On Identity & Origin Stories: Ms. Marvel #1

Ink: One week ago, Ms. Marvel (2014) #1 was released, after months of fanfare from comic news websites, blogs, major news outlets like HuffPo, NYT, and AJE, and, like, a whole bunch of people on Tumblr. Two days ago, Marvel announced that the issue had sold out its first print run, proving as popular as everyone said that it would be. Saika and I had the pleasure of reading it last week, and we want to share our feelings with you.


If you don’t know about the comic already, you probably want to know “what the hell is this comic about?” The answer to that question is another question, “who is Kamala Khan, Alex?” Well, she’s a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American girl who lives in Jersey City, but who is she? She’s a Muslim superhero, an idealist and a shapeshifter, but who is she? She’s a Carol Danvers-obsessed fanfiction-writing geek, but who is Kamala Khan?

That’s the question that Ms. Marvel #1 begins to answer, though it’s apparent that her origin story will unfold over several issues. That being said, all signs point to this volume being an exploration of identity. Kamala, our unlikely hero, must navigate being more “American” than her family would like and more Pakistani than the cool kids can understand. Furthermore, her superpower is shapeshifting, which could not be a clearer metaphor for the exploration of identity. Even the position of this issue within the current Marvel timeline is designed to that end. Let’s work backwards.

Toward the end of the comic, Kamala is exposed to the Terrigen Mist, an extraterrestrial mutagen vapor which grants superpowers to certain individuals. The release of this mutagen is the primary feature of the end of the Infinity storyline, leading into the events of Inhumanity. This puts Kamala’s exposure, and therefore this comic, a month or two before current Marvel events. Why? Because unlike many other superheroes who were introduced as an adversary and then developed further, or introduced in medias res, it was important to start Kamala’s story at the beginning. It was important to her creators, G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, and Adrian Alphona, that we see her sort out her identity as a Pakistani-American and a Muslim alongside her growth as a hero.

Honestly, the least impressive thing about this issue is the writing. The dialogue is good, often clever, but the plot is obvious. Kamala, shortly after being introduced in terms of halal (lamenting that she cannot eat bacon), hears about a party from some racist, classist popular kids, of whose status/whiteness she is envious. She finds the prospect enticing, even though these “cool kids” macroaggress (yes, I mean “macroaggress”) her sister Nakia by asking if she will be “honor-killed” for removing her hijab.

ms-marvel-001-preview-003 After fighting with her parents, she sneaks out, but upon arrival to the party finds that there is no fun to be had, and storms off. Then she encounters the Terrigen Mist. Let me put that another way: the misfit young woman defies her parents after some fight about cultural identity/propriety/boy/school, goes to a party based on an ill-advised sense of rebellion, and ends up in over her head. It’s a pretty archetypal story. That’s not an insult to Wilson; it’s just true. It may very well have been a decision to make her initial conflicts as recognizable as possible. Since Kamala’s relatability is crucial to both the comic’s popularity and the artistic goals of the creators, this may even be an advantage.

Saika: If I may butt in?

So I didn’t get to pick up this book until Thursday (I got snowed in on Wednesday), so my first real introduction to the comic was through photosets of the art on Tumblr. And just from that, I knew I was going to enjoy this series.

tumblr_n0j7phNNvq1rj9yxuo1_500 I got burned real bad by Fearless Defenders as far as the art was concerned, so I have learned not to trust a progressive premise to deliver quality illustration. But Ms. Marvel does, in fact, deliver. The art has a cute, whimsical feel that matches perfectly with the character and tone of the book. Kamala’s expressions and physicality, whether she’s grumpy, excited, or frightened, are a joy to behold. And I would pay real physical cash money for a poster-sized print of the full-page panel where Kamala hallucinates Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Iron Man (holding a winged sloth, no less) appearing from the Terrigen Mists to bestow upon her their wisdom.

So Ink mentioned earlier that this arc is important because it gives us Kamala’s origin story, and part of that story is going to be coming to terms with her identity. The Terrigen Mists have unlocked what we know from promotional stuff will be an ability to shapeshift, but the first issue ends on a development that some fans have found controversial. During her hallucination, coming off of the frustration from both the party and her family, Kamala expresses to dream-Carol, “I want to be beautiful and awesome and butt-kicking and less complicated. I want to be you.” The issue leaves us on a cliffhanger as Kamala busts out of her metamorphosis cocoon looking, well, exactly like Carol.

msmarvelnewThe apparent immediate whitewashing of Marvel’s most hyped new woman of color was cause for concern among some readers, but I’m really not worried about it right now. First of all, we do know from previews that Kamala’s power is shapeshifting, and so this appearance is likely just a manifestation of her subconscious wish to be like her idol. Furthermore, also from previews, we know that when Kamala does come into crimefighting later on, she’s doing it as her own Pakistani-American self in a mask, not shapeshifted to a different appearance altogether. I think this first metamorphosis provides a perfect jumping-off point from which Kamala will realize that she would, in fact, rather be herself than a Carol clone.

Ink: Again, I see that shapeshifting as a reflection of Kamala navigating her identity through her varying life situations. How must Kamala behave to navigate the cast of characters around her, the family that supports her but doesn’t understand her hobbies, and the much more sinister most “well-meaning-but-not-really-racists?” popular kids at her high school. Some concern was expressed, even by known scholars on race and religion, that the comic would position the Muslim men in her family as oppressors. A reasonable concern, but one that was thankfully wrong. I found the father a perfectly reasonable depiction, a man trying to do a job who is just a touch too protective of his daughter—a common enough trait in fathers. Or consider Kamala’s siblings: both of them have reclaimed and incorporated Islamic behavior and dress into their lives, more even than their parents, it seems. This flies directly in the face of the trope of second-generation children assimilating and neglecting their cultural and religious roots. So, bonus points for that.

Saika: I think I speak for both of us when I say I’m very much looking forward to the next issue. I’m excited to see what sort of shenanigans Kamala gets up to as she comes into her powers, and am eager to see what happens once the story catches up to the rest of the Marvel timeline. I also really want to see what happens if and when Carol and Kamala meet in real life rather than in a hallucination, and how Carol, who is a legacy hero herself as regards the Captain Marvel title, deals with having a fresh new Ms. Marvel.

Ink: Indeed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we’ve crossed the boundary from cautious optimism to actual excitement. Ms. Marvel #1 will go into reprint in March, followed by #2 soon after. I’d really urge any interested parties to go ahead and spend the three or four dollars and pick it up, either online or in stores. I mean, I think it’s worth it just for the image of Carol Danvers reciting traditional Urdu poetry, but that’s just me.

7 thoughts on “On Identity & Origin Stories: Ms. Marvel #1

  1. Nice article. I also really enjoyed the comic and I’m pretty excited about getting #2 myself.

    I should mention though that Nakia is Kamala’s friend, not her sister. Nakia is also Turkish, not Pakistani like Kamala.

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