Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Marvelous Kamala Khan

Ms Marvel Vol 1
I admit, I was pretty apprehensive about the relaunch of Ms Marvel as a superhero with a Muslim-American teenage girl at its center.  Not because I have some great love for the Ms Marvel character (I never knew she existed).  More because I was (and still am, to an extent) annoyed that Marvel lauded Ms Marvel as one of the ways they were diversifying their superhero line-up, but the author of the series is a white woman.  I mean, come on - are there no South Asians out there who could write this story?  Sigh.

The author is G. Willow Wilson, of Alif the Unseen fame.  Wilson converted to Islam in college and has written several books with Muslims as the main characters.  At least Marvel chose an author who is familiar with the religion and culture that makes up so much of Ms Marvel's back story.  But still...

But enough about the author and more about the story!  I think this is actually the first superhero comic book I have ever read, which is probably just what Marvel wanted in creating this character.  I am not sure how these stories usually progress, but this compilation of the first several volumes in the series is more set-up than anything else.  We meet the main characters, Kamala Khan and her family and friends.  And we get a very quick introduction to a villain.  But we don't get much else.  This is very much a first chapter, not a whole story.

But it's a pretty great first chapter!  Kamala Khan is a very smart, kind, and funny teenager in Jersey City who loves video games and comics.  One foggy night, she's given super-powers that give her the ability to change the way she looks - she can change her face and grow bigger and smaller.  Kamala comes from a religious Muslim family and going out in hopes of saving the world every day and night is a little difficult.  She starts breaking her curfew, her parents become concerned, and Kamala struggles with keeping such a huge secret from her parents.  But she also seriously loves being a kick-ass hero.

There are so many things to love about Kamala, and most of them are the same things I've loved about Wilson's other female characters.  Wilson does a truly amazing job of writing strong and heroic women who are also religious.  Kamala is smart and dorky and nice.  Her parents are strict but they love her and want what's best for her.  It's just that her vision of what's best for herself is different than what her parents want for her.  There's one scene where she goes home after an exhausting and failed attempt to save a friend and grabs a bunch of food from the refrigerator to eat.  And all she can think is that she really wishes her mom knew her secret so that she could greet her at home with warm food and a big hug.

One thing I wish wasn't glanced over so much in the book was the way that Kamala can change her entire appearance.  The first few times she become Ms Marvel, she becomes a leggy blonde.  I assume that's who worked as Ms Marvel before, but it is telling on many levels.  Kamala has loved comics for her whole life, and never has she seen a superhero that looks like her.  So when she finds out that she has the power to become whomever she wants, she defaults to what she thinks a superhero looks like - a blond woman.  But as the story progresses and Kamala comes into her own, she ditches the face-shifting and keeps her own features.  The message is clear:  she owns it, and she's a superhero on her own terms.


It's a very powerful statement, and I am so looking forward to seeing how this character develops.

8 comments:

  1. I'm not a superhero reader either but I have this on reserve at the library just to see what it is like.

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  2. Sounds pretty cool :) even with a few hick-ups

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  3. Blogger ate my comment....

    After seeing several posts about this book, I placed it on my library holds list a few days ago. I'm glad you brought up the issues you had with this volume. I'm still going to read it, but it's good to know this is more of a first chapter.

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  4. I really liked the thread of the story you mentioned -- Kamala learning to be a superhero on her own terms and not looking like every other female superhero. The part where she first looks like Ms Marvel and comments on how terrible the costume is was so very funny.

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  5. I am very much looking forward to finding out where this story goes. It's a promising first chapter, for sure. Not my first superhero comic, though -- I think my very first was Matt Fraction's Hawkeye, also a superb introduction to the genre. :)

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  6. A South Asian author might have been nice, but at least Wilson has some real credentials. I suspect she might have come up with the idea and sold it to publishers rather being chosen over someone from the region.

    More importantly, I can't say categorically that a person must belong to a group of people or ethnicity to write about them. Outsiders can be sensitive and knowledgeable, they are simply less likely to be. I think Adichie has written one of the best accounts of what it means to be African American. Today some authors are truly international, living and writing in several countries. And many stories cross boundaries as well. Kamala is both Pakistani and American, and an author would need to know both sides of her story.

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    1. Yes, maybe that's what happened - I didn't think of that option, but it makes sense.

      I agree with your second point, but I do feel like in this situation - where Kamala Khan is being lauded as breaking so many barriers in comics - that it would have been nice to have someone from the same background. And generally, it's a lot easier for white people to get published/publicized writing about people of other cultures than it is for people of those other cultures to get published/publicized writing about their own cultures (i.e., The Help, The Kitchen House, etc), so I stand by my statement. Adichie's powerful commentary was due to the fact that she is NOT African-American but was often grouped with them due to her skin color. I assume the exact opposite is true for Wilson.

      Yes, Kamala is both Pakistani and American. There are many Pakistani-Americans around and I'm sure at least some of them are artists or writers and they would probably know both sides of the story pretty well, too, as they lived it growing up.

      I'm not saying that people of one race shouldn't write about people of another race. And I do think that Wilson covered a lot of the ground here really well. Here are a few posts that I may explain better than me:
      http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/10/01/the-advantages-of-being-a-white-writer/
      http://neeshameminger.blogspot.com/2009/09/justines-damned-post.html

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    2. Also this one:
      http://www.malindalo.com/2014/04/should-white-people-write-about-people-of-color/

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