By: G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona (artist), Ian Herring (color artist)
The Story: Comic fans have known all manner of evil over the years, but this week we’re introduced to perhaps the most vile form of villainy: concerned entitled high-schoolers.
The Review: In 1963 Stan Lee introduced another revolution into comic books: Spider-Man, the first true teenaged superhero. Before Spider-Man superheroes were square-jawed, spit curled supermen, but dorky Peter Parker changed comics forever. Robin was the first time that young readers could see themselves as a hero, but Peter showed them that they could be the hero.
Fifty years later the world we live in has changed a lot. The people who don’t see themselves in comics are different and the way we write comics is different. For all its abundant charms, Amazing Fantasy #15 wouldn’t sell today. Simple characterization, excessive and omniscient narration, and plentiful melodrama were the words of the day and they did a lot to keep the story as short as it was. Indeed, when Brian Michael Bendis reinvented Spider-Man it took three issues to get him into the red and blue and five before he learned his lesson about power and responsibility.
Such matters were in the forefront of my mind as I read Ms. Marvel #1. Indeed, this issue is clearly labeled part 1 of 5 and reads like it too. There’s no climactic battle scene for those looking for high-flying super action, but what the issue lacks in explosions it makes up in heart and character development. You’ll get to know the new Ms. Marvel, her friends, her family, and her frenemies before this book is over. It’s actually a remarkable complete introduction to the character.
Kamala Khan’s story is primarily about being caught between two cultures; a moderately traditional family of Pakistani Muslims and the party-having, free-spirited, white, blonde teenage experience. Perhaps tellingly, to Kamala, superheroes and the Avengers belong to the later. The inescapable implication is that, whether or not that grouping is accurate, Kamala needs to challenge the belief that superheroes are an inherently white, American institution.
G. Willow Wilson provides a fascinating look into the diversity of the Muslim-American experience. Pakistani Kamala, hair showing, lusts over forbidden bacon as her Turkish-American friend, Nakia, chides her in an al-amira. Meanwhile, she clashes with her more conservative father, a bank employee, who, in turn, argues with his son, a devout Muslim who frowns on his father’s usurious profession. Even more complicated is Kamala’s Americanized friend, Bruno, who provides a link to both cultures, but is separated from her by nature of not being Pakistani.
For many readers, this may well be an eye opening experience. It’s wonderful to see so many complex issues of identity explored in a short twenty pages. However, the sheer variety can, at times, feel overly didactic. While much has been made, by the fans, the media, and the comic, itself, of Ms. Marvel’s ability to expand the scope of representation in comics, this is a superhero comic and readers are coming to the book to hear Kamala and Ms. Marvel’s stories. In some sequences it feels like there may be too much material to cover while also building a new superhero.
That said, the book does contain one of the cleverest calls to adventure that I have seen in a long time. Here Wilson’s wit combines the desperate elements of Kamala’s life into a beautiful, if potentially confusing, whole that lays out the story to come. Kamala is at her most charming as she fearlessly talks straight to her idols and Wilson’s dialogue is free from the need for exposition that sometimes weighs it down. The images are hilarious and the dialogue supports their legitimacy, rather than reducing it to an amusing art history fever-dream.
Speaking of the images, this is the rare book where the writer and artist are truly matched in their contributions. Not only is Adrian Alphona’s artwork beautiful but his storytelling and creative flourishes are a particularly essential part of the reading experience.
Alphona’s compositions don’t aspire to be high art in themselves, the way that some comics treat every panel, but rather focus on character and readability. Pages sometimes lack cohesion, but the individual panels are always clear, despite the delightful number of little details that populate them. Kamala’s awesome sloth backpack or the warning that ‘cashiers are not interested in your stories’ or the fire extinguisher labeled “die, fire, die” all help to provide the tone that balances out the more expository dialogue and assures a reader that, for any discussion of the trials of growing up different, this will be an uplifting series.
Lately I’ve been noticing how artists handle their ‘wide shots’. Some artists seem to have trouble maintaining the quality of their characters when they’re not in close-up. Alphona clearly does not have this problem. While detail takes a noticeable hit, the simple child-like style that Ms. Marvel employs in far-away framings is adorable and effective. Close-ups use minimal lines and simple shading but the resulting style is impressively nuanced. At times the characters remind one of the stylized aesthetic of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, while, in moments of extremity, it even reminds slightly of James Stokoe’s work. We’ve yet to see how Alphona handles action scenes, but his art is bursting with character, and Kamala even looks Pakistani; imagine that!
The Conclusion: It’s hard to consider Ms. Marvel #1 without wondering where the series will go from here. While the heavy focus on Kamala’s personal life might not appeal to all readers, Ms. Marvel is off to a resounding start and, taken as part of an opening arc rather than a single debut, it positively sings. G. Willow Wilson has done a fantastic job of establishing a new character and Adrian Alphona’s art is not only gorgeous but exceptionally sturdy.
I hope that in future issues, Wilson will feel less pressure to pack all the exposition about Kamala’s community in so tightly, but, while Kamala’s racial and religious background has been a key element of discussion about the book, any culture given such care and strong craftsmanship would have proved an impressive start to a series. It’s unclear if Ms. Marvel will stick with its offbeat, schoolyard charm or expand to larger locales and grander heroics, regardless, it’s my opinion that the crux of a great hero is their character, which will define them no matter the scale of their spandex-clad adventures and that’s something that Ms. Marvel has in spades.