The first story arc of the new Ms. Marvel, Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan, is a masterful telling of a hero’s origin.
If you were afraid you might not be able to relate to a 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American girl, stop worrying about it. The struggles of Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel and Marvel Comics’ first Muslim character to get a solo book, are universal.
“Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class? Why do I have to bring pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everybody else gets to be normal. Why can’t I?” asks Kamala in the first issue, before even acquiring her superpowers. Everyone has experienced a moment where something about their life, their family, their religion, or themselves has made them wish they could cast off their differences and just be normal. In Ms. Marvel, Kamala suddenly gets that wish.
Of course, her circumstances are unique – very few of us geeks had to manage wild new abilities in addition to managing daily teen struggles with pimples, crushes, and arguments over curfew – but Ms. Marvel excels because Kamala’s story is so relatively ordinary. Her new powers allow her to change into anything she wants to be, into that idealized normal that she thinks she wants. But over the first five issues, Kamala begins to realize that there is no normal. To be a good person, to be a hero, she doesn’t need to change herself. She just needs to choose to act.
The first five issues of the new ongoing series, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by Adrian Alphona, is a flawless superhero debut, launching Kamala’s career as Jersey City’s masked defender, and doing so while exoticizing Kamala’s new superpowers, but not her background.
After sneaking out to a party that her father forbade her from attending, Kamala realizes that breaking her parent’s rules don’t make her any more accepted by the popular kids. It just gives them more ammunition to make fun of her. When she storms off from the party, a strange mist descends over the Jersey City waterfront. Knocked out by the mist, Kamala awakes to a vision of her idols Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Captain America, who tell her that her life is about to change. When the vision fades, Kamala bursts forth from a cocoon, suddenly possessing shape-changing powers and wearing the form of Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel. She uses her newfound powers to rescue Zoe, her part-friend part-antagonist from school who has fallen off a dock at the waterfront party. The drunken students who witness the rescue plaster her image all across social media. Kamala’s famous, but also grounded, because when she returns home from sneaking out her parents are furious. Kamala’s second-best-friend, Bruno, told them where she’d been.
Feeling betrayed by her friend and confused by her body’s new ability to change shape, Kamala turns to the internet to try to research her new morphing powers. Kamala’s powers let her change her shape by growing large, shrinking small, or changing her look to become a doppelganger. At first, she is only able to look like Carol Danvers in Ms. Marvel’s classic costume, but later discovers she can take on other people’s appearance. On her way to break her silence with Bruno, Kamala discovers that she can also survive bullet wounds. She walks in on Bruno being robbed at gunpoint in the small convenience store where he works, and transforms to intervene and save her friend. The robber is Bruno’s own brother, Vick, who has gotten tangled up with a shady group of criminals under the leadership of The Inventor. Vick runs off, and Kamala reverts to her normal appearance, apparently unharmed.
She discovers that, at least for now, she can no longer to maintain the form of Danvers as Ms. Marvel due to the bullet wound that she took in that form. She seems to be slowly healing, but the bounds of her powers are still unknown. Kamala begins to realize she can be a superhero without spandex, bombastic blonde locks, and thigh-high boots. With the help of Bruno, Kamala makes a first attempt to save Vick, whose failed robbery has put him on The Inventor’s bad side. Vick is under the guard of The Inventor’s flunkies and mechanical beasts, and the first rescue attempt is a loss. Determined, Kamala puts together a new costume with Bruno’s help, and undergoes a short but fantastic mini training montage before returning to save Vick.
By the end of the first five issue arc, Kamala has become a super hero. She has a costume, a daring and successful rescue in her list of triumphs, and a strange villain bent on her destruction. But Kamala is also a teenager, and like every other teenager before her, she is trying to figure out how to be herself, what being herself means, and who she wants to be. She reads and writes fanfiction about The Avengers, works hard at school, and plays videogames. She struggles with how to balance her growing need for independence with the pressures and expectations of her friends, family, and her own desire to be normal.
The scripts are excellent, supported by Alphona’s art, which brings emotion and power to Wilson’s crisp dialogue and solid characters. Kamala’s expressions are like snapshots. So much is communicated in just the shape of Kamala’s grin or the narrowing of her eyes. Her powers could easily become cartoony and off-putting, especially when she enlarges or shrinks individual body parts, but Alphona presents it believably. Every morph has motion, weight, and momentum. Her fight scenes are thrilling, with huge fists smashing robots to pieces or flinging debris out of her way like a trebuchet.
If you’ve ever bemoaned the plethora of similar comic book origin stories, or the tiring tendency for film adaptations to run over the formative moments of their heroes ad nauseum, this series will cure you of your apathy. Kamala’s rise to become Ms. Marvel is an expertly crafted, entertaining, and satisfying birth of a super hero. This is origin story done right.
Bottom Line: If you like superheroes and you have ever been, or will ever be, a teenager, you should be reading this book.
Recommendation: Longtime superhero fans and new readers alike will find Ms. Marvel a delight. Kamala Khan’s adventures make a great addition to a pull list, or an introduction to the world of Marvel superheroes.[rating=5]