The title may seem a bit bombastic, but bear with me.
In 2012, there was a period where all anyone could go on about was that there was going to be an Arab-American Green Lantern in DC’s New 52. Then the comic came out and we saw that the hype was pretty much for nothing. Simon Baz was a palette-swapped criminal who got GL powers. In that first issue, Baz’s ethnicity was played up as fuel for a bleak take on Arab-Americans. He didn’t belong and ended up stealing cars and (unwittingly) blowing up buildings as a result. Essentially, it played right into close-minded expectations even as it was shining a light on them. It didn’t feel enlightened, it felt manipulative.
Jump ahead a couple years and here comes Kamala Khan. She’s Muslim, Pakistani, and struggling to fit in amongst the teens in Jersey City (but not all that much more than any teen with a background that isn’t considered “normal” by her peers). She comes from a loving family. She struggles with the confines of growing up in a devout household. She seems… real. Kamala isn’t some action-movie extra who got shot with strange alien energy, she’s relatable in a way that 99% of the comic universe isn’t.
Pitchforks away — I love comics. And I like the fact that the larger-than-life characters I encounter within the pages seem practically alien with their other-worldly powers, insane life situations, and ungodly abdominal muscles. They’re idealized and fun. But they don’t feel genuine. That’s why, when I encounter a character that I can imagine talking to, encountering on the street, when I learn something about a culture that’s, frankly, foreign to me, from a comic book… well, that’s when I know we’re talking about something special. Also, I’m flat-out stealing this speech from Kamala’s father. My daughter and my son will both hear this when the time is right. These are things that everyone needs to learn.
And what’s fantastic is that, when Kamala does try to be something she’s not? When she plays at being the blond-haired, blue-eyed Avenger who she thinks she should be? She loses control: of the situation and of herself. It’s only when she starts to get a feel for what kind of hero she should be, when she listens to her own voice, that she finds a unique confidence. It’s a lesson about growing up. It’s a teen parable that we’re drowning in, but never once do I feel like I’m being force-fed a moral tract. Hell, when I was reading along I could imagine a number of *ahem* “changes” that a teen girl could be dealing with and that didn’t make me any less interested in what was going on! Strip out the superpowers and I’d still read about Kamala each month because I genuinely want to know what happens to her. It doesn’t hurt that, when she finds that genuine voice, it’s just the most Jersey thing ever. I love it.
Adding to the appeal of Ms. Marvel for me is the art. Adrian Alphona has a style that’s slightly dreamlike and true-to-life at the same time. I loved his work in Runaways, another teen comic series that had wonderfully written characters, and I feel like Ms. Marvel showcases an evolution of his style. It’s expressive when it needs to be, even whimsical at times, but not to the point where the settings or characters feel removed from reality (except for when, y’know, they’re removed from reality). It’s unconventional and feels like art instead of digitally traced magazine models. In other words, it’s a perfect fit for a comic that is much more than the sum of its parts.
If Ms. Marvel isn’t on your pull list, put it there. If you’ve been waiting to pick up the trade, I’d recommend not putting it off and getting the individual issues now. Then get the trade too. We need to show Marvel that comics like this, comics that run against the warp and weave of the standard “underwear models in tights” formula are successful. This is a title I’d be happy to have my kids read, not because it panders or because it’s safe, but because it’s neither in the best way possible.