The subject that brought the most attention to the new Ms. Marvel was Kamala’s religion, there can be no doubt. That piqued my interest as someone invested in religion and pop culture. So I was pleased to see the first panel of the new Ms. Marvel #1 contains only a sandwich. The second panel–a sandwich and a girl in a headscarf–had me laughing. By the end of page one, I was hooked. I’d never read G. Willow Wilson before she took over the Ms. Marvel title. Now that I’ve read #1, I’m sold on Wilson and will likely look back to see what there it to see. Because Ms. Marvel #1 is excellent.
The title of Ms. Marvel was made available recently by Carol Danvers’ promotion to Captain. And so the name passes in G. Willow Wilson’s hands to the sixteen year-old Pakistani-American Kamala Khan. This being #1, however, there’s no Ms. Marvel to be found; there’s simply Kamala. A teenager who spends her days fighting with her parents, struggling to fit in among her classmates, writing superhero fan fiction, and trying to find a sense of her life inside the home and out. She longs simultaneously for blonde hair and lighter skin and boots with heels, and to please her parents while being allowed to grow up.
Kamala’s life then is a familiar setting for this story. But it is not over-familiar, or unoriginal. In fact, it is in this familiarity that the distinct nature of Ms. Marvel comes alive. Wilson’s ease of dialog, her quick and smooth writing, and her capacity to transfer the universality of being a teenager in the US, to the more specific reality of growing up Muslim in America, to the story that we all know is to come–the imbuing of Kamala with the powers of Ms. Marvel–provides the title with an individuality that sprung quickly to life and holds immense promise.
The dialog posses such fluidity, from Kamala’s time with friends to the dinner a table fight with her parents, that I took hardly any notice when we left the “real-world” version of Jersey City’s streets and entered into the world of religious iconography, spirituality, and superheros*. When a mysterious cloud descends on Jersey, it leaves Kamala unconscious. She awakens to find the gods of her dreaming days descending from above, appearing from the heavens to fill the needs of a young girl’s despair.
In this instance Kamala’s gods are not God, but another trinity that inspires her: Captain America, Iron Man, and the central religious figure of Kamala’s imagination: Captain Marvel. The intersection of religion and pop culture is a complex and important subject–frequently given short shrift if considered at all. The manner in which Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona handle what could be a potentially fraught subject is instead refreshing in its candor. This is what we’re doing, the pages say confidently, and you’re going to love it.
As I try here to describe this descending trinity, I’m failing to make clear that this scene is not a ham-handed, irreligious, or silly affair. With Wilson’s dialog and Alphona’s beautiful artwork, the scene carries exactly the amount of weight and wile necessary for both the audience and Kamala to remain grounded. Iron Man’s hand gesture and Capt. Marvel’s open palms are accompanied by a pig with wings and a sparrow in a winter cap. While there’s no need to know that Cap and Iron Man recite the work of a medieval Indian poet, the knowledge is a lovely flower blooming both for Kamala and for our search engines.
It was noted (at The Stake, and everywhere else) that Ms. Wilson is herself a Muslim, and that the idea of passing Ms. Marvel’s name to Kamala Khan came from Marvel editor Sana Amanat. In pitching the new Ms. Marvel, Amanat apparently noted the dearth of superhero comics that contain “cultural specificity.” This is a critical note, and the critique of the superhero cultural landscape is on point. We see that changing, if slowly, in the Marvel Now titles that continue to add diversity and cultural complexity to an environment that lacks it.
Ms. Marvel #1 delivers on the promise inherent in Amanat’s pitch. The aim for cultural specificity is fulfilled in hilarious and moving fashion. These subjects are undertaken–in the heavy moments like the descent, but also in the lighter moments in the Khan household–with such detail and care that religious and cultural considerations become so present in the first pages as to almost become irrelevant by the time a uniformed Ms. Marvel appears on the last.
For readers, like myself, who care greatly about the cultural, religious and social interconnections in pop culture, I can’t recommend Ms. Marvel #1 enough. Or if you just love good storytelling. None of this means that the immense potential contained within will be achieved. While Wilson and Alphona work with ease and assuredness in #1, the possibility of an overwrought handling of the transformation of Kamala Khan into Ms. Marvel remains.
But there’s little reason to worry so far.
*The world of religious iconography is where superheroes have always lived.