Power & Responsibility: Why MS. MARVEL Matters
One of my favourite things about cape comics is the might of the moniker. Names, concepts and symbols that grow in popularity and eventually take on a certain meaning in the public consciousness, many of them recognizable since well before superheroes were all the rage. Often times Marvel and DC will switch things up by giving an existing title to a new character in an effort to either boost sales for a limited period, to explore existing iconography by viewing it in a different light, or in many cases, both. What does it mean now that the mantle of an every-man hero like Spidey has fallen to a kid of mixed ethnicity? Or that Thor’s hammer, a symbol of masculine strength for thousands of years, is now wielded by a woman? Or that the name Captain America now belongs to the first Africa-America superhero, Sam Wilson? For the longest time, these changes were temporary. Many of them still are, and the constant re-shuffling of rosters and identities is something that comic fans are all too familiar with. But what if it’s different now? What if it’s no longer a short-term shake-up of the status quo, but a shift in the nature of the status quo itself? What if the new normal is the exploration of bold and unfamiliar ideas, something that’s in constant motion as it discovers itself along the way?
Perhaps there is no normal anymore, which is fitting since No Normal happens to be the title of Kamala Khan’s first story arc. And perhaps striking down the idea that there was ever one single ‘normal’ to begin with is somewhat necessary.
If you had told me a couple of years ago that Marvel would put out a comic headlined by a Muslim teen whose parents were from Pakistan, I’d have been hesitant, but I may have believed you. However, if you had told me that Marvel would also grant her their very namesake, or that her first appearance would sell out seven times over in print, or that its digital sales would eclipse everything from The Avengers to Uncanny X-Men, or that her first trade paperback would outsell the likes of Batman and The Amazing Spider-Man the month of its release, well, that would’ve been a different story. Kamala Khan isn’t the first character to go by Ms. Marvel, and she probably won’t be the last. But for now, and likely for some time to come, she’s the most important Ms. Marvel there is.
The name was first used by Carol Danvers a good decade or so after she played the damsel/love-interest to Marvel’s first Captain Marvel, the Kree warrior Mar-Vell. Since then, both names have been used by various characters over the years until Carol was finally allowed to take up the mantle of her mentor. It felt like a long time coming, and the vacant title of Ms. Marvel was subsequently claimed by a sixteen-year-old girl who writes fan-fiction about the new Captain Marvel, and even has a Captain Marvel poster on her wall. She’s a superhero for the Tumblr generation, and the kind of superhero fan that exists in a world where The Avengers was as influential on the popular culture as Star Wars. The kind of geek that slaves away on cosplay the way Kamala does over her outfit, huddled over in her room, contemplating the deeper implications of its symbolism before putting it on. The kind of Internet fan that spends time deconstructing mythos and re-writing it to suit their outlook or orientation. The kind of nerd that the most nerds of today can relate to, the same way nerds of the ‘60s related to Spider-Man.
Orphaned at a young age like many a child of the Vietnam era, Peter Parker was the perfect encapsulation of a generation looking for something to keep them hopeful. In a decade defined by the space race, a presidential assassination, a civil rights movement, a cold war and an actual war, these ideas and events that were bigger than the nitty-gritties of everyday life and the kids experiencing them, he was a figure that embodied the issues that other comic book companies like DC and Charlton weren’t showing at the time, issues that they could fully comprehend. When everyone was either involved in slapstick Silver Age antics, or pedestalized as a God or Goddess with their chests puffed out, Spidey came swinging through the pages and showed American readers what it felt like to have to balance the every day problems of a teenager while also having the power to do something more. Kamala Khan faces those same issues, but in an entirely different context. The east coast of the United States, where most Marvel stories take place, is a wildly different landscape today, and the market for comic books has expanded all across the globe. The Internet and social media have a large part to play in all this, as well as in the changing face of globalism that allows today’s youth to grow up with the influence of multiple cultures. But America and the world are also defined by the post-9/11 political climate and the ensuing ‘War On Terror,’ a major downside of which happens to be rampant Islamophobia.
To many people, Islam, the Middle East, Muslim countries and people who look generally Middle Eastern/South Asian all fit the bill for “the enemy,” and it doesn’t help that the military industrial complex still paints Iraq and Afghanistan as direct threats to America’s freedom. I’ve had to face Islamophobia myself, and I’m pretty sure I’m not Muslim, though my grandparents are from the same place as Kamala’s parents, so I can’t help but feel a certain kinship. She’s both the first Muslim and the first South Asian to headline a mainstream American superhero comic, which is a pretty big deal all things considered, though of course with comic book fans being as resistant to change as they generally are, the initial announcement didn’t go over smoothly with some folks.
The accusations of it being a ‘gimmick’ were as rampant as they’re going to be if the new Spider-Man movie doesn’t feature a white guy named Chris, and all the usual buzzwords were abound. Placation, pandering, political correctness, you name it. My favourite comment was from someone who asked “Why don’t they just make her a disabled lesbian too?”, to which I thought…. Sure, why not? That’d be a really great story since people like that, you know, actually exist and what not, but the comment was revelatory of something much more deeply rooted. Certain stories don’t get told because certain people are seen as so far outside of the ‘norm’ as dictated by mainstream media that their very identities are treated as accessories you can tick off like a box.
There are, at this very moment, well over two and half million Muslims in the United States, and very few of their stories are being told. Homeland had CIA officers Danny Galvez and Fara Sherazi involved in plots that were already about militant extremism. The closest thing I’ve seen to a dramatization of the Muslim American diaspora and its experiences on film is actually a documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, in which Muslim American comedians tour the southern United States and literally tell people their stories because movies and television won’t. There’s also Community’s Abed Nadir, whose singular episode about his lineage reveals his father’s cultural expectations of him, and while portraying a Muslim American without his ethno-cultural identity being a factor IS important purely in terms of normalizing the idea that non-extremist Muslims exist (or as most Muslims call them…. Muslims), there’s very little by way of actual insight into the struggles faced by bi-cultural first generation kids from South Asian and/or Muslim families. In that sort of cultural setting where entire groups of people aren’t fully or even partially understood by the majority of the public, a comic book like Ms. Marvel is incredibly important.
The first issue, and much of the first volume, focuses on Kamala’s individual identity, a huge part of which involves the cultural clash between her parents and her immediate surroundings. Jusuf and Disha Khan (or ‘Abu’ and ‘Ammi’ and she affectionately calls them) moved from Karachi to Jersey City before she and her brother Aamir were born, and like the generation that raised them, they raised their own son and their daughter with different standards. Who they could spend time with, how late they could stay out, what they could wear, and Kamala, having picked two X chromosomes from the genetic hat, ended up being the child they wanted to ‘protect’ more. Most first issues of seminal runs tend to focus on some sort of tragedy, or on active decisions leading to a bold feat of heroism, but Ms. Marvel (like its central heroine) starts out a little different: will Kamala be able to sneak out and go to a party?
She does, mind you, but after learning the host only invited her as a joke, she wanders off and gets gassed by a cloud of Terrigen Mist (ugh, typical millennial) and after talking to a hallucination of her idol Carol Danvers, she wishes she could be beautiful, and ‘normal’ as she was forced to perceive it, and ‘fit in’ like everybody else. She emerges from her Terrigenesis cocoon (as kids these days do) as an Inhuman with the ability to heal and to shape shift…. Only at first, she’s only able to take the shape of Carol Danvers, the tall blue-eyed blonde from her posters, and the archetype for western beauty that she grew up idolizing.
The comic book industry has, for the longest time, presented a warped female body image, allowing little to no room for not only different body types, but for even questioning the existing portrayals. Save for She-Hulk, and more recently Squirrel-Girl, few superhero characters have been used to touch on the subject of the kind of insecurity that comes with living in a society where everything is hyper-sexualized for the male gaze. It’s worse for the characters within the Marvel universe because for them, that contorted, hyper-sexual imagery isn’t just an aesthetic, it’s reality. And, like the superheroes we’re used to seeing on our pages, the real-life heroes that Kamala grew up with were almost exclusively those that fit a narrow standard of beauty and femininity. Then again, it’s not too far off from our own reality, and the best comics are usually the ones that can turn our world and its problems up to eleven while still managing to tackle them.
Kamala inadvertently molds herself to fit that particular image, which doesn’t sound so bad in theory (if you can ignore the fact that she’s incapable of seeing herself as beautiful because of her ethnicity) but to make matters worse, she can’t heal when she’s in disguise. She finally looks the way she’s always wanted to, the only way she thought she’d be accepted (both socially and as a superhero), but the façade is literally bleeding her dry. Pretending to be something she isn’t is taking too much of a toll on her, and the only way she can do anything about her wounds and her scars is by facing them head on, as no one but herself.
When she starts to face questions about her identity and her place in the world, every aspect of her existence comes into question. Now that she’s an Inhuman, and more importantly a superhero thrust into this massive shared continuity at the age of sixteen, what is she supposed do? How is she to proceed? Who is she meant to become? Does she choose the path set by her school, her peers, her city and her celebrities? Or does she follow the traditions and values laid out before her by her parents and their parents before them? How the book deals with this particular topic is one of the things I’m most thankful for. Writer G. Willow Wilson is an American Muslim herself, and having been both a white woman in Egypt and a hijabi Muslim in America, she’s able to bring unique insight to the topic of both internal and external cultural struggle.
Everything from Kamala’s look to her Friday-night dilemmas draws directly from the heart of the story, one of cultural identity, and her costume is perhaps the best reflection of this idea.
She fashions it out of South Asian garb, painting the logo of an American superhero onto her kameez, and tucking her salwaar into her combat boots. Her outfit isn’t too revealing (especially compared to what we’re used to), keeping it in line with the notions of modesty she was raised with, but her dupatta, a scarf usually worn to cover the head or the upper body, blows in the wind like Superman’s cape. Her bracelets are similar to those worn by Wonder Woman, only it seems like she made them out of bangles bought at an Indian market in Queens. Her mask is simple, like that of Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes, and the colours she uses feel intentionally reminiscent of Spider-Man, as well as the other popular characters I just mentioned. They also happen to be the colours of the American flag, and in combining western superheroes with eastern tradition, her costume becomes a vibrant cultural hybrid, just like she is.
The downside to multiple identities, however, is that they can contradict each other, especially when it comes to moral outlook. After questioning her Imam about the rules of their local mosque, rules Kamala perceives as archaic and sexist, she’s forced by her parents to go back to him for a chat she thinks is going to be nothing more than a lecture. Instead, he decides to listen to her, and Kamala opens up about her double life, all but telling him that she moonlights as a superhero. She doesn’t want to disobey her parents, but sometimes she feels like she has to in order to help people. Instead of the talk about values and modesty that she expected, her Imam simply tells her that she may be in need of a teacher, and that when she’s ready to learn, the right one will appear. How fitting that just a few pages after she considers quitting because of the pressure, she runs into a famous Marvel hero who represents virtue and levelheadedness…. Wait, no, she runs into Wolverine.
Her first big adventure is alongside the newly de-powered X-Men mascot, and it’s such a hoot. She fan-girls all over him, constantly asks about the other mutants and Avengers he hangs out with, and even helps him fight a giant crocodile. More importantly, though, Wolverine teaches her that, healing factor or not, when you’re knocked down, the most important thing is to keep getting back up. She eventually starts accepting her identity, learning about herself as an individual, and about her secret lineage from Queen Medusa of the Inhumans. She even gets to hang out with their adorable teleporting dog Lockjaw for a few issues! The book is weird and fun, and has no dearth of tender moments between Kamala and her family, but perhaps the most fascinating thing about it is just how much it’s able to deal with in the span of its first twelve issues.
The questions of her individual identity have, for the time being, been answered. She has a better idea of who she is and how she fits in to a world of adult superheroes. Even though she’s still figuring it out, she’s begun to accept that the way to do that isn’t by rejecting one part of her cultural identity in favour of another. It’s by trying to find a balance between them. (In the most recent issue, she even found another young Muslim Inhuman who shares her taste in video games and Indian cinema!) Now that she’s on the path of individual self-acceptance, the next big question that comes up isn’t just about her, it’s about her entire generation, and how it fits into the grand scheme of things, in the second story arc entitled Generation Why.
Ms. Marvel’s first major nemesis comes in the form of The Inventor. He’s a fun, weird, sinister little character who’s part bird (no more or less ridiculous than your average Spider-Man villain) and he uses his tech-savvyness to kidnap kids and turn them into batteries. Yikes! He’s an unsettling blend of Miyazaki and The Matrix, one who sounds an awful lot like Mojo Jojo in my head, and he’s probably going to go down as one of the most cliché of the Marvel villains, but as it turns out, he’s not the story’s big-bad. I don’t mean there’s someone else pulling the strings - though there very well could be - I mean that the major reveal is that these kids aren’t actually being kidnapped, or even brainwashed.. They’re submitting themselves willingly to be turned into energy for the world’s consumption, because it’s the only way they feel useful.
It’s clear where writer Wilson and editor/co-creator Sana Amanat’s perspectives on Islam and bi-culturalism come from, but I’m curious as to where they got their insights into the bleak outlook that most millennials seem to have, because I’ve never seen it articulated quite so poignantly. The constant threats of terrorism and climate change. Growing up in a toppled post-war economy. The massive increase in college tuition in comparison to the stagnancy of minimum wage. All these things have left a lot of today’s kids believing the American Dream is a thing of the past, and that hard work and perseverance are no longer enough to get by, and part of the reason these kids want to make this sacrifice is also the constant threat of annihilation. Most people reading this remember how much the world changed on September 11th 2001, but for kids today, it’s the only world they’ve ever known. Feeling old yet? America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the scramble to find alternative fuel sources are their normal. Their status quo. And there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. “If we could harness that energy, we wouldn’t need to kill each other over oil,” one of them explains to Kamala. “We’re parasites, basically. Kids are, I mean.”
Sadly, that perspective isn’t something that was pulled out of thin air. The constant sense of nihilism and helplessness when it comes to the big picture is something that starts with what’s going on all around us, and is reflected back to us by so many of our stories being apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. The Cold War was a potential threat that led to some fascinating strides in comic book storytelling, but things like global warming or some new virus strain wiping us out feel like inevitabilities. The digital generation is told that it has things easy, and while that’s true in terms of most technology, it unfortunately goes hand-in-hand with the underlying fear that our presence in the physical world is temporary, so we create our own digital one. We create the kind of image we feel like we don’t have the time or ability to cultivate in real life, something that’ll probably outlast us. Kamala, like so many kids her age, looks in the mirror by using her phone’s front camera. Perhaps in the ultimate act of forcing older generations to get used to our habits, she even makes Wolverine take a selfie with her! She also tells him about the superhero fan-fiction she writes, because like so many superhero fans of today, she wants to be in charge of the narrative because there’s more than enough uncertainty elsewhere. And maybe, just maybe, this is part of her path. To accept who she is as an individual, and help the kids of today accept their situation, their outlook and how they’re perceived by adults, and help them fight to make the most of it. So she tries her best to get through to the kids who feel like giving up, amidst taunts from this creature that represents all the things we’ve been told we can’t do or become:
“This is what heroism comes down to, Ms. Marvel. In the end, you’re all alone.”
“You’re wrong. A hero is just somebody who tries to do the right thing even when it’s hard. There are more of us than you think… Yeah, we’ve gotta do something drastic. But not this. This is not saving the world. This is admitting that it’s over. This is saying our generation will never matter. But we have to matter. If we don’t, there’s no future worth saving.”
The wonderful thing about this kind of take on heroism is that while it’s nothing new, it’s infused with a new kind of energy for a new generation, and it’s something that’s slowly but surely starting to extend to the real world, in more ways than one. Earlier this year, the American branch of the Freedom Defense Initiative (categorized as a hate-group in the UK) purchased a number of ad spaces on buses in San Francisco and used them to spread Islamophobic bigotry. Then, an anonymous comic book fan did something that, for once, seemed to represent the kind of ideals that superheroes would stand for:
I am mad in love with whomever's plastering over the Islamophobic bus ads with images of Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel! pic.twitter.com/HO6ixOovF5— rat smellio (@marsepan) January 27, 2015
The buses were defaced with pictures of the new Ms. Marvel. It’s technically vandalism, but as consumers of media that revolves around vigilante justice, I think we can find it within ourselves to appreciate the audacity, and the fact that Ms. Marvel is becoming a symbol of real-world acceptance.
More than just sporadic acts, modern Marvel fandom has started to develop into its own unique entity. The Carol Corps, and by extension its baby the Kamala Corps, is made up of groups of online Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel fans (largely female and/or queer) who in addition to going gaga over their favorite lady-led comics each week, create safe spaces for comic book fans who might not find it in the ego-centric, male dominated discussion forums, and they even make sure to help each other out in real life when necessary. Kelly Sue DeConnick, the amazing woman in charge of Captain Marvel, is actively involved in a lot of the events and discussions about diversity in media. This past New York Comic Con, the Women of Marvel panel featured about 17 creators including DeConnick, Wilson and Amanat, and was followed by a bunch of fan interaction and group photographs. Occasions like these usually involve fans giving creators some sort of gift in return (I’ve seen everything from Ms. Marvel hats to knitted Carol dolls) and many online comic book fandoms even act as charities and support structures. This summer, Marvel’s even putting out a comic called Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, and the lines between fiction and reality are starting to blur in interesting, new ways.
Kamala is part of this new feminist movement in comics, one working towards more inclusivity, more diversity and more direct interaction between creators and readers. She’s part of tearing down the walls between the ‘norm’ and the outliers, and the blistering success of Ms. Marvel only goes to show that fans are ready to accept new kinds of characters, and new voices with important stories to tell. Marvel, in addition to big companies like Image and DC, are beginning to respond in kind, and the world is already starting to take notice. What’s the next step? Well, it’s probably more than just one step. It’s more than one staircase as far as I can tell. It’s keeping the conversation going. It’s asking for stories that need to be told and letting the big companies and studios know that we’ll show up if they tell them. It’s about spreading the word about these new characters and why they’re important, and it’s about shedding light on perspectives and experiences that can help expand our own point of view on the people around us.
Honestly, though, the most exciting ‘next step’ I can think of is probably the most obvious one: bringing Kamala and characters like her to a bigger canvas, and the fact that there are movies about both Captain Marvel and The Inhumans on the horizon makes me pretty hopeful. Just imagine the post-credit sequence of one of these films. Captain Marvel stands triumphant, as the camera pulls back to reveal she’s one of several posters on a wall full of superheroes. A voice calls out, “Kamala, dinner!” as young girl responds: “Coming, Ammi!” We get a glimpse of her scraggly hair before she rushes downstairs, unaware of the adventure that awaits her. Imagine the response something like that would garner…. After all, the fans seem to be ready for it.
Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do.