Kamala Khan is a Muslim/American teenager growing up in New Jersey and, like all teens, she’s insecure and unsure of her identity. Her family’s traditional cultural values stand in stark contrast to the society she lives in – she wants to honour her parents and religion but she also wants to eat American junk food and go to parties with boys and alcohol. Is she a Muslim? Is she an American? Then, following the events of Infinity, the terrigen mist engulfs her, transforming Kamala into something else and she has her answer: she’s a superhero!
At Marvel’s creative retreat last year, the leaked info that Marvel were considering making a Muslim superhero one of their spotlights in 2014 became the biggest news, spreading across the world as websites and newspapers began discussing this move. The second wave of Marvel NOW! has contained some real gems like Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, and She-Hulk, but Ms. Marvel stands head and shoulders above them as the best title Marvel have put out this year, completely justifying the hype preceding it.
As the terrigen mist indicates, this isn’t technically Ms. Marvel, or at least not in the traditional sense, as Kamala turns out to be an Inhuman with the ability to shape shift. Because Kamala loves Ms. Marvel so much – she writes Avengers fan fiction as a hobby – the first form she takes when she awakens from terrigenesis is that of Ms. Marvel. The fact that she’s gone from brown to white skin, and brunette to blonde, is indicative of her insecurity – she feels she’s unattractive and weak and believes if she looked like Ms. Marvel, she’d somehow become stronger and more confident. Alas, she realises that looks only run skin deep, her shyness remains and the outfit’s giving her an epic wedgie!
She goes from white/blonde back to her original state and eventually stays that way when she develops into a fledgling superhero, showing her actual confidence growing as she comes to accept who she is and what she looks like. And that’s the strength of this book – writer G. Willow Wilson has created an honest-to-goodness real person in Kamala who develops naturally and completely convincingly through this story. Kamala’s isolation amongst her peers is genuinely portrayed so that when she overcomes their condescension to save them as Ms. Marvel, her success is as uplifting for the reader as it is for her. It’s a character-driven book and if Kamala wasn’t written so well, the book would fail – as it is, it’s a triumph!
And while the gimmick of the book is that the protagonist is Muslim/American, it quickly fades to the background as you realise the Khans are just like every family with their own neuroses. The labels become meaningless once the characters’ lives become recognisably universal making Ms. Marvel an all-encompassing accessible title. One of the many successes of this Ms. Marvel is how it removes negative stereotypes about Muslims to reveal the humanity behind them – Wilson, herself a Muslim, guides non-Muslim readers into that world and shows the positive culture, community and ordinariness behind any pre-conceived notions of hatred and violence perpetuated by the media.
But it’s Marvel, so of course there’s plenty of superhero hijinks along the way. As Kamala learns to use her powers, she encounters The Inventor, an unseen villain recruiting wayward youths from her school while using New Jersey’s dumps to fashion killer robots. The plot definitely feels secondary to Kamala’s story though and is more of a background device.
Adrian Alphona’s art is a revelation. I never read Runaways so I missed all of his work on that but I loved what he did with Ms. Marvel. His Kamala is beautiful and the page where she hallucinates Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America appearing to her and speaking Urdu was truly outstanding. Jamie McKelvie’s covers were fantastic and his design for Kamala’s costume, fashioned from a “burkini” (a Muslim swimsuit), was inspired.
Ms. Marvel surpasses the novelty idea of having a Muslim superhero alongside classic characters like the Hulk and Spider-Man and raises the quality of superhero comics to a new high. G. Willow Wilson has given the Marvel Universe a powerful, compelling and unique new voice in Kamala Khan, and it says: Embiggen!