Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #361: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1 by Wilson & Alphona

Originality is a sliding scale: it depends entirely on context. In the world of fine art, after a century of conceptual and site-specific and performance and found, it would take a whole lot to be original. In superhero comics, though, a Muslim teenager with the powers of Elongated Man is a blazingly new concept.

I pick on the new Ms. Marvel, but it's true: superhero comics are so regimented and defined that just having a main character who isn't a straight white male between the ages of 16 and 35 is shocking to large segments of the audience. The new Ms. Marvel series has gotten generally positive reviews, but those are all from people already inclined to want diverse characters in standard spandex outfits punching the same old villains in the same old ways. And that audience gets praised for their forward-thinking ways far too much, to my mind, since they're only forward-thinking in the most narrow, blindered ways: they only want a wider variety of people on the covers of their punching-the-world-better comics.

Kamala Khan is a young person who suddenly gets powers and feels the urge to better the world with them; she comes into conflict with her family's expectations for her and with unpleasant schoolmates whom she saves despite their unpleasantness. She's awkward with her powers and hero-worships longer-established heroes, and is deeply earnest and entirely a positive role model.

In other words, she's Peter Parker, and a half-dozen other similar heroes from the past fifty years in the same vein. Sure, she's female, from Jersey City rather than Brooklyn, vaguely Muslim rather than vaguely Christian, and Pakistani rather than unspecified WASP, but those are all pretty superficial details over the same story framework.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal collects the first five issues of Kamala's ongoing series, plus an eight-page story from an anthology title -- all written by G. Willow Wilson (who has the great benefit in this context of being a Muslim woman as well as an award-winning writer) and drawn by Adrian Alphona (best known for the cult favorite Runaways series). It's relatively smart, self-aware superhero stuff: origin, working out the details of the powers (stretching and shrinking, changing to look like other people, general stretchy powers that don't yet rise to the level of Plastic Man deformity), and the first confrontation with the goons of her very first supervillain. It is a bit quirky, driven by Alphona's semi-indy drawings and Ian Herring's soft colors, with a look more like Omega the Unknown than Marvel-standard. (Though the cover, interestingly, is Marvel-standard rather than Alphona/Herring, showing that comics still want to make everything look the same as much as possible.)

It's not nearly as different or amazing as some sectors of the Internet would lead you to believe; it's a superhero comic from Marvel, and hits all of the expected story beats. But it's an appealing slab of superhero comics, and, at least this far in, isn't tied up with continuity and event knots that damage so many of it's shelf-mates. You could do worse than to read this, but you could also do vastly better.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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