Topic #18: Read a superhero comic with a female lead
Book: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 No Normal (Issues #1-5), Vol. 2 Generation Why (Issues #6-10) and Vol. 3 Crushed (Issues #11-15)
Written by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Adrian Alphona, Jacob Wyatt, Elmo Bondoc, and Takeshi Miyazawa
“No matter how bad things get, there are always people who rush in to help. And according to my dad…they are blessed.”
In a world full of superheroes, sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan of Jersey City constantly falls short of her own daydreams. She wishes she could somehow join the ranks of the heroes she idolizes, especially Carol Danvers, the dazzlingly blonde Captain Marvel, but the possibility hardly seems worth considering. As a Pakistani-American Muslim, she already finds it impossible enough just to be something approaching normal in her largely white high school. But like it or not, normal just isn’t an option after a mysterious blue mist awakens shapeshifting abilities that propel Kamala into a life of crime-fighting that she used to experience only through fan fiction. Of course, being a superhero isn’t as glamorous as she assumed, and balancing two parallel lives might be more than dangerous; it might make it even harder for Kamala to figure out who she really is.
I’m not typically a reader of superhero comics, or really western comics in general, and in reviewing Ms. Marvel, I had to make some critical choices. Like many superhero comics, this one doesn’t seem to be written with a specific end in mind, so I had to choose a cut-off point. Given how short they are, one trade paperback seemed like far too little, so I arbitrarily chose to read three of them. The resulting experience failed to reach the standards of brevity and efficiency that I expect from stories, but I’ve chosen to at least show some leniency when it comes to loose-ends just in case they are going to be resolved in time. I will focus instead on how effective the story has been so far.
In a superhero story, nothing is more crucial than the superhero herself. Thankfully Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) is an excellent pillar for the series as a whole. She is not a particularly subtle or original character, but writer G. Willow Wilson has embraced the broad characteristics that make Kamala overpoweringly likeable. Whether she’s awkwardly bumbling her way through an interrogation by her overprotective parents or going gaga at the prospect of getting to fight alongside Wolverine, everything she does is pure nerdy, awkward “Kamala Khan.” The strength of her personality opens up the door to stories that are just as much about her emotional life as they are about the villains she’s fighting, and this not-fully-tapped potential is the greatest strength of the series. Visually, Kamala Khan is a triumph as well, at least as she is portrayed by lead-off artist, Adrian Alphona, who worked on the Apart from her excellent costume design (as revealed in issue #5), Kamala’s face is a perfect medium of expression. Her youth and awkwardness are made visible in every jutted-out chin, in every bit lip or strikingly wide-open grin.
Unfortunately, Adrian Alphona is not the only lead artist in the first fifteen issues, and none of the others are able to match the lofty standard he sets. Artists Elmo Bondoc (Issue #12) and Takeshi Miyazawa (Issues #13-15) put in strong efforts and produce results worth reading, but Jacob Wyatt (Issues #6-7) seems to have no idea how to draw the lead character. Kamala’s off-kilter expressions are conspicuously absent for both issues drawn in this style, along with her memorably curly hair, the result being that she doesn’t even look like the same person. So, although those issues maintain the same high level of character writing, and feature too many alligator-fights to be considered a waste of time, it’s impossible to be emotionally invested in a story about Kamala Khan when the protagonist simply looks so little like her.
Sadly, the story in the first three trades is more a lesson on wasted potential than it is effective in its own right. For instance, a striking idea introduced in the very first issue is that when Khan transforms into her superhero identity, her uncontrolled shapeshifting abilities turn her into a mirror image of Captain Marvel, the white, blonde superheroine she idolizes. This was a perfect opportunity for meditation on the nature of internalized racism when it comes to personal identity, but just as the comic seems positioned to tell a story about this, it drops the whole thing entirely and Kamala gains the ability to fight crime with her own skin tone and face (behind a mask, of course). While Kamala’s discomfort at reconciling her superhero identity with her Pakistani-American Muslim identity is still very much a part of her character afterwards, the most striking symbol of her anxiety is never properly addressed or explored. G. Willow Wilson already threw away the most striking symbol of that struggle for seemingly no reason. There’s a similarly slapdash effort in regard to Kamala’s conflict with her first major antagonist, a bird-headed man with the mind of Thomas Edison. In addition to the goofy fun of fighting the famous inventor’s army of robots and sewer-dwelling alligators, there is the outline of a truly great story here about the pressures the modern world places on millennials. Sadly, other than a couple of moments that allude to this theme in an intentionally obscure way, and one clumsy scene near the end of the arc where Kamala just outright states what the story’s theme is, there isn’t much work put into making the theme feel central to the action. If the angst of teenagers who feel nothing but despair for their futures was more deeply explored and felt, this would have been an incredible story, but what we got falls short of that.
If my standards for this comic were simply concerned with the broad strokes of the set-up and the potential of the series in a general sense, I would label Ms. Marvel a tremendous success. It stars a wonderful protagonist with a simple but interesting set of powers and some great art. It has a strong sense of identity, percolating with questions about how a child of immigrants can comfortably live as an American. Also, there’s an adorable giant dog—did I mention that? Of course, a story isn’t judged on the broad strokes alone, and it’s in the details that Ms. Marvel goes astray. It gestures toward a great story, but somehow never quite finds time to tell it.
Final Grade: C