First Impressions – MS. MARVEL #1

Ms.-Marvel-1-Cover

Once upon a time, Air Force officer Carol Danvers gained superpowers. She donned a costume and became the distaff counterpart to Captain Marvel. Years later, Carol would become so respected (both in universe and in real life), that she took her rightful place as Captain Marvel proper. But that left a void, one that had to be filled. There’s a new MS. MARVEL in town, and she’s young, newly empowered, and ready to prove herself in the world.

And yes, she is Muslim. It’s a pretty big deal.

Way back in the day, Marvel created the superhero Captain Marvel (or rather Mar-Vell) to take advantage of the lapsed legal rights to that name (thereby forcing DC to market their resurrected Captain Marvel under the “Shazam” branding). Marvel’s Captain Marvel never really became all that popular; he was mainly used as platform to spin off a pantheon of intergalactic alien characters. Nonetheless, one of his supporting characters – Carol Danvers – was eventually given superpowers because of phlebotinum. She became Ms. Marvel, and lasted in her own series…until it was quickly canceled. Then she spent several years being abused and thrown around by writers. Mind control, rape, mind control rape, alcoholism, and being deserted by her idiotic “allies” in the Avengers. There were also space adventures somewhere in there. Again, those years were not kind to Ms. Marvel.

Eventually though, Marvel got its act together and made Carol into a big name female superhero, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if she showed up in an Avengers movie somewhere down the line. She was so popular, so beloved, that it was inevitable she’d drop the “Ms” and just upgrade to Captain Marvel. So she did, and it’s how things have been ever since.

But what to do with the old Ms. Marvel identity? Why create a new character to fill in the slot, of course!

Enter MS. MARVEL #1 and our new protagonist, Kamala Khan. She’s from a Muslim family. I say this because the comic doesn’t let its readers forget the fact. Kamala is a normal high school girl who struggles with family and religious traditions that set her aside from the rest of her peers. Traditions that mainly involve certain food taboos and strict parents. Honestly, her family (as well as that of her more faithful best friend Nakia) are fairly westernized; pretty chill, to the point where Kamala isn’t required to wear a head scarf (Nakia isn’t either, but does so of her own volition). Except for her uncle, who refuses to get a job; he says because he won’t work for a business that violates Islamic beliefs, while his brother, Kamala’s father, says it’s because he’s shiftless. And a loving mother who doesn’t understand all the weird stuff kids get into these days. In short, a family with members who run the gamut of cultural and religious adherence. Just like a normal family. I think that’s the key point here: the book is trying to portray its minority cast as sympathetic, relateable characters. This is good, because the Islamic community doesn’t have the best image to the average ignorant American; unlike introducing a racial or ethnic minority character, this book would otherwise face an uphill battle. It’s all very good stuff.

I just wish issue one didn’t spend most of the page count dwelling on this, because it means Kamala doesn’t get around to her “getting superpowers” event until the very end.

Anyway, Kamala specifically is a teenager who grew up in America; specifically New Jersey, something far more offensive than her religious roots. Just kidding New Jersey, I just can’t resist low hanging fruit. Because she’s a teenager, Kamala wants to be accepted by her peer group. The problem is that her peer group is made up mostly of phonies (in the J.D. Salinger sense), and feels like her family’s strictness (mostly about keeping Halal and not going to wild parties) alienates her.

Oh, and she’s a raging Avengers fangirl. She writes Avengers/space unicorn crossover fanfiction. I suddenly love this girl and wish her no ill.

msMarvel-no1-giantWedgeHeels

When she sneaks out of the house to go to the wild party she was forbid from going to, Kamala doesn’t have a good time. The aforementioned phonies and all. When she leaves, she and everyone who happens to be out and about that night are caught in some weird fog. I can only guess that writer G. Willow Wilson decided to go the Static Shock route, and give a whole bunch of people superpowers because of mysterious bang-baby gas. I know this because Kamala immediately starts tripping balls, and sees visions of Captain Marvel, Captain America, Iron Man, and flying sloths, all chanting a Middle Eastern language that I can’t read because I’m an ignorant American. After an extended and pretty funny scene, Kamala wakes up as the old Ms. Marvel. Not in her costume, but completely as her.

This issue doesn’t actually explain it all, but from supplementary comics I read somewhere it turns out she now has shapeshifting powers. I am completely down with this.

Going slightly off topic, not nearly enough works give their characters shapeshifting powers. Furthermore, not nearly enough do shapeshifting in interesting ways. But it’s basically a goldmine of power, up there with telekinesis as being capable of replicating any number of other powers so long as the user is creative. And like telekinesis, rarely do writers put the effort into being creative, deciding instead to find a couple things that sticking exclusively to those. Moreover, this is a bold but positive move for a new Ms. Marvel. Just giving Kamala all of Carol’s old Kree powers would just be boring, and make Kamala’s presence redundant. Here the character can be pulled in different directions.

In fact, MS. MARVEL #1 in general takes a lot of bold steps. The only other Muslim superhero I can think of in recent memory is Green Lantern Simon Baz, a guy who received a lot of attention when he was introduced in Geoff Johns’ run, but then kind of fell out of the GL books when he left. Now I think he’s mainly in the Justice League books, which is a shame. Unlike Baz however, whose Islamic background explored the less pleasant side of their culture’s treatment in the US, Kamala Khan’s is treated positively. While she’s certainly not accepted by the phonies surrounding her, Kamala’s family isn’t shown to be oppressed. This I think makes sense, given that MS. MARVEL definitely swings for a teenage audience or thereabouts, and thus is brighter in general.

Then again, most anything can seem bright by comparison to DC these days. I love you DC, and I want you to succeed, but can you please learn something proper from Marvel and lighten up? I’m begging you.

Bright and fun is basically this issue in a nutshell. Well, that and “did we mention our protagonist has Islamic roots?” It’s obvious MS. MARVEL #1 is meant to be read in the context of the first part of a multi-issue origin story. Something that I can perfectly understand…but also think isn’t entirely how a new superhero comic series should begin. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I like to see origin stories handled completely in the first issue. Or at least to get our hero or heroine into costume and doing good as soon as possible. I kept thinking “yes, this is nice, we’re learning about who our heroine is and where she comes from and who she’s surrounded by. But when do to the cracks about not eating pork end and her superpowers come in?” I would have settled for a flash forward to start the issue, where we see in action for a page or two before going back to show us her origin.

But then again, that’s just me. I’ve seen other series starring teenage girls becoming superheroes that didn’t even bother giving out the superpowers until five or more issues in. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Amazing Fantasy.

If I have any advice going into MS. MARVEL, it’s to wait until the whole origin is done to decide if one wants to continue reading. That means reading more issues after this. If that’s the case though, it means Marvel did its job well. I genuinely want to follow further given what I’ve seen here. Kamala is a fun, interesting character with very human desires. Her family is rich and varied enough to not come off as stereotypes. Her friends, what few she has, are likable, with hints at hidden depths and desires of their own. The promise of a Static Shock style explosion of superpowered individuals pleases me greatly, as does the prospect of a shapeshifting protagonist.

At the end of the day, MS. MARVEL appears set to tell a much more grounded, personal story. As much as I enjoy seeing big name heroes fighting big name threats, sometimes street level heroics are warranted. Plus, it’s been quite a while since I’ve followed a young superhero. Might bring me back to my teenage days, a period I never thought I’d look back on fondly.

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2 Responses to First Impressions – MS. MARVEL #1

  1. xmenxpert says:

    A couple quick comments: I’m not sure why so many people think it’s her uncle in that scene. It’s her older brother.

    The mist wasn’t actually an idea Wilson came up with. It’s just tying Kamala’s origin into Marvel’s big Inhumanity event.

    Marvel does have a few other Muslim characters, but none with solo books. There’s Monet in X-Men, Monica Chang in Avengers AI, there’s teen X-Man Dust (who’s sadly not appearing in any books right now), there’s the Arabian Knight (who’s never done anything more than guest star). There’s been a few more minor ones, but those are the main ones.

  2. JT says:

    “fairly westernized; pretty chill, to the point where Kamala isn’t required to wear a head scarf (Nakia isn’t either, but does so of her own volition). Except for her uncle, who refuses to get a job; he says because he won’t work for a business that violates Islamic beliefs, while his brother, Kamala’s father, says it’s because he’s shiftless.”

    As someone else pointed out, it’s not her uncle, but rather her older brother, which is an important distinction because instead of just being “there” he plays a frequent (often complicating) role in her life; like many an older brother in real life, he’s overprotective of his sister, acts like he knows better than her etc and because of this they often get on each others’ nerves – but they ultimately do love each other, which is very touching. I can’t say he’s my favorite character in these Ms Marvel books (that would be the title character, who continues to be a delight), but I do enjoy seeing their relationship, which feels very natural and (because of his conservative and overprotective side, e.g. not wanting to let her be alone with a boy etc) is sometimes a good conflict-generator (it’s harder to run off and do superheroics when you have to duck your brother first).

    With that out of the way, I feel like it’s worth noting that while not *defaulting* to head covering is certainly “fairly westernized” behavior, it is NOT the case that all Muslim cultures “require a head scarf”…and no I’m not talking about places like Saudi Arabia where they require even more covering than that. I’ve actually read discussion of this common misconception from hijabis (i.e. women who wear the hijab, which is the term for the head scarf), and the tldr is that they’re sick and tired of people assuming that all of them are “forced” to wear the head scarf by their ~oppressive and paternalistic~ religion, as if they are not allowed to have agency of their own because of their gender. Because that is absolutely a misconception.

    Turns out they are not “required” or “forced” to wear it, regardless of whether or not they live in the West and have become “westernized”; in fact, if you read the Quran, there is apparently no such requirement for women to cover that much. They should be “modest”, yes, but modesty is relative, and as far as the stereotypical assumption of it being to “prevent temptation in men” – the Quran apparently says (if I may paraphrase): “haha dudes, you are out of luck, because it’s you men who are ultimately responsible for averting your own eyes and fighting the urge to lust after a woman who is not your wife!”

    Which means, yes, outside of incredibly conservative, pushily theocratic regimes (the kind who already do extreme things like stone adulterers and chop off the hands of thieves, mind), the hijab is ALWAYS optional for Muslim women. When they do wear it, it is a sign of their faith that is absolutely voluntary; it’s no different from a Christian choosing to wear modest clothing and a cross or crucifix to show her faith. On top of which, many hijabi kind of enjoy it as a fashion choice – “we get our scarves from H&M just like you”, is how I think I’ve heard it put; it’s as much an expression of their individuality and personality and personal style, as any other piece of clothing on a woman normally would be.

    If you’re interested in learning the ins and outs of the broader Islamic belief system or cultures, including about the experience of being a hijabi, I highly recommend the tumblr-hosted blog Writing With Color, which is an advice and ask blog for writers wishing to write characters of non-WASP backgrounds, but because of the depth and breadth of its material, is a wonderfully eye-opening and illuminating peek into many different experiences, cultures and religions even for casual readers. They’ve got several Muslim mods, and have a lot of great material on there relating to Islam and the experience of being Muslim.

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