Monday, November 7, 2016

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel
  • Publisher: Marvel Comics 
  • Writer: G. Willow Wilson 
  • Artists: Adrian Alphona, et. al. 
  • Editor: Sana Amanat 
  • Release: 05 February 2014 - 14 October 2015 
Call it crazy, but I'm not that familiar with American superhero comics. Yes, I'm well-acquainted with the sequential art form, and have even dabbled in it myself, but much of that experience comes from webcomics or Japanese manga. And I do have a working knowledge of the characters of that medium, but most of it comes from the other corners of their pop-culture exposure, especially their movies. Still, every so often a bit of news comes out of the comic-book sphere which captures my attention to some degree. For example, when I heard about the new Ms. Marvel series from 2014, I was intrigued, because this new interpretation of the character would represent a heroic role model for a people long marginalized in not just this medium, but society in macrocosm: people from Jersey City! Oh, and Muslims. Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim-American hero to come out of Marvel Comics' lineup. I guess I should have mentioned that first.

So yeah. This series stars a sixteen-year-old, Pakistani-American girl named Kamala Khan. (If you read her name without thinking of Captain Kirk's immortal scream from Star Trek II, you are stronger-willed than I. Even the series itself falls victim to it later on.) Well, on her way home from a bad party, she finds herself enveloped in a strange mist, sees a vision of Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Captain America reciting Urdu poetry, and the next thing she knows, she has shapeshifting powers. First of all, a disclaimer: I am not making any of that up. Second, you may be wondering, as did I, how did this event come about? Surely it was a completely random occurrence, you might think. Well apparently, this mist was the product of something called a Terrigen bomb, which awoke various powers in a select few people. I'm guessing this happened in a different story, so a little extra knowledge on current events in the Marvel universe would not go amiss.

So enough about Kamala as a superhero, how is she as a Muslim character? See, here's the thing: if I told you, without any other context whatsoever, that someone at Marvel was creating a Muslim hero, odds are your impression of her would be that her appearance, or even her powers, would be an obvious, overly basic representation of her religious heritage.
For example. [1]  And that would not be farther from the truth. In fact, one of the things that struck me the most about Kamala, both in her civilian and hero personae, is that apart from when attending her local mosque, she never wears a headscarf. Now, as an outsider, I have my own preconceptions about Muslims. Not that they are all terrorists out to destroy the Western world, perish the thought. Heck, I'd go so far as to say that over 99% of Muslims are law-abiding citizens. But I still tend to instinctively identify them as, for lack of a better term, some kind of "Stop Having Fun" guys; I mean, they strictly adhere to certain rules which I may or may not view as reasonable. Speaking as an outsider, I'm not a fan of the hijab in principle. I wouldn't go yanking off the hijabs of women I pass walking by or anything, but I'd prefer them to stop and think about why they wear it. For what it's worth, both the writer (G. Willow Wilson) and editor (Sana Amanat) are Muslim women (either by birth or conversion), and also grew up in Jersey City to boot, so I have faith that they know what they're doing.

The situations Kamala deals with in her civilian life are actually quite universal.
Even so, the restrictions Kamala's parents try (and fail) to put on her have less to do with their religion, and are more so the concerns of parents trying to keep their child safe and out of trouble. The most important thing about building a character like this, is that they shouldn't be defined by only one trait (Islam, in this case). It's a complex issue, and there's no golden ratio to follow every time, but if I could personally give you a piece of advice: nobody likes a one-trick pony. [2]  Indeed, Kamala is no one-trick pony. She's a self-professed geek who enjoys playing not-World Of Warcraft, singing along with old Bollywood movies, and writing Avengers fan-fiction (Mind you, the Avengers are real people in her universe). She even has fangirl freak-outs when she meets other heroes like Wolverine, Spider-Man, Loki, and the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, in the flesh, as it were. She bristles against her strict parents, and sometimes endures bullying from her peers, but they all manage to see the good in each other in the end. She barely even wears a hijab; only when going to services at her local mosque, or on other special occasions. And the one moment I connected with her the most with had nothing to do with her religion.

Without spoiling too much (outside of spoiler tags, that is), the villain of the first arc has convinced a number of teens to submit themselves to his evil plan, namely to use their bodies as a clean energy source. Kamala manages to talk them out of it by convincing them that, despite the older generations branding them as useless, their talents can still be used to build a better world with them in it. What struck me about this passage is that the villain's logic parallels the way ISIL and other terror groups attempt to recruit young members, by making them think they're standing up for their brethren, when in fact they're just throwing their lives away, in some cases literally, all for killing their fellow man. And do you want to know the funny thing about all this? Not once is Islam even referred to in this case. It just goes to show the power comic books have, to use these more fantastical stories as allegories to real-life affairs, without coming across as forced. And then the villain, a reincarnation of Thomas Edison with a bird's head, barges in on a robot wearing a bowler hat, because comics are weird like that.

DISCLAIMER: I was not making up that robot-bowler-hat thing.
So, enough of the heavy stuff; let's get technical. Ms. Marvel has had numerous artists throughout its run, but most issues were drawn by Adrian Alphona. His style is... an acquired taste, shall I say, because it's kind of sketchy.  Literally, anyway.  That may bug some people and not others, so if I may make a more objective observation, I do like the numerous background jokes he throws in here and there. For example, Kamala can be seen in a few panels eating her preferred breakfast cereal called "GMO's" (a play on Cheerios and Genetically Modified Organisms, if you didn't get it). My personal favourite artist to have worked on Ms. Marvel is Takeshi Miyazawa from issues #13-15, whose style is far cleaner and more closely resemble true manga, but again, that's just my opinion.

I came in to Ms. Marvel expecting a different, more positive, portrayal of Muslims in America, and I got that all right, but so much more on top of it. I got somebody trying to find her own place in an unforgiving world, but rising up at the end of it all to stand up for my generation, as a Millenial. And while the ending of this 19-issue series wasn't quite satisfying, there is thankfully a second Ms. Marvel series, continuing to this day, picking up where the first one left off (as part of the franchise-wide "All-New, All-Different Marvel" quasi-reboot). This year I've started getting into western superhero comics, and I couldn't ask for a better jumping-on point than Ms. Marvel. Thank you, Kamala Khan, for teaching me how to love again.

+ Kamala Khan is a positive role model for... just about everyone.
+ Well-written characters, whether they represent minorities or not.
+ Plenty of humourous background details.

- The first series sort of ends on a whimper.
- Adrian Alphona's art style is a bit sketchy.

Dialogue: 5 robot bowler hats out of 5
Plot: 4 robot bowler hats out of 5
Characters: 5 robot bowler hats out of 5
Artwork: 4 robot bowler hats out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Furthermore, if I may be allowed to editorialise for a bit: Ms. Marvel, both the series and the character herself, are perfect reasons why Donald Trump should not be elected President of the United States. Although Kamala herself was born in Jersey City, her parents emigrated from Pakistan before she was born. If a president like Trump were calling the shots at the time, Kamala's parents would never have made it to America, and her story would not even have the chance to have happened. So that's two strikes against his racist isolation doctrine. Whereas the world according to Trump collectively sorts people into preordained and assumed roles, I, on the other hand, personally believe that everybody in this world has the potential to contribute to their society. This also ties into what was the most emotionally engaging moment I read in the series thus far: the bit where Ms. Marvel encouraged all those teenagers not to throw their lives away, and contribute to a better society in their own ways. As the great philosopher Bobby Nunn once said, "Don't knock it until you try it".

I'm IchigoRyu, and I approve this message.

You are the resistance.
[1] Wilstein, Matt. "Twitter Goes After Conan O'Brien for 'Racist' Muslim Female Superhero Joke". Mediaite, 9 November 2013.

[2] MrEnter. "Avoiding Unfortunate Implications: The Characters". deviantART, 10 April 2016.