Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ms. Marvel: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

This is probably one of the first traditional superhero narratives I've read. I read graphic novels fairly regularly, but superhero comics are definitely a new one for me, so my knowledge of the Marvel universe and its inhabitants is pretty limited. Therefore I can't pretend how to know where this fits in, what's happening elsewhere, where in the timeline this comes or anything like that, or how it compares to incarnation that have come before it. So anyway...

Ms Marvel stars 16 year old Kamala Khan, born to a Pakistani family in Jersey City. She's obsessed with the Avengers, writes fanfic and leads a pretty normal, though tragically early-curfewed life. The story begins with a tiny glimpse at the practicalities of growing up Muslim in America. The temptation of bacon, the decision to wear a veil or not. The way people might decide what it says about you, whatever decision one comes to. The differences in parental expectations of American parents and Turkish or Pakistani parents is highlighted too (Or is it different? Don't all parents want their kids to be successful and stable?). It's really interesting to see the mundane, everydayness of other lives, rather than seeing an 'issue' made out of them- a difference is suggested, but it doesn't seem a big deal. Anyway. There's a party at the waterfront and Kamala can't go because there's alcohol. But her recently veiled friend Nikia won't go because there's alcohol. Both girls know their own mind and they both have things to work out for themselves.

When a debilitating fog rolls in as Kamala walks home from her disastrous party, she passes out and has what could be described as a religious experience. The Avengers are speaking to her- imparting wisdom and speaking Urdu and arranged in a beautiful, if slightly unorthodox religious tableau complete with hulk-hand Sloths and seagulls wearing trapper hats. She wakes up from her brush with divinity with inexplicable and initially uncontrollable powers. I love this full-page panel- the swirls, the sash, the hair...it's just incredible and now I feel somewhat indoctrinated into comics.

Basically Kamala has a bit of an identity crisis early on- her polymorph powers let her become the buxom blonde superhero that she thinks people expect, the All-American figurehead that she has always seen in school. A reader could choose to perceive this as a cultural thing, but most likely it's a teen thing. Her indecision doesn't last long- Kamala is ready to show the world that brown hair, brown skin and burkini can be sufficiently super with the right attitude and the requisite amount of kick-assery. I think it is mostly about attitude. Kamala thinks a lot, even at this early stage, about what it means to do the right thing and why people might choose to intervene or not and what that says about them and their place in the world. She's brilliant and I love her.

As well as Kamala being a goofy, funny and occasionally melodramatic girl, she's also got a brilliant family. I absolutely loved the Khans- the deadpan, super sarcastic dad and her holier-than-thou brother who prays all day everyday (possibly to avoid getting a job) and the mum who simply doesn't understand what's going on in the heads of her kids. Her family, though glimpsed pretty briefly, seem dynamic and real, they seem pretty normal. They worry about the grades and the safety of their daughter, they want her to do well in life. It seems you don't need to be a massively traumatised orphan, radioactive or a millionaire to be a superhero anymore...

I loved how identifiable the story is so far, and just how modern it is. Most kids that have ever gone to school have wanted to be somebody else. They've wanted a smaller nose, less/more freckles, bigger/smaller boobs or to be taller/shorter or less clever/cleverer. Most readers too will relate to the pressure that Kamala feels she is under- the type of expectations that come with increased power or influence, the worries that she might not be up to it, might not be worthy of wielding such abilities. What teenager has never doubted their ability to successfully pull off what's expected of them?

It's pretty much a story about taking on a massive challenge despite having no idea whether you can manage it or not. It's about facing up to responsibilities and putting the time into getting something right. It's about learning to be happy with yourself and confident about the things that you can do. The artwork is immense and the characters come alive in the panels- I love how atmospheric they are. Dust, knock-out fog, school study-hall detritus, there's always something going on in the background and in the corners. I loved the neon blue lights too- sometimes it looks like the paper is actually luminous . It's not overly fussy or mega stylised, and I love the purple, orange and pinkish hues that tell the story of Kamala's night time missions. Can't wait for the next issue.

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