My Misspent Youth — Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When the comic book series Ms. Marvel debuted with an issue dated January 1977, the cover offered an excited declaration: “AT LAST! A BOLD NEW SUPER-HEROINE IN THE SENSES-STUNNING TRADITION OF SPIDER-MAN!” To emphasize the comparison, the floating heads of J. Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane Watson, and Peter Parker were next to blonde crusader and she practically burst forward off the page. In the story, Carol Danvers, the alter ego of Ms. Marvel, secured employment under the larger corporate umbrella of The Daily Bugle, regular purchasers and printers of pictures of Spider-Man, but in truth there wasn’t much thematically or tonally that called to mind the ongoing adventures of everyone’s favorite amazing and spectacular wall-crawler.

More than thirty-five years later, a different Ms. Marvel #1 finally fulfilled the promise of its namesake publication’s cover copy. Written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona, the comic provided the proper introduction to Kamala Khan, a New Jersey teenager with a fairly familiar life: school is frustrating, her friends are steadfast, boys are a mystery, and her family is simultaneously a source of support and rebellion-stoking control.

As a denizen of the Marvel Universe, Kamala is decidedly aware of the presence of superheroes. Indeed, she is a fan. In particular, Kamala adores the new do-gooder guise of Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel, and has a good grasp of her whole, varied career. The long path of Carol is so embedded in Kamala that when she’s enveloped in a strange mist that suddenly, startlingly gives her superpowers of her own, she instinctually manifests Carol as the person she should emulate. Because those new powers involve shape-shifting, that emulation can be quite complete.

Kamala’s power is great, thusly so is her sense of responsibility. Although she’s got to do it around a class schedule and curfews and other hindrances in the time when driving-age eligibility has just been reached, Kamala decides she’s going to get into the superhero racket. As she adapts to role, she forgoes more elaborate guises and does it as herself, with the requisite adornments to keep her civilian identity secret, natch. But the appreciation of Carol remains strong. When pressed to declare who she is, only one answer will really do.

The most superficial details mirror those of Spider-Man when he swung into prominence decades earlier: the teenaged protagonist, the scrappy spirit represented a homemade costume, the lower-tier villains that are neighborhood nuisances instead of global threats, the self-effacing wisecracks. I think Wilson’s writing gets at something more fundamental. There are elements of Ms. Marvel that echo those earliest issues of Spider-Man in their persistent ingenuity and commitment to mundane realism in the midst of the most fantastical happenings. Marvel Comics gets a lot of credit (including from me) for bringing a previously unheard of psychological acuity to their superheroes, but that compliment looks a little shaky when applied to the scientific geniuses in posh skyscraper abodes wielding impossible gizmos in the pages of Fantastic Four and Iron Man. That quality was primarily present in The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s there again, tightened and modernized, in Ms. Marvel. Even as the character is imbued with jaw-dropping abilities, it’s her vulnerability that’s most striking.

As Ms. Marvel was rolled out, much was made is promotions and press coverage of the fact that Kamala is Muslim, an extreme rarity in mainstream comics. Of course, there were howls of protest from a vocal subset of the Marvel fan base dedicated to wish-casting their own persecution into being. The response was mostly positive, though. That praise might largely stem from a humanistic belief that broader representation of different cultural and religious backgrounds has an inherent value. Better yet, Kamala’s cultural identity isn’t merely grafted on nor is it mired in cliche. It feels truthful, surely because Wilson drew on her own faith journey in shaping Kamala and her surroundings. That approach makes the story specific, which is turn opens it to the universal. Ms. Marvel is bold precisely because it doesn’t seem all that bold. It stuns the senses because it doesn’t aim to shock. Like Peter Parker before her, Kamala is relatable even as she performs physics-defying feats.

When this Ms. Marvel arrived, it had been ages since Marvel had introduced a new character that rose to the stature of their established greats. Wilson and Alphona did just that. Almost immediately, there was a newcomer worthy of the pantheon. At last.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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