Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Ms. Marvel #11. Written by G. Willow Wilson (Mystic, X-Men) with art by Adrian Alphona (Runaways, Uncanny X-Force) and colorist Ian Herring (Amazing Spider-Man: Learning To Crawl, Scribblenauts Unmasked), this issue positions Kamala Khan as the leading superhero voice of a new generation. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
It’s a been a year since Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan’s ongoing series debuted at Marvel Comics, and it’s safe to say that she’s made a huge impact on the current landscape of superhero comics. There’s been a considerable rise in superhero titles targeted to younger female readers—from DC’s Batgirl, Gotham Academy, and Supergirl to Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and the upcoming Spider-Gwen—and while Kamala can’t take all the credit, she’s certainly been leading the charge. Her introduction was heralded by lots of hype thanks to her status as the first Muslim character to headline a Marvel series, but Ms. Marvel has become one of the industry’s best titles because it’s an outstanding superhero comic created with confidence, intelligence, and a lot of style.
Marvel has talked the talk—and the publisher has rallied behind Kamala with force in terms of publicity—but it’s up to the book’s creative team to walk the walk, which has become more of a victorious strut at this point. The title has only gotten better as Kamala settles on a mission statement for herself, ultimately realizing in this current arc that the younger generation needs her as a representative and inspirational figure. Writer G. Willow Wilson has expertly plotted the journey to that discovery, gracefully easing new readers into the Marvel Universe by establishing the reality of Kamala’s home setting before diving into the more fantastic elements.
The first arc introduced the key relationships in Kamala’s life and the domestic situation that interferes with her new vigilante activity—basic first steps for any new superhero title, but were especially captivating because of Kamala’s experience as a Muslim Pakistani-American female. After that initial storyline ended, Ms. Marvel’s expanded, first with a two-parter guest starring Wolverine (featuring delightful manga-inspired artwork by Jake Wyatt), and currently with an arc that has Kamala learning about her Inhuman lineage and teaming up with a giant teleporting bulldog. She’s beginning to take her place in the larger Marvel Universe, and has guest starred in top-selling books like Amazing Spider-Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. to raise her profile across Marvel’s line.
Kamala’s home life isn’t like many other superheroes, and not just because of her race and religion. There are few ongoing comics that directly address the teenage girl experience, and while there are some notable exceptions in Boom’s Lumberjanes, Oni’s Princess Ugg, and the aforementioned Gotham Academy, these titles are greatly outnumbered by books dedicated to older male characters. It’s rare enough to get a superhero story headlined by a teenage girl, but Ms. Marvel stands out even more because of its focus on religion. And it’s not because Kamala is Muslim; it’s because her connection to religion is a major part of her narrative at all. Islam doesn’t define her, but it greatly influences her behavior and decision-making, adding tension to her life that doesn’t come from a more traditional source like a romantic interest or masked supervillain. The first arc placed greater emphasis on Kamala’s faith than current issues, but it’s still a major element in this book that will surely introduce more stress (and salvation) down the line.
That’s the other thing about how Wilson handles religion in this book: It can be problematic when it gets in the way of Kamala’s vigilante lifestyle, but it can also be immensely helpful, offering her guidance and inspiration when she’s unsure of herself. Kamala’s meeting with Sheikh Abdullah in issue #6 is a sterling example of the latter; she expects to be berated for disobeying her parents, but the conversation moves in a much different, more empowering direction. “If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about,” Sheikh Abdullah says, “do it with the qualities befitting an upright young woman: Courage, strength, honesty, compassion, and self-respect.” It’s a message that directly challenges the restrictive, oppressive image of Islam that is depicted in the media, emphasizing how Kamala’s religion has a positive impact on her life.
Religion isn’t a hot topic in superhero comics, but maybe it should be. Diversifying the genre doesn’t just mean introducing characters of different races and creeds, it means diversifying the content of the narratives and finding new ideas to explore. The broad strokes of Kamala’s story are familiar to any superhero comic reader—a seemingly ordinary person is granted extraordinary ability that interferes with her former life and introduces a new set of responsibilities for the future—but there’s a lot of flexibility in that formula for different types of characters and circumstances. Being Muslim changes the story. Being the child of immigrant parents from Pakistan changes the story. And most important to this current arc, being a millennial changes the story.
This week’s Ms. Marvel #11 concludes “Generation Why,” a storyline that has directly tackled the pressures felt by young people fighting for legitimacy in a world that thinks they are overly privileged parasites. Preying on feelings of helplessness and insecurity in the teen community, the villainous Inventor has been powering his machines with teen volunteers, and Kamala has stepped in to put an end to his plot and help his victims discover their strength as individuals and as a group. The Inventor may have given up on the next generation, but Kamala hasn’t, and she uses her position as a superhero to inspire young people to work together to create a better future.
Kamala’s mission is especially important in a digital age where hate runs rampant, fueled by the privilege of anonymity. It’s easy to attack others for their differences without the fear of punishment, and many young people have used technology to become more insular and intolerant of differences. And yet, millennials are connected in ways that past generations never have been. They are growing up with more awareness of what is happening in other parts of the world, and using technology to spread the word and offer support. There’s incredible potential in the next generation, and Kamala is here to make sure every young reader knows that. But it’s not going to be realized if each person exists in a disconnected little bubble. After stopping the Inventor, Kamala preaches her philosophy and tells her fellow teens that they need to pay attention to what’s happening in real life and stick together or they’ll never stop being used as pawns, words that readers need to hear as much as the characters.
This creative team has done phenomenal work building a superhero comic in the classic Marvel mode, but offers a more progressive point of view in the scripts and artwork. Adrian Alphona is an essential part of this book’s success, pairing Wilson’s words with highly expressive characters and meticulously detailed environments that add loads of charm to the cast and setting. Alphona devotes a lot of attention to fashion and interior design to give every person and place its own distinct personality, and it’s worth lingering on each panel to savor the specificity of Alphona’s choices for clothing and décor. This current storyline has taken Kamala from the gritty streets of Jersey City to the fantasy sci-fi metropolis of Attilan, and the change in setting has given Alphona even more opportunities to wow readers with his exquisite design skills and intricate linework.
Alphona also provides a steady supply of whimsy in his art, keeping the tone light and fun with his cartoonishly exaggerated character expressions and goofy visual gags. The background text in his environments tends to be very silly, and he’s not afraid to embrace absurd flourishes if they can brighten up the story. One of the artistic high points of this issue is a splash page showing Kamala as she shapeshifts her way through the machinery of a giant killer robot, but she’s not alone between the gears. A group of mice have made their home inside the robot, and are living comfortably on the garbage that finds its way inside the structure. The rodents play no larger part in the story and really just exist to add even more visual stimuli to a page that already packs a wallop. These details aren’t necessary, but they make the book richer and add an element of quirkiness to the visuals. (Speaking of quirk, how great is that cover by Kris Anka showing Kamala enjoying a rooftop cupcake?)
Ian Herring is one of the many exceptional colorists at Marvel who is actively thinking about how to contribute to overall storytelling rather than just filling the space between the lines. In this issue, he uses warm colors to accentuate action beats in an environment dominated by cooler shades, and he goes out of his way to make sure the coloring highlights the intricacy of Alphona’s linework rather than detracting from it. In the aforementioned splash page inside the robot, Herring colors Alphona’s lines with a stark neon blue that simultaneously draws attention to the complex machinery while making Kamala the focal point because she’s more fully rendered than the surrounding environment. And when the Inventor sets off an electromagnetic pulse that interferes with Kamala’s powers, Herring colors the heroine with an fiery orange that creates strong visual tension with those neon blue lines.
Kamala is quickly evolving into a remarkable hero in the pages of Ms. Marvel, but a major moment in Kamala’s growth as a pop culture figure came at the end of last month, when images of the new Ms. Marvel were plastered on top of anti-Islam advertisements running on San Francisco buses. Yes, it’s vandalism and that’s against the law, but operating outside the law to fight for the greater good is a major part of the whole superhero shtick, and fighting against hatred, even hatred protected by free speech, is fighting for the greater good. Wilson applauded the action on Twitter and praised the “amazing” individual responsible, but it’s the work she’s done with her collaborators on Ms. Marvel that has given Kamala Khan the power to influence the world outside the page.