A weird schedule kept me from Arcane Comics for a full week after the release date of Ms. Marvel. Once I finally grabbed it (OK, fine, I bought two copies), life got in the way. I wanted to wait until I had the time to absorb one of the most radical works by a mainstream comic vendor in my lifetime, so there it sat, begging to be read. Finally things slowed a bit. and I had a chance to dive in. In Adrian Alphona’s vibrant artwork and the story by Seattle’s own G. Willow Wilson, I found what I’ve been waiting for in comics: something new.
The hero is a 16-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim girl named Kamala Khan. That much I knew already. What I didn’t know is how Wilson, herself a Muslim woman, would handle these biographical details. As I read the first pages, I was heartened to find they were not just casually mentioned. Rather, the characteristics that make Khan unique in the world of superheroes are an important part of the story and character development. From page one, the reader understands that Kahn lives a religious life, and that such a life comes with certain tribulations. The struggles of a teenage Muslim living in the United States are conveyed deftly and with humor: In one panel Kahn smells bacon while her friends tease her for torturing herself; in another, her friend, wearing a headscarf, politely explains to a popular blonde girl that no, no one is forcing her to wear it. Wilson’s directness in dealing with these issues is refreshing and, to this reader, not in the least alienating.
Teenage years are awkward and sometimes downright miserable; everyone is contradictorily concerned with fitting in and with finding their voice. Kahn is no different, and thus is immensely relatable. She is confident and true to her principles, but wants to fit in. In disagreements with her parents and trying to talk with the “cool kids,” you feel for her. She is struggling to find her place. We’ve all been there. Complicating matters is the fact that, like a real human being, Khan is more than her ethno-religious profile. She is a nerd. A huge nerd, and I love it. She writes Avengers fan fiction and obsesses over superheroes.
The flash of publicity that preceded the publication of Ms. Marvel is likely what sent it to #1 in digital sales, but if it’s going to stay on top, it’s Khan’s nerdy characteristics and relatability that will keep it there. Comic-book creators respond to numbers, so I hope they will figure out that, yes, characters who are female, people of color, and decidedly non-Christian can bring in readers. Just follow Wilson’s lead and do it well.