Ms. Marvel #1
Kamala Khan created by Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona
Both Marvel and DC’s superhero titles have become a little more homogeneous as of late, conforming to each publisher’s respective “house style”. Blame it on how DC’s “New 52” and Marvel’s “NOW!” re-branding efforts are striving for more synergy between their comic book lines with their various cross-media adaptations. But having to orchestrate increasingly grandiose “event” stories is par for the course for the Big Two. And besides, they need to keep coming-up with new material for their long list of intellectual properties, lest some opportunistic competitor swoop in and claim the valuable trademark. Which is why a lot of these brands have been around in one form or another for more than half a century. Take the comic being reviewed here. When Carol Danvers, aka Ms. Marvel, was repositioned to claim the recently abandoned title of Captain Marvel, someone else had to take over her former codename. And so the character of Kamala Khan was created for that very purpose. But while the economic motives behind her invention are hardly progressive, Kamala herself marks a significant departure. Conceived as a Pakistani-American teenage girl, she’s an obvious stab at diversity within a fantasy universe so desperately in need of anyone who isn’t white, male, straight, and created before the twenty-first century. Kamala came in on a wave of considerable media attention and goodwill. But given concerns about whether a series starring such a non-traditional character would succeed, Ms. Marvel #1 needed to be good. Really good. In my opinion, the series is off to a very promising start, as it manages to avoid feeling like the average Marvel comic for reasons that are more than skin deep.
Superficially, Kamala resembles Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, as they’re both struggling adolescents. Or at least that’s how he started out. As a comics fan, I grew up on Spider-Man. But even I know that Peter, like the X-Men, Hulk, and other baby-boomer heroes, is a creation born in another era. He was a lone teenage nerd raised within the bland uniformity of his Post-War surroundings, bearing the relentless persecution of his small-minded peers, and fighting to protect the people who feared and hated him. It’s a claustrophobic setup full of extremes, and after several decades the soul-crushing consequences of its unending labor are mirrored by the gloomy tenor now flowing through Marvel and DC. By comparison, Kamala lives in a more complex milieu of shifting, contradictory identities. She’s a geek who posts Avengers fanfic on the Web for consumption by other geeks. Kamala’s a second generation immigrant and a Muslim-American who wants to participate in all the popular youthful activities. Concomitantly, she clashes with family members who are far less enamoured with mainstream American culture: chiefly a religious-conservative brother and her more moderate parents. Kamala may inveigh against a parochial society that doesn’t get her like most teenagers are wont to do, but she has friends who share her incongruity. And the people who torment her do so more out of cluelessness than the usual mean girl cruelty. The underlying archetypes may be familiar to any Spider-Man fan, but they're refashioned to be more modern. I dare say that while still remaining true to the universal awkwardness of adolescence, this makes Kamala a lot more relatable to a huge swath of younger readers.
More significantly, Kamala doesn’t come across as a well-meaning token needed to fill some self-enforced quota. A lot of multinational superhero casts tend to have members with shorthand “ethnic” characteristics: exotic looks, a funny accent, catchphrase, or strange mannerisms. For example, the Japanese guy is a samurai/martial artist who wields a katana. Or the Native American wears feathers and posses vaguely shamanistic abilities. As the lead of her own series, Kamala seems to come from an authentically different place, and not from the usual Anglo-American perspective. She has her own internal life. Kamala's precocious, inquisitive, rebellious, and impetuous. And for once, she actually looks like a normal teenage girl, which in itself is a triumph in superhero comics. Much of the credit for such a carefully crafted creation has to go to editor Sana Amanat and writer G. Willow Wilson. Wilson has managed to convert Amanat’s own experiences growing up as a Muslim-American to good effect. This dialogue-heavy issue is atypically naturalistic and character-driven for a superhero comic, punctuated by amusing conversations often revolving around the immigrant experience rather than melodramatic confrontations between heroes and villains.
This portrait is rounded out by artist Adrian Alphona and colorist Ian Herring. I’ve already mentioned that Kamala looks like a real teenager. But the whole book is convincingly populated by a lot of normal-looking youthful characters all individually distinguishable by their body type, facial expressions and fashions. The delicate line-work is further accentuated by a soft warm glow that makes this comic look very different from most of Marvel’s current superhero titles. The tone is probably closer to young adult fantasy than the superhero genre even though this is supposed to be an origin tale. Superheroes barely make an appearance. When they do, they show up in a few “imaginary” scenes. The first is in hilarious fan art that teams-up the Avengers with a My Little Pony facsimile. And in the issue’s climax, Kamala experiences a remarkable vision of her idol Carol Danvers that is simultaneously quixotic, fannish, and intensely mystical. It’s a nice way to encapsulate the things in Kamala’s life that are tugging her in different directions.
The first issue is measuredly paced to be the opening act to a larger story, so it’s a little premature to declare the new Ms. Marvel an unqualified success. The problem of course is that the Big Two have a terrible track record when it comes to sustaining any series headlined by new or minority characters. They often fail to market titles clearly meant to reach a new audience. And as long as Kamala Khan is technically a denizen of the Marvel Universe, the fact is that the series is subject to the kind of corporate mandates that could diminish her unique qualities, watering her down to better fit in with the rest of that universe. Or worse, she could be killed-off or replaced by another Ms. Marvel if judged a commercial failure. That would be a shame because this is an audacious launch executed by an accomplished creative team possessing tremendous potential.