Superheros have dealt with may threats over the years; trans-dimensional beings, gods, killer robots, menacing doppelgangers. But one of the most enduring foes is also one of the most seemingly benign.
Superman was called to defend those least like him. Spiderman is is forced to conceal his identity to protect those he loves. Perhaps most noticeably, the X-Men are defined by being the “other”, hated and feared in equal measure, becoming an image of oppressed minorities, specifically the GLBT community.
Few people feel more different than teenagers, especially teenage girls. But a nerdy, female, Muslim teenager unexpectedly gifted with superpowers?
Now that is something truly different.
“Ms. Marvel, #1: Meta Morphosis,” by writer G. Willow Wilson (herself a Muslim convert) and artist Adrian Alphona, tackles just such a topic in the person of Kamala Kahn. A normal teenage girl, Kamala writes Avengers fan-fic (a wonderfully meta touch), negotiates a fraught relationship with her immigrant, Pakistani parents, and, oh yeah, is mysteriously gifted with superpowers after the events of “Inhumanity” led to the awakening of latent genetic abilities (most noticeably the ability to manipulate the size, shape and appearance of her body). As Wilson said in a interview prior to the comics’ release;
Islam is both an essential part of her identity and something she struggles mightily with. She’s not a poster girl for the religion, or some kind of token minority. She does not cover her hair –most American Muslim women don’t—and she’s going through a rebellious phase. She wants to go to parties and stay out past 9 PM and feel “normal.” Yet at the same time, she feels the need to defend her family and their beliefs.
Ms. Marvel was lauded upon it’s release, and with good reason. Having a Muslim lead for the first time in Marvel’s history would be accomplishment enough, let alone doing so while rebooting a beloved, decades old character (one frequently outfitted in, we’ll say, provocative clothing). But Ms. Marvel also stands out for it’s finely observed relationships, it’s empathetic portrayal of the immigrant experience, and its beautiful, distinctive art, looking more like an “indie” comic than typical superhero fare. For example, here is a typical panel, remarkable if only for its rich depiction of family life familiar to any person, Muslim or not.
Ms. Marvel only suffered in my mind from being so universally lauded upon it’s release that it almost assuredly could not completely live up to the hype. Taken on it’s own, however, it is humane, thrilling look at the origins of a superhero that is the face of a new America.