Review: Straight Outta Jersey: Ms. Marvel #1A comic review article by: Taylor Lilley, Keith Silva
As I read Ms. Marvel #1 I keep hearing John Hodgman's decree: 'specificity is the soul of narrative.'
Ms. Marvel has been catching fire from journos, critics and fake news pundits, since last November when Marvel Comics announced the character would be rebooted as Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani American Muslim from Jersey City, New Jersey. So what? Since Siegel and Schuster put pen to paper superheroes have always been engines of aspiration or as my auto-correct put it 'aspiration all.' Kamala Khan's time has come, treasure it.
Ms. Marvel #1 feels personal and very specific, but without the preciousness that often clings to stories with as much idiosyncrasy and subjectivity. From Kamala's devout brother to her overprotective parents and from her love of superheroes -- the Avengers, predictably obvious, but whatevs -- to her sneaking out of the house via the contrived tree limb (nearer, the bedroom window, to thee) to go to a verboten party, it all rings true as the actions of a teenager. If anything writer G. Willow Wilson imagines a very vanilla superhero origin story (Kirby and Lee were doing this sort of thing half a century ago). If a detail like Kamala's love/hate relationship with bacon -- let he who is without blame cast the first stone -- seems shoehorned in as a way to make her Muslim but not too Muslim, O.K., I think she could have gone further and the audience would have followed given how much the rest of the story makes the effort to be relatable to … the 'teenage condition.'
Adrian Alphona's cartooning has a touch of Sergio Aragonés wit along with the hyper-realized style Felipe Andrade brought to Captain Marvel. There's very little 'superhero-ey' that happens here as Alphona essentially draws a slice-of-life comic, Ghost World except prettier and in color. Pay attention to how Alphona and colorist Ian Herring use light and in which direction the light comes from. It's this kind of subtlety -- along with Alphona's masterful composition -- that gets lost when there are too many other marks on the page to distract from what's being shown. Take the time to look where and who Alphona places at the waterfront party. Look at the faces, the body shapes, there are 'Easter Eggs' and in-jokes, yes, but also a real sense of who would be there and how they would look, spots and all.
For a Portuguese-Irish-forty-year-old-American-male like me who reads few superhero comics, the overt relatable-ness of Ms. Marvel #1 is not the draw. For others in my, at least, age demographic, Ms. Marvel's success depends on two (very specific) phrases, the first is ''12 miles from Manhattan.'' This is a Jersey City, New Jersey story and it should stay that way. I wonder if Wilson and/or editor Sana Amanat chose Jersey City specifically because Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium was where Jackie Robinson made his debut in organized baseball as a member of the Montreal Royals … hmmm. ANYWAY Let the Avengers have their island. Let Kamala Khan plant her flag here, twelve miles from Manhattan. My guess is once Abu and Ammi see how their beti is dressed there's going to be enough tension to go around.
I want this comic to wear its regionalism (its Jersey) on its sleeve and no I'm not talking about the clichéd New Jersey of reality-TV or the one from the minds of designers of clever and quippy t-shirts. I want The Sopranos. I want Ms. Marvel to embody the opening credit sequence with Tony driving away from NYC, intention and direct address don't get more direct or intentional. I'd like to see Wilson et al. bring the same kind of verve and brashness to Ms. Marvel. That's a lot to ask given Marvel's myopic insistence of a 'shared everything.' Ah, a Portuguese-Irish boy can dream. (I'm hoping you can address this mist business, Taylor, as you are more Marvel-continuity adjacent than I ever want to be. A superhero has to get her powers somehow; so cocoon formed from weird mist is one way, I guess.)
The other crucial phrase occurs when Iron Man and Captains Marvel and America appear to Khan in a dream/hallucination/religious visitation. Captain Marvel says, ''As fate would have it, you're about to get the kind of total reboot most people only dream about.'' If, for the reader, this line alights like a hero in a classic three-point landing than Ms. Marvel #1 triumphs, otherwise … Like any pioneer, Kamala Khan has a lot to carry, some of it comes with the job, and most is 'aspiration all.'
So, Taylor, too specific? Too ethnic? Too much ''delicious, delicious infidel meat'' or not enough? In other words did Ms. Marvel #1 stick the landing?
Ms. Marvel #1 doesn't stick much of anything, Keith, for if 'Alphona's masterful composition' be the jewel-encrusted sword, Wilson's 'very vanilla superhero origin story' has yet to draw.
Alphona's snuggling in between Superior Foes of Spider-Man and King City stylistically, a nice warm spot, and echoes of Andrade's kineticism or Aragones's wit are welcome, but he's quick to devolve into fairly blank cartooning as the camera pulls back. If you're feeling generous, it argues for a comic-form take on magical realism, where magic is stick-figure abstraction, a reminder that this story is but inks and lines made to live on the page and therefore anything could happen. Given Wilson's mysticizing of the Terrigen Mists, we might be getting a book that's formally and narratively magical, without the ass-hattery that so often accompanies capital 'M' Magic. However, that's a lot of speculation for what could just be Alphona playing hurry-up.
Keith, if we're going by Hodgman then this narrative has a very small soul, or at least, a very young one. This superhero-fixated Muslim Jersey Girl is mind-numbingly conventional in every way. She stares down foods she can't eat; gosh, so do I! Her father's authoritarian, her Mother doesn't 'get' social media, and her brother is a scrounger on (in this case, religious) principle; well jeepers, that's just like white families, like MY family! She wants to be popular and fit normative conceptions of attractiveness, but those she would emulate reject her; gosh darnit, she might as well be me!
These aren't just 'actions of a young woman,' they're 'actions of many young women,' widely lived memes of Western civilization and pop culture. It's as if the aim of the book was to show adolescent preoccupations of Muslim teens in New Jersey can be just as drearily predictable as those of Caucasians, Blacks, South-East Asians, or even Skrull hybrids (Young Avengers fans are going to read this, right?). Proclaiming the shared cross-cultural blandness of puberty's challenges doesn't advance diversity significantly. The diversity that interests me says: 'We're all different, isn't it great?'. For me, Ms. Marvel #1 reads more like: 'We’re all the same really, isn't that great?'. But that’s comics today, too, isn’t it? Comics is having its moment of “we’re just like you” with the other, more “legitimate” and “acceptable” media, advancing the comic form by stealth, through geek cultural imperialism. I’m not a fan of this strategy, but I guess it’s nice to be accepted, and maybe I need to check some privileges…
Personal sidetracks aside, both the above statements of diversity are positive, and I'm glad that there's a Pakistani American girl in Marvel branding on shelves this week, I just find celebrating difference more interesting as story than celebrating similarities. But I'm a thirty-something man (sorry, Silva!) who didn't find growing up that interesting the first time around. I'm willing to bet an adolescent's appetite for alternate fictional selves might feast on this easy relatablility, charging Alphona's abstractions with the energy of emotional investment, teen narcissism. Plus, of course, there's infinite mileage in the parallel computing of superheroic Terrigenesis with Kamala's blossoming into womanhood, all kinds of interesting themes to be explored around power, control, and who, of all her options, Kamala may choose to be.
As a Marvel Universe book, though, I see trouble ahead. Wilson's deft dialoguing of Kamala vs. ignorant Caucasian peers is a refreshing antidote to ham-fisted 'Jock threaten; cheerleader hiss' high-school-by-numbers scripting, and I dig depicting the Terrigenesis cocoon process as a socio-spiritual fusion experience, but… you called it… continuity. I fear many new readers (Ms. Marvel #1’s target audience, right?) will fall for the 'superheroes doing Big' treatment, only to be disappointed when that poeticization gives way to the established 616 'science,' when the mists of Jersey magic are dispelled by Big Apple empiricism. As you say, Silva, if the book stays in Jersey, it could bloom into a beautiful divergence from continuity. But if the usual bid for better sales numbers is made and a Manhattan crossover comes a' callin', this fragile spell could be broken. This book lives and dies on whether the audience that's ready for it adopts it. It's all down to the kids. 'It's the kids, Silva, something has got to be done about the kids!'