when this well-written article pointed out that it features a positive female Muslim protagonist.

The book grabbed me from the first panel.

In a move reminiscent of Jaime Reyes’ inheritance of the Blue Beetle mantle, the title of Ms. Marvel now falls to another teenager, 16-year-old Jerseyite Kamala Khan. American-Muslim writer G. Willow Wilson and Pakistani-American editor Sana Amanat clearly imbue Kamala with their own life experience, creating a character that feels very real right off the bat.

I love the character design, even her civvies with the appropriate lightning bolt jacket.
I found myself instantly able to identify with Kamala. Like her, I grew up in America as a second-generation immigrant, but because of my name and Muslim upbringing, people tend to not see my American cultural identity. It felt incredibly refreshing seeing Kamala think exactly as I did as a teenager. I saw a lot of myself in her quotidian struggles and dilemmas as well: supercilious jocks (who assume nobody, least of all women, would ever follow Islam willingly); a family that seems patriotic but culturally at odds with the outside world; the need every adolescent feels for an independent identity, for something to say and for people to hear it.

At one point, particularly provincial teenagers trick Kamala into drinking alcohol. This rang true for me right away. I can’t count the number of times people (even adults) tried to trick me into eating pork for a cheap laugh2 or an ephemeral feeling of dominance by ignorance.

Using trickery to bypass a teenage girl’s free will: hilarity incarnate.
Kamala feels like a wonderful counterpoint to another Marvel Muslim superheroine, Sooraya Qadir, the young X-Woman Dust. Kamala adheres to Islam to a reasonable degree but lacks Sooraya’s piety. Like many western Muslims, Kamala doesn’t wear the hijab (and in fact, the book makes a point that its female characters wear it of their own volition), but her heavy hair acts like a bit of a veil… albeit more in the thematic sense of conveying her withdrawn, diffident personality than any kind of religious statement.

The Future of Ms. Marvel

Unfortunately, the book ends all too soon. We get to meet the supporting cast: Kamala’s conservative, affluent immigrant parents; her indolent, ever-praying brother; her hijab-wearing, Turkish best friend Nakia; her protective friend Bruno. We don’t get to see any of Kamala’s superhero conflicts in this first issue. But if they measure up to what he see of her civilian life, I predict big things from this book. It has wonderful characterization and costume design. Even more than that, Adrian Alphona’s beautiful art imparts this book with an identity uniquely its own (even distinct from Alphona’s earlier work on Runaways). The colors look like watercolor, never extremely bold but beautiful in their unity. The lines vary little in thickness, feeling at times like the pencil sketches of a daydreamer… like Kamala.

Everything about this gorgeous page—even the low angle—sells Kamala as a dreamer who deifies superheroes.
Mostly, I just hope the series amasses a good rogues’ gallery.3 I can already see some of the beginnings of Kamala’s future struggles: her naïveté and callow recklessness will clearly cause her problems, and her goodhearted nature will put her in some precarious ethical situations. She has already started her quest to find her own identity by appropriating someone else’s, which says a lot about her own self-esteem, self-confidence, and maturity. Like Peter Parker when he started out, Kamala seems to view her burgeoning superhero status as subordinate to her life as a “strange” and “different” high school student.

Marvel denies that they created a female Muslim protagonist as a political statement. I actually love that about the character. The way to cultural acceptance lies not in further otherization by way of calling attention to oneself as different, but in showing that people who seem different in fact live everyday lives with ups and downs just like the rest of us. For instance, as a Straight Ally, I loved seeing same-sex couples and LGBT men and women handled as a part of normal modern life in such films as Cedar Rapids, Mrs. Doubtfire, Show Me Love, and The Kids Are All Right. I hope Kamala receives similar treatment as a Muslim-American teenager.

Whatever happens, I know I, for one, will keep buying as soon as the book hits the stands to find out for myself.

1 I feel this way in particular about the X-Men comics, which have come to feel circular and repetitive in the extreme. I still feel to this day that, writing-wise, the X-Men peaked in Chris Claremont’s legendary first run. Since then, even at its best (or weirdest, or freshest, or any other adjective that describes Grant Morrison’s work on New X-Men), it feels comparatively convoluted, anodyne, and Sisyphean—especially when Claremont himself takes the helm and tries to recreate his heyday. The franchise’s bloated, often-circular continuity feels like a sock that has seen not enough days in a washer and too many days on a foot.
2 Frankly, to this day I don’t see why they found that so amusing. “You ate something because I lied” doesn’t even sound like a funny prank. Even especially immature pranks like the venerable Pen 15 club at least involve a moment where the mark makes a humorous leap of credulity.
3 Personally, I tend to find supervillains the most interesting part of superhero comics and movies by far. I consider Dick Tracy and the 1966 Batman film my favorites of the entire genre. They have something most superhero movies don’t spend nearly enough time building: a unique, visually distinctive world and a number of variegated character designs… as well as a number of different colorful villains getting up to all sorts of mayhem. I watch superhero movies looking mostly for those specific qualities, since I know better than to expect much from the story or characterization.

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