In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Elle talks Marvel with a review of the first Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel trade paperback, Ms. Marvel: No Normal.
Hot on the heels of my happiness from the all-female Avengers team, I now get to talk about one of my new favorite comic characters: Kamala Khan, aka, the new Ms. Marvel. (I’m not entirely certain if friend R is encouraging or discouraging my future as the Feminist Fury at this point, because he keeps handing me role models.) When I first heard about the new Ms. Marvel, I was incredibly excited. Not just because it was a new female superhero, not just because it was written by a female author (The same G. Willow Wilson who is writing the A-Force storyline) but because she seemed new, exciting, and well-rounded. She was going to be a female Muslim character in the Marvel universe, one who didn’t wear a niqāb, have the power to turn into a cloud of dust/sand, have the mutant codename of “Dust,” and need to be rescued from slave traders (I am so not even joking about this character existing).
For the record, I’m not trying to diss the niqāb, just the writers that are so uncreative that their attempt to create a Muslim character is basically “Ooh, ooh, how stereotypical and Orientalist can we be right now? Very? Let’s go with very.” Kamala sounded like a girl very much of my generation, and dealing with a lot of the issues that come with having a hyphenated identity in the United States: she’s a Pakistan-American trying to reconcile her faith and culture with an unwillingness to be labeled and a desire to have the mythical “normal” teenage experience.
I was seriously tempted to buy the single issues of Ms. Marvel when they first came out, but reminded myself that A, I was broke, and B, I lose single issues of comic books so fast it isn’t funny. So it wasn’t until the happy rediscovery of an old Barnes and Noble gift card that I was able to purchase the first trade paperback, Ms. Marvel: No Normal. I have to admit I also had some trepidation when I first heard about the series, because there are usually three things that happen when I am really excited about a new pop culture phenomenon: 1: it turns out to be terrible or at least have some kind of flaw that makes it harder (though certainly not impossible) to love the rest of the work (I’m looking at you, Steven Moffat), 2: it kills off my favorite character in some bizarre fashion (*cough* Joss Whedon *cough*), or 3: it turns out to be even better than I expected and I fangirl everywhere and it’s really embarrassing until I force all of my friends to read/watch/listen to the same thing and they finally understand me. Luckily, I’d been hearing mostly good things about the series so I was pretty sure that 1 wasn’t going to happen. I was hoping for 3, but I was purposefully avoiding spoilers so I had no idea about 2 (I still don’t. This thing could go all “I am a leaf
on the wind” on me at any moment).
People: Option number 3 happened.
It is so, so good. It exceeds my expectations. I kinda want to be Kamala when I grow up. Kamala is an amazing character, and while her storyline borrows from the stereotype of “restrictive Muslim parents keep teenage daughter from having fun,” the representation of her family life goes way beyond that.
(*SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this article. I’m going to try to avoid giving away major plot points, but my discussion is going to include some specific dialogue and situations from the comic. I trust you all to be responsible for your own comfort level of having things “spoiled” for you.)
Kamala is a fanfic writing, superhero-obsessed teenager who is proud of her faith and her family, but also trying to branch out into the typical teenager realms—parties, boys, and popularity. She feels the fierce desire to be “normal,” lamenting her inability to be either an “intergalactic superhero” or “blond and popular” (foreshadowing!) When she decides to leave the house to attend a party, part of her decision is based off of her frustration at the aspects of her upbringing that set her apart from other kids—her lunch items, her holidays, etc. But this isn’t a comic for Muslim-bashers. She still loves her family and her culture.
Her pretty blonde classmate, Zoe Zimmerman, is referred to as a “concern troll” (which made me almost spit out my drink, seriously everyone this comic is so good) who asks Kamala’s friend Nakia if she’s being forced to wear her headscarf, earnestly inquiring, “Nobody’s going to like, honor kill you? I’m just concerned.” Kamala initially sees her as harmless and nice, but later becomes angry when Zoe seems to take Kamala’s disobedience of her parents as an excuse to dismiss or ridicule Kamala’s parents and her religion. The comic makes the point that even people who are trying to be “nice” can be bigots, and that the “pity the poor foreigner” pose can be as harmful as outright hatred. While Kamala’s parents are strict, she also frequently refers to her father’s advice and guidance as she tries to navigate her newfound superhero powers. There’s actual freaking nuance in this comic, rather than pro-American propaganda.
As one might expect from the title, the moral of the comic is that there isn’t really such thing as “normal.” While the concept might be a bit cliché, it’s one that is still important, and one that doesn’t get as much attention as it should—that there is no homogenous “normal,” just what works best for each individual person. When Kamala gets her wish and literally becomes blonde, fashionable, and super-heroic, she realizes that it’s not all cracked up to be. She’s not happy because she can look like the original Ms. Marvel. She’s happy because she can save people. She gives up her copying of the first Ms. Marvel to become her own version, deciding “I’m not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero… I’m here to be the best version of Kamala.” She’s aware that finding this version of herself isn’t always going to be easy to determine, or to obtain, but I’m looking forward to reading about her figuring it out.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not fangirling everywhere, forcing all of her friends to read/watch/listen to something until they finally understand her, she studies gender in popular culture.