Note: This post contains spoilers for those who haven’t read the first issue of Ms. Marvel. Issue #1 is available for purchase.
When news first broke in November last year that comic-book character Ms. Marvel would be reintroduced as a Muslim teenager, the overwhelming (and largely enthusiastic) online response took even the new series’ creators by surprise. In a short afterword to the much-awaited Ms. Marvel #1, which finally launched last week to positive reviews, editor Sana Amanat recalls how the team’s creative retreat had to be “put on hold when [their] inboxes exploded…phones, Twitter, Facebook pages, you name it.”
Much has been written since the announcement — unsurprisingly, and deservedly, so — about Ms. Marvel’s reincarnation as sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan, the daughter of Pakistani-American, Muslim immigrants in Jersey City, New Jersey. Having finally read the premiere issue, though, I’m happy to note that Kamala is more than just the most widely advertised aspects of her identity. She is a well-defined individual, very much part of the Internet generation that Tweeted and Facebooked and tumbld in anticipation of her arrival: she is an avid writer of Avengers fanfiction, is eager to sneak out to Friday night waterfront parties, and she has an unfortunate predilection for the smell of bacon, “delicious, delicious infidel meat” though it may be. While Kamala may especially appeal to readers who share her religious and/or cultural background, she will also, as author Sabaa Tahir writes in The Washington Post, “be familiar to anyone who has tried to figure out where they belong.”
Ms. Marvel #1 shows us Kamala’s interactions with her peers and her interactions with her family, and in so doing highlights the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the demands of social life (to be outgoing, to show up to parties) and home life (to stay home is to be safe). Our young heroine’s coping mechanism, when confronted with the daunting chasm between these two spheres, is to escape to a third realm that is entirely her own — her vivid imagination, where she can dream up her own stories that affirm who she sees herself as: literally, as with her Avengers fanfiction that has “almost 1,000 upvotes on freakingcool.com,” or more figuratively, as with the alternative identities she wishes for herself.
But Kamala’s escapist tendencies are tempered with a savvy pragmatism, likely cultivated by the realities of teenage life: she realizes it is equally unlikely she will become “an intergalactic super hero,” or “blond and popular” like Zoe Zimmer (a classic, though not entirely spiteful, rendition of the high school frenemy) who is “nice” and “adorable” and “happy.” This lack of helplessness, this defiant rejection of passivity — “Everybody else gets to be normal. Why can’t I?” — bodes well for her impending transformation into the eponymous super heroine.
One of the most relatable dilemmas Kamala Khan faces is that of trying to act in accordance with one’s own ideals and desires without disrespecting one’s parents or other valued authority figures. The cognitive dissonance that arises from navigating this minefield is perhaps especially overwhelming for the children of immigrants, trying to forge their own identities in an environment that lauds individuality, while still honoring their parents’ sacrifices and expectations.
Kindness itself can be a difficult, if fortunate, gift to accept and questioning it has a way of cultivating a sense of perpetual guilt that follows you around like a faint shadow. Unlike other many other young fictional protagonists whose parental figures are absent or not particularly nurturing, in Ms. Marvel the basic family unit seems intact and stable. Ammi and Abu are not unreasonably oppressive, though perhaps a tad conservative and overprotective. Religion does not even appear to be Abu’s prime justification for forbidding Kamala from participation in certain activities — he appears a moderate in this respect, even wryly chiding Kamala’s devout older brother Aamir for avoiding work by spending all day praying. Rather, Abu worries that it is “not safe for a young girl to be out late at night with strange boys, drinking God knows what and thinking God knows what.” For Kamala, though, there is no difference — her “crazy family” isolates her from her peers, and she’s sick of it.
When Kamala’s meeting with her adored Avengers comes, in a swirl of spooky mist that she worries is an alcohol-induced hallucination, she is in fact forced to confront this when Captain America questions her: “You thought that if you disobeyed your parents — your culture, your religion — your classmates would accept you. What happened instead?” Kamala stammers in response: “They — they laughed at me.”
Coming from someone else, this might seem too deliberately wholesome a plot point, but coming from Steve Rogers, ever the paragon of virtue, it seems perfectly in character.
Ms. Marvel #1 ends, of course, with the manifestation of Kamala Khan’s powers; unexpectedly, her physical transformation extends to her dark hair turning blonde, leaving her somewhat puzzled. The change in hair colour doesn’t seem particularly necessary as yet, but as Kamala’s idol Captain Marvel (the former Ms. Marvel herself) warns her, none of this is going to turn out the way she thinks it will. In this promising first issue, Kamala Khan is strongly reminiscent of Spiderman, another Marvel teen hero well-loved by generations of readers for his relatable insecurities, flaws and lovable quirks. I hope and trust that the advent of our heroine’s superpowers won’t entirely remove her from her day to day circumstances: much as I want to see Ms. Marvel save the world, I’m especially rooting for Kamala Khan, 16, from Jersey City. I hope she finds a happy place between family and friends, and I really hope her Avengers fanfic gets another thousand upvotes on freakingcool.com.
Ms. Marvel (2014) is written by G. Willow Wilson and edited by Sana Amanat, with art by Adrian Alphona. Join the “Kamala Korps” on the series’ official tumblr and find out about upcoming issues here. Issue #2 releases March 19, 2014.
Aditi Shiva is from Singapore and works as an editor of comics and young adult fiction. She tweets at @aditishiva.