February 2015

Nyala Ali


"No Normal" Indeed: Ms. Marvel's New Female Readership

Just three pages into G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona's newly rebooted Ms. Marvel series, we learn that our heroine, Kamala Khan, is an obsessive author of Avengers fan fiction. Kamala's "sad nerd obsession," as her friend puts it, is a small, off-the-cuff detail that at first seems insignificant. But the idea of fan fiction most definitely applies to this series as a whole -- one of the main reasons that folks write and read fan fiction to begin with is that they feel that an original (or canonized) story is lacking something that could make it even better, or more accessible to a different fan base. Fan fiction writers often aim to tell a story that addresses that lack, with the hope that others will read and enjoy it because they've noticed the same missing or unexplored elements. So, what if we considered this reboot (or all reboots to major comic book characters) to be fan fiction as well? In this particular case, what would happen in a fanfic where Carol Danvers, the previous, blonde, willowy Ms. Marvel, was instead an introverted 16-year-old Pakistani-American teenager? A brown geek-girl. A female, Muslim superhero (the first in comics history). How would that story play out?

In this first installment of the series (collecting issues 1-5), Ms. Marvel's new creators begin to answer such questions from the ground up. For starters, they have likely considered the many problems that could arise from race-bending their heroine, as historically, race-bending (especially in Hollywood) has usually involved using a white actor for a role that a person of color ought to have played, often with caricaturized, cringe-worthy results.

By rebooting Ms. Marvel as a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim, Wilson and Alphona avoid these problems first by setting us up to read with Kamala. Because she is our guide through the story, the concept of worldbuilding familiar to many readers of superhero comics is not based around fantasy or science fiction elements (for example, with the story being set in outer space, or in an alternate Marvel reality like Counter-Earth). Instead, the world we are invited into is Kamala's own, reflecting the idea of "No Normal" in her everyday life. The irony here is that Kamala's home life must seem like science fiction in the eyes of many of her classmates, often causing her to be socially alienated because of her culture. The addition of Zoe, a casually offensive blonde-haired blue-eyed classmate whose knowledge of Islam is limited to ideas of mandatory burqas and contraband bacon, is a particularly smart move on Wilson's part (who, by the way, is also Muslim). In assuming that Kamala must be oppressed by her family's culture, and in the same breath telling her that she "smells like curry," Zoe represents the nonchalant racism that families like Kamala's face every day. Wilson cleverly uses Zoe's microaggressions -- innocently phrased but still thoroughly offensive remarks -- not only to build us a fuller, more honest depiction of Kamala's world, but to raise our own social awareness too.

Though Kamala's Muslim identity is always visible, it's never heavy handed or presented as something to be gawked at. We see a nice balance between places that are iconic of American teenagerhood, such as the inside of her bedroom, her classroom, the convenience store where her -- notably white -- friend Bruno works, and elements that are specifically Pakistani or Muslim, like her family's dinner table, the Urdu word "beti"-- a term of endearment that her parents use -- her brother's religious attire, and the inside of the mosque that she attends. Small details like Kamala's father's "Grooviest Dad" mug are especially nice touches when the Muslim fathers we're used to seeing on TV and in movies are Angry Brown Dads that their kids are scared of. Mindful of these harmful stereotypes, Wilson and Alphona instead show Kamala's Dad to be the less strict of her two parents, even joking that Kamala's brother Amir prays all day just to avoid looking for a job.

Kamala's detailed world is set up to humanize her family, while also acting as a mirror for her own complex, ever-shifting adolescent identity. After taking care to give us such a rich character background for Kamala, it comes as no surprise that the series' creators choose to write Kamala's superhero origin story as a direct result of the everyday struggles she faces as a Muslim teenager. After sneaking out of her house to go to a party, Kamala is unknowingly fed some booze by her classmates. She then encounters a mysterious mist that knocks her out while she believes herself to be drunk and/or hallucinating. After a sequence involving Iron Man, Captain America, and Carol Danvers (the original Ms. Marvel) Kamala has received her new powers. This sequence is beautifully drawn by Alphona, her delicate line work with the mist in particular lending a touch of magical realism, a genre created and dominated by international, non-white authors.

Having the all-American Carol Danvers address Kamala in (translated) Urdu while anointing her as the new Ms. Marvel also cleverly engages with the still-inevitable question of, "Where are you from?" a question that many people of color (often first-generation Americans like Kamala, who are fluent in English but just happen to "look" different) are often put upon to explain. Carol uses Urdu not to make Kamala feel foreign, but to welcome her, to show her that having brown skin and speaking a different first language doesn't make her any less worthy of being Ms. Marvel. As Carol goes on to explain, Urdu and English are both "languages of beauty and hardship" -- they are equal.

Playing Kamala's personal origin story off of her superhero origin story through this kind of interaction not only adds more depth to the world created here, but is also a really spot-on commentary on race in the West as seen through a superhero lens. A superhero's often ridiculous, implausible origin story (radioactive spider bite, superhuman mutant with claws, government experiments, etc.) is never used to deny them legitimacy as a superhero. However, a non-white American is frequently made to tell their own origin story precisely to deny them legitimacy as a true American. A question like, "But where are you really from?" does nothing but alienate someone who is then made to affirm (as Kamala does earlier on), "I grew up here!" By blending the real with the fantastical through the issue of origin, Wilson and Alphona focus on the question of legitimacy that Kamala struggles with throughout this entire story arc. As Kamala puts it: "Everybody's expecting Ms. Marvel. A real superhero with perfect hair and big... boots. Not Kamala Khan from Jersey City" with brown skin and an average physique.

Because such unrealistic standards of both beauty and whiteness are what Kamala thinks that others expect, her new powers at first turn her into a clone of Carol Danvers. Only when Kamala is able to get past her own feelings of impostor syndrome (a feeling known to many a girl) does the heroine gain full control of her powers and start kicking major ass, "embiggening" at will to become literally larger than life. A burqini once stuffed shamefully into a drawer is repurposed, DIY-style, into Ms. Marvel's signature crime-fighting outfit (in which her body is never objectified). Also, Bruno, Kamala's straight white male friend, becomes her ally/faithful sidekick, a role usually reserved for women or people of color. Obviously, Kamala is both of these, and Bruno is neither. Here, Wilson seems to be hinting that more Brunos-as-allies are exactly what's needed in both the Marvel universe and its readership.

Since Kamala's life as a Muslim-American teenager leads directly to her transformation into Ms. Marvel, the brunt of these five issues is spent on Kamala-the-girl instead of Ms. Marvel-the-superhero. The neat thing about this shift in focus is that Wilson and Alphona have rebooted not only the character of Ms. Marvel, but also the form of superhero comics; "No Normal" reads as less of a superhero tale and more of a (fictional) graphic biography. The current popularity of life-writing graphic novels -- and the high number of talented women of color involved in that genre -- is definitely taken into account by the series' creators; Kamala's story doubles as a coming-of-age tale that owes a debt not only to other popular Marvel series like Spider-Man (whose protagonist Peter Parker is also both geeky, shy, and close to his family), but also to graphic memoirs, the most obvious being Marjane Satrapi's excellent Persepolis, which also deals, though much more politically, with race, religion, and girlhood. That the two forms are so linked is also reflected in Alphona's art; her characters are drawn with elaborate facial expressions akin to those seen in underground comix and graphic novels, rather than in the often pulpy, hard-lined look of more established superhero comics, where faces are obscured by masks for most of the story.

Also contrary to the expectations laid out in many a superhero plot, Ms. Marvel's arch villain, The Inventor, doesn't appear until the very end of the collection. Though the Inventor has positioned himself as a worthy adversary by sending his minions after Kamala, actual fight scenes and violence are scarce, and the few that exist are genuinely funny, as we see Kamala's giant fists smashing down on an army of robots.

Though it's tempting to see this imbalance as a negative, the focus on Kamala as a fully realized (super-) human being with complex feelings about growing up could be really helpful for teaching this book to students. For example, this collection could definitely become part of the curriculum for a girlhood studies class; on the very first page, Kamala and her hijab-clad friend Nakia discuss Kamala's current object of desire. Surprisingly, that object is not the teenage boy also in the frame, but a similarly forbidden BLT sandwich. Such a scene is another small detail that is more significant than it seems, showing that issues of gender and race are also closely linked, and leaving the door open for some really great conversations about intersectional feminism.

Admittedly, die-hard comic-book fans might be upset or disappointed that the battle of Good versus Evil in the Marvel universe has been given second-tier treatment to the personal struggles of a young brown girl. Relatedly, there are rumors that Marvel's X-Men spinoff series, Storm, which also features a woman of color as its lead (though in a more traditional superhero setting) might soon be cancelled, so it's easy to wonder how appealing a character like Kamala might realistically be. It's worth mentioning then, that issue 001 of Ms. Marvel had recently gone into a sixth printing before the trade collection had even been released. So, if we are to think of this new series as a sort of fan fiction, then who's reading it, if not the diehards? Could the purposefully bio-graphic feel of "No Normal" be working to draw in more young (possibly non-white) female readers? If the Twitterverse or cosplay images from the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con are to be believed, Wilson and Alphona have kicked major ass with the success of this series thus far; just plug the hashtags #msmarvel or the excellent #KamalaCorps into Twitter or Instagram to behold Kamala's female fans of all ages and ethnicities, fans who have found a heroine they can relate to -- the heroine they deserve (DC purists aside). After all, as Kamala herself knows, the true power of writing fan fiction lies in the ability to reimagine a story, to choose your own audience, and to write especially for them.