Comics I Love: Ms Marvel

Last year for Christmas, LKH got me a pretty amazing gift, a year-long subscription to Marvel Unlimited, Marvel Comics' online reading service that gives users access to all of Marvels digital comics up to about six months ago. It is an amazing service for comic fans like me who haven't collected in a long time and want to catch up with all their old favourites.

Aside from the joy of catching up with X-Men and Spider-Man, I was able to read the first arc in one of Marvel's recently launched titles, Ms. Marvel. I am a little late to the Kamala Khan love-fest, but this book is too good not to add my praises.

If you are a comics fan, you have surely heard of Kamala Khan by this point. She is one of the most high profile characters Marvel has introduced in years, and critics have lauded the book. For any of you uninitiated to its marvels (see what I did there), Kamala is a Pakistani-American teen growing up in her hometown of Jersey City. She is exposed to Terrigen Mists (a common source for superpowers in the Marvel Universe), and she gains the ability to alter her size and shape. This is a dream come true for Kamala who is a total superhero fangirl and takes on the recently abandoned codename of her idol, Carol Danvers (now known as Captain Marvel - another book you should check out). She protects her hometown from superhuman threats while trying to live a normal teenage life.

Her comic has the most parallels to early Spider-Man, but what makes it particularly interesting is that it adds an element that is often lacking from superhero comics, religious faith. Kamala is Muslim, and her faith and Pakistani heritage play large roles in her identity as much as she wrestles with both. It is refreshing to see a comic deal with religion in such a respectful and thoughtful way. Given that the editor, Sana Amanat, used inspiration from her own life in the creation of the character, and that she hired another Muslim woman, G. Willow Wilson, to write the book, it should be no surprise that the character's personal life feels so particularly well developed. (I should also take a quick moment to mention how much I love Adrian Alphona's art in this book as well.)

What I love most about the book is how normal her adolescent struggles are, starting with her relationships. Her parents are loving, but she finds them overprotective. Her brother is very devout, and she thinks this is a bit weird. Her female best friend is rebellious, which she admires though she tends to be a bit more of a rule follower. Her male best friend annoys her most of the time though he also helps her quite a bit and harbours a secret crush.
After hearing all the accolades about this new hero, I was intrigued, but I was probably most surprised by how much I could relate my own life to hers. She is a good kid who is a complete nerd and makes good grades. (Sounds familiar.) She is devoted to her faith though some aspects of it really drive her crazy. (Yeah, been there.) She wants to make a positive difference in her community, and she abhors violence. (This is starting to be a little too familiar.)

I worried Marvel might tokenise her a little, particularly with all they did to promote the book, but the artists working on this have far too much respect for the character and what she represents to allow that. Instead they have created a character who normalises the experiences of adolescents from minority backgrounds. It is hard to imagine anyone reading this book and not being able to relate to it in some way, and it is almost as hard to imagine them not loving Kamala almost immediately. We need more positive portrayals of Muslims in popular culture, and Ms. Marvel sets the standard.

Minor spoilers ahead: My favourite part of the first arc is early on when Kamala first gains her powers. She cannot control them consciously and has accidentally transformed into the likeness of Carol Danvers, her idol. Her response is surprising, even to herself. She always assumed that being white, blonde, beautiful, and powerful would solve all her problems. She idealised whiteness and heroism. When she finds herself in Ms Marvel's body, she is actually disturbed. She isn't Kamala anymore, and the tight fitting clothes are embarrassing. She feels like an imposter and wants to go back to normal. In just a few masterful panels, this book captures so poignantly the coming of age and assimilation issues that many minority teens face. From that point on, I was hooked. Her team up with Wolverine later on in the arc is another highlight as it forces her to consider whether it is possible to be a superhero without resorting to violence to protect people.

I also love the dorky humour in this book. It deals with serious issues, but the humour prevents it from becoming too heavy-handed. It also just makes it really fun to read. When the latest issue appears in my library, I am always very excited to jump in. That says quite a bit about the quality of the book because I am clearly not the target audience.

When Dash is old enough for comics, this is the first one I want to introduce her to. There are few other superheroes I would more want her to emulate.

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