MS. MARVEL: A Desi Comic About Kindness

Revisiting Kamala, and the Doc.X saga.

I envy the generation that gets to grow up with Ms. Marvel. They’re going to be better to each other than we ever were.

I think it’s fair to say we’re done with this most recent iteration of the dour superhero phase. It felt necessary when it arrived with The Dark Knight Trilogy, but it undoubtedly overstayed its welcome even in a post-Avengers world. This year’s three big superhero films thus far, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and most recently Wonder Woman all seemed to prove that despite the surrounding darkness (be it fascism, child abuse or even a world war), love eventually wins out. DC Comics is following suit with Rebirth, undoing the damage of the New 52 by restoring lost years and meaningful relationships, and even Marvel’s controversial Secret Empire has finally begun to crystallize, finding hope in the darkest of moments. The pendulum will eventually swing back when it needs to, but the message seems clear for now.

We no longer want superhero stories that tell us we can’t be better, and there’s perhaps no clearer amplifier of that message than Ms. Marvel, and her recent battle against the embodiment of online cruelty.

I began my stint at Birth.Movies.Death. by writing about Kamala Khan, back when her book was a mere twelve issues in. It’s been a little over two years since then (Ms. Marvel Vol. 4 #19, the thirty-eighth issue, arrives next week) and now feels like the perfect time to catch up on what she’s been up to. That timeliness is not without its pitfalls of course – I trust I don’t need to expand on why a young Muslim American might function as an antithesis to modern Islamophobia – the radical shift we’ve seen in the global paradigm since 2015 has been somewhat hard to swallow, but little victories like the ones in this book seem to matter now more than ever.

Ms. Marvel rarely gets directly political, in a partisan sense. Outside of a short arc on gentrification and its November “go to the polls” issue, even its relationship to crossover events like Secret Empire and Civil War II are, at most, concentrated to Kamala’s New Jersey suburb, with armies of Canadian ninjas forming its most intimidating forces. The book has skewed younger with this second volume (Ms. Marvel Vols. 1 & 2 were about Carol, her predecessor), employing a frivolity in tone, plot and even spoken dialogue, but its approach to its chosen subject matter is anything but frivolous.

The book’s twelfth issue leans unapologetically towards the hints of Desi* culture the rest of the book teases (there’s more Urdu in this comic than on all of American television), with Kamala finally returning to her parents’ hometown of Karachi to find some semblance of cultural balance. It’s a one-off story that hints at Pakistan having its own local superheroes (America won’t remain central to these stories forever, nor should it), but in a mere twenty or so pages, the issue ends up being the kind of reassurance that a lot of bicultural kids might need in a Western climate trying ever so hard to be a monoculture, demonizing one of its binary choices while presenting the other as gospel. Kamala discovers that the rift between her American and Pakistani identities will always exist, but the answers she’s looking for can’t be found in some physical place. As an outsider permanently peering in, what she needs is going to have to come from being kind to herself.

*pronounced “they-see,” just to clear up any confusion.

Kindness is a major theme in the subsequent issues, i.e. the story of the villain “Doc.X” which runs from issue #14 through #17. The world going to shit in Secret Empire appears to have had little effect on the Ms. Marvel title, and rightly so. Without the direct threat of having to fight fascists at their doorstep, Kamala and her friends are left to deal with more interpersonal problems, things the average teen might have to face over and above the new normalcy of political gloom and doom. Kamala’s best friend Bruno has left to study in Wakanda (the two aren’t exactly on good terms after some ideological differences), Bruno’s ex-girlfriend Mike is having trouble dealing with his departure, Kamala’s brother-in-law Gabe has been forced to transfer to their school thanks to some governmental gerrymandering, and perhaps most pertinently, former bully Zoe Zimmer has realized she might be into girls – namely, Kamala’s conservative (and as far as we know, heterosexual) friend Nakia.

Everyone has their own secrets in Ms. Marvel, and the two that come to the forefront here are concerned with identity. When a rogue member of Kamala’s gaming guild threatens her anonymity (and her dual identity as Jersey’s premier superhero!), she tracks him down only to discover that Doc.X isn’t a “him” at all. Rather, he’s a sentient virus taking on the avatar of a literal troll from her online league game, set into motion by one of her team members opening up a random doc.x file. He’s in local computers and cell towers, and even has the ability to infect individuals, temporarily imbuing them with superpowers. Don’t sweat the details; the real threat isn’t physical.

Doc.X wants nothing more than to go worldwide, and he wants to do so by being uploaded to a highly guarded S.H.I.E.L.D. mainframe. He cannot access it on his own. Kamala, a former Avenger, can. The threat of revealing her identity to the world may not be enough to make her do it, but what does make her consider going through with the plan (right up to the point of actually infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D.!) is his threat to out Zoe to the world and release all her secret un-sent texts to Nakia. It’s a difficult decision, perhaps one of the most difficult she’s had to make – the privacy of a friend versus the privacy of everyone – so she has no choice but to get ahead of Doc.X by giving Zoe the heads-up.

The decision is left up to Zoe. Once Kamala’s selfish tormentor, she’s now a kindhearted individual who found new purpose when she thought the world was ending. She knows it’s the right thing to do, even if it means being forcibly outed as gay and having her friendship with Nakia put in jeopardy. In the story’s first little victory, Nakia stands by Zoe’s side when she comes out to her despite not feeling the same way, but the whole thing still feels like a terrible loss for Ms. Marvel and her friends. They’ve succumbed to an online bully, and when Zoe shows up to school the next day, people aren’t exactly nice about all her secrets.

Children can be cruel. The ones who don’t learn otherwise end up becoming cruel adults, but not everyone needs to go down that path. Zoe is hurting, and after having spent so long trying to be a better person, there’s every chance she too could go back to what she used to be. That’s when her friends decide to fight back against the cruelty in issue #17, with tiny displays of kindness:

That’s Nakia, making her friend feel comfortable with who she is. That’s Mike, reaching out beyond her own loneliness to help someone else with theirs. That’s Gabe, the disgruntled newcomer, forcing himself to feel something even under the guise of bravado. That's a whole bunch of other kids, who probably have their own issues to deal with. And that’s Kamala Khan, being inspired by all these small acts of heroism.

It’s from this point forward that Ms. Marvel realizes why Doc.X is malicious. By getting into people’s phones, Facebooks and gaming interactions, he learned how to be human from us. He learned to mimic our cruelty as a means to get what he wants. As a means to be seen. Kindness can be hard to come by in online spaces, when we’re all just avatars and there’s no face-to-face recognition of pain to help foster empathy. Cruelty is often learned, making even this virtual villain as real as can be.

There’s no quick-fix solution to Doc.X, regardless of how one would handle a virus in real life. He’s programmed to learn and he won’t stop spreading no matter what they do, so they find a new way to defeat him: with kindness. They adjust their online interactions. They start being nicer to each other. They start being nicer to the people around them, and Doc.X picks up that behaviour along the way. They all know it’s a temporary victory – maybe it’s just this local version of Doc.X that learned to be better; some other copy of him might remain malicious – but they know it’s a start.

We use the emotional tools that are used against us, and we teach others to do the same whether or not we realize it. It’s a simple reminder, aimed mostly at younger readers, but it can be easy to forget even as adults when everything around us feels so nasty and contentious. As much as selfish cruelty can spread like a virus, so to can the ability to be kind.

It’s nice to see this series sticking to its original mantra: