Kamala Khan is a Great Ms. Marvel

Good news! The first two issues of Ms. Marvel featuring Kamala Khan live up to the hype.

As a rule, the comic book industry is more comfortable diversifying its characters in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation than television and film.  Nonetheless, the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is still ground breaking as the first Muslim superhero to headline her own comic book.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Credit: Marvel Comics

Perhaps the most important thing about this series, what truly sets it apart, is that it’s written from the perspective of a Muslim. This entails more than just making Kamala a Muslim. It means framing Kamala’s religion and Pakistani background as “the standard” (because that’s how Kamala views it) rather than “the exotic other” that warrants explanation. Ms. Marvel isn’t particularly interested in educating readers about Islam or Pakistani-American culture. Writer, G. Willow Wilson, assumes that you understand the “weird food rules” to which Kamala refers in Issue #1 and the implications behind Nakia’s decision to wear hijab because Wilson never elaborates. If you’re a non-Muslim who learns something new from this comic book, that’s great but that’s not the book’s purpose.

Contrast this with X-Men member, Sooraya Qadir aka Dust. She’s an Afghani niqabi whose dominant personality traits are piety and meekness. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I suppose, but it’s painfully obvious that she was only written as a well-meaning attempt to represent Muslims positively and offer readers some basic information about Islam  (i.e. prayer, the merits of modesty and niqab ≠ burqa). It’s nice but it feels forced. Kamala Khan doesn’t feel like the product of an agenda and she’s all the more progressive a character for it.

As one might deduce from this article so far, most of the first two issues are dedicated to character development rather than action but this is to be expected in an origin story. Kamala’s newly obtained shape-shifting powers are used more forexploring her identity crisis than for super heroic exploits (which are limited to Kamala saving fellow teen, Zoe, from drowning). For example, the first time she shape-shifts, she transforms herself in the traditional Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel:  white, blonde and scantily clad, because that’s how she thinks she should be. Afterwards, though, she reflects that “Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting.” While lessons about self-acceptance are common in stories with teenage protagonists, the context in Issue #2 gives this particular revelation real poignancy.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Credit: Marvel Comics

My primary grievance with Ms. Marvel’s first two issues is that, for all the emphasis placed on character development, we know more about what Kamala Khan isn’t than what she is. Yes, it’s establish that she’s an Avengers fangirl but the story spends much more time on her culture and religion and on these central topics, she is defined in negatives. She isn’t passionately devout like her friend, Nakia, or her brother, Aamir, but she isn’t unreligious like Zoe. So … what is she?

In all fairness, Kamala isn’t sure what she is either so perhaps the absence of concrete information is information unto itself. Regardless, we’re only two issues in so there’s still plenty of time for character development- and it’s development I’m excited for. Judging by her costume on the cover of Issue #2 and a variant cover for Issue #1, Kamala doesn’t hide as a blonde Carol Danvers-esque Ms. Marvel for long. I suspect her arc in future issues will entail her finding a costume and superhero identity that’s both superheroic and true to herself. Gee, I wonder what that might be a metaphor for?

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