Real life superhero

Paul Constant

May 03, 2016

The fifteenth annual Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) is this coming Saturday. If you’ve never heard of FCBD before, that’s terrific — you just identified yourself as FCBD’s target audience. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you can wander into your nearest comic book store (find the address at freecomicbookday.com) and walk out with a handful of free comic books, no strings attached.

Say you pick up some comics on FCBD, and you like them. Say you decide you want to buy some comics but your local comics shop has a giant wall of paperbacks and you just don’t know where to start. The ideal comic, of course, varies from person to person, but here are a few recommendations: Are you a teenage girl looking for a comic that doesn’t talk down to or ignore women? You should pick up the first trade paperback of Ms. Marvel. You say you used to read comics and you’re looking for something more fun than the cynical death-march that was Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice? Give Ms. Marvel a try. Never read a superhero comic in your life? You might like Ms. Marvel. Look, I’m not saying Ms. Marvel is for everyone, but I am saying it’s about the closest thing to a comic for everyone that I’ve ever seen.

Created by Seattle author G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona in 2013, Ms. Marvel is the continuing story of Kamala Khan, a teenage daughter of Pakistani-American Muslim immigrants from Jersey City. Kamala’s story now takes up 25 individual issues of the Ms. Marvel comic, which have been collected in four (soon to be five) paperback volumes. How she gets her powers doesn’t matter so much — her origin is the weakest part of her story, honestly — and unlike most corporate superhero comics, the fistfights aren't the reason the book exists. Although it must be noted that Ms. Marvel is developing a fantastic gallery of villains including a “giant weaponized frog,” a love interest-turned-henchmen who glows like a super-powered Tiger Beat pinup, and a clone of Thomas Edison that was accidentally spliced with cockatiel DNA, resulting in a raving egomaniac of a giant bird with robot arms.

After nearly a century of hypersexualized women in comics, Kamala is, you know, just a human person: while most women superheroes wear bikinis as costumes, Ms. Marvel pointedly wears a modified burkini. And while many women superheroes have powers that are filtered through a male writers’ idea of femininity — remember, Stan Lee made the only female member of the Fantastic Four invisible — Kamala’s powers are strange and visually interesting: she can shrink or grow any part of her body, resulting in some glorious hyperkinetic sequences from Alphona featuring Kamala with 15-foot spindly legs running along rooftops, or Kamala growing her hands to the size of throw rugs and slapping bad guys senseless with them.

It helps, too, that Wilson decided to make Kamala a full-on nerd who reads comics and plays MMORPGs. Early in the series, the fact that Kamala idolized the superheroes of Marvel Comics ran the risk of being too cutesy or self-referential, but Wilson has handled that aspect of her character capably. When she meets fan-favorite character Wolverine, Kamala basically becomes the gushing motormouth you want to distance yourself from at the comics convention: “I totally put you first in my fantasy hero team-up bracket ...My Wolverine-and-Storm-in-space fanfic was the third-most upvoted story on Freaking Awesome last month!” This is not a glamorized movie version of fandom; it’s almost uncomfortable, it’s so passionate and indiscriminate.

At first, Kamala is gangly and awkward, but as the series goes on, she gets better at using her powers in an obvious-but-satisfying take on the idea of persevering through puberty. Early on, Kamala has to practice to control her flailing ropy limbs, in a sequence where she says she’s “learning how to work with this new body, instead of against it.” Later, Ms. Marvel admits to a fellow superhero that “it took me a long time to get here. For a while, I just kind of felt weird and gross.” But now? “Now I feel weird and awesome!”

Ms. Marvel pays tribute to the classic soap-operatics of early 60s Kirby/Lee Marvel Comics, too. Early in the series, Kamala has an unrequited will-they-or-won’t they relationship with her best friend, Bruno. She must keep her late-night superhero exploits a secret from her conservative parents and older brother. Her high school teachers (especially Ms. Von Boom) are strict and unforgiving. There’s some terrific melodrama in this series, as when Kamala finds herself betrayed by her first crush and practically drowns in self-pity: “how could I have been so wrong about somebody I cared about so much?”

Superhero comics have traditionally encouraged their creators to cultivate a culture of arrested development: Spider-Man can’t ever have a happy ending because then there’s no point for his readers to buy the next issue of his comic. But Wilson resists the clichés that have crusted on top of those old tropes: Kamala is too smart and confident to waste 100 issues pining away for Bruno, for instance, so they have a talk and then move on with their lives (though of course that adds even more complexity and depth to their relationship). Wilson understands that life is too diverse and interesting to get stuck in the same rut for years at a time: Kamala seems like a rounder and more complete character than Peter Parker because she manages to resolve her personal problems. And it’s not as though this limits her story at all: there are always new problems to solve. That’s life.

Many writers — myself included — have pushed a lot of pixels suggesting that Kamala Khan is a character who continues a long legacy of superhero realism, as created by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee at Marvel Comics in the 1960s. But as Ms. Marvel continues and develops its own internal mythology, it’s clear that there’s another, better equivalent to the Wilson/Alphona team on Ms. Marvel: The Steve Gerber/Gene Colan mid-70s run on Howard the Duck. Howard was arguably the most personal comic book Marvel ever published; Gerber used a series about a talking duck to satirize and comment on pretty much anything that captured his attention: politics, sexual mores, the corporatization of art, the inanity of mainstream comics.

Wilson’s run on Ms. Marvel — she’s been accompanied by a number of artists besides Alphona including the Los Bros Herandez-esque Jacob Wyatt and the more realistic Takeshi Miyazawa — feels like the most personal book Marvel has published since Gerber stopped writing Howard. While Gerber was mocking and lamenting the paranoid post-Nixon United States in his book, Wilson is celebrating and chronicling the promise and disappointment of Obama’s America with an ever-sharpening acuity.

In one story, Kamala wrestles with an article her teacher makes her read in a magazine called The Pedantic Monthly about how her generation is narcissistic and overly obsessed with their phones. Something about the article just doesn’t make sense to her: “giving up on the next generation is like giving up on the future, right?…sometimes the next generation has to deal with all the problems the last generation left for it to fix…” In the end, she decides that the article is out-and-out wrong: “Just because they’re old doesn’t make them right. We’re not the ones who messed up the economy or the planet.”

Though it ostensibly takes place in Kamala’s native Jersey City, one of the most recent stories in Ms. Marvel reflects the current conversation in Seattle, as an evil real estate puts a picture of Ms. Marvel on a billboard promoting a newly gentrified neighborhood without her permission. Brainwashed people, their eyes glowing purple and their word balloons inverted into a black background and white letters, start moving into the neighborhood and mindlessly repeating empty catchphrases: “When my parents told me we were moving to Hope Yards, I was happy to help revitalize our city. Fresh ideas! Fresh locales! Steps from boutique shopping and high-end restaurants! Who needs Manhattan when we’ve got Hope Yards right here in JC?” Another gentrifying zombie chimes in: “I don’t mind commuting two hours to work…I like the suburbs…rent’s cheap here.” It’s a story that might as well take place on the streets of the Central District, and just because in a comic book the problem can be more-or-less solved with a well-placed giant fist to the jaw doesn’t make the commentary any less meaningful.

As Wilson’s tenure on Ms. Marvel continues, the story develops more depth. Kamala’s relationship with her parents is deepening, her hero worship is fading as she learns how to work alongside the superheroes she idolized, and her high school keeps getting weirder due to its being continually attacked by various villains. While Batman and Spider-Man and Captain America remain frozen in a state of perpetual brand maintenance, Ms. Marvel is a story of change, which means it’s a story of being human. Which means it’s a story for all of us.

Books in this review:
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
    by G. Willow Wilson, and
    Adrian Alphona
    Marvel Comics
    October 28, 2014
    120 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why
    by G. Willow Wilson,
    Adrian Alphona, and
    Jacob Wyatt
    Marvel Comics
    April 07, 2015
    136 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 3: Crushed
    by G. Willow Wilson, and
    Takeshi Miyazawa
    Marvel Comics
    June 23, 2015
    112 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 4: Last Days
    by G. Willow Wilson, and
    Adrian Alphona
    Marvel Comics
    December 01, 2015
    120 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 5: Super Famous
    by G. Willow Wilson, and
    Takeshi Miyazawa
    Marvel Comics
    July 05, 2016
    136 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writers

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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