Ms. Marvel: No Normal
G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Jacob Wyatt
2014 • 120 pages • Marvel
I have a Ms. Marvel poster in my kitchen.
I got it while making the comic book store/dead mall rounds while I was living in Denver. I wandered into a comic book store in a pretty dead strip mall, where I found both a Xena: Warrior Princess doll (which I did not buy, shame on me) and, on the freebies table, a Ms. Marvel poster to promote the then brand new title. I snatched it up and left it in the back of my car for weeks before I packed it up. It traveled with me all the way to New York, where it now graces my fridge.
Since then, Kamala Khan has blown up like few comic book characters. She’s gone from writing real person fanfic about the Avengers to being an Avenger. Both her and her self-titled series are seemingly adored by millions, if I can extrapolate out from my queer lady geek-centric Twitter feed. And seeing as she has been watching me eat breakfast for a year (shepherding me through my tragic abandonment of morning dairy), so I supposed it was time I finally sat down and read the first trade collection of her wildly successful title.
It will be no surprise to you that I adored Ms. Marvel: No Normal. (It may surprise you that the little French kid who read it alongside with me on the subway, peering over his father’s shoulder to do so, also seemed super into it.) Kamala Khan hits me in a way that I imagine Spider-Man used to hit people back when he was a teenager (which is why we’re always crawling in Spider-Man reboots)—as an everyteen whose superhero journey maps brilliantly onto and interacts dynamically with her struggles for identity and agency.
Of course, the best part of Kamala is that she’s not an everyteen according to mainstream American culture. She’s Pakistani-American, Muslim, and a big ol’ nerd, and these facets of her identity often conflict with one other. It’s hard to socialize when your curfew is 9 PM; it’s hard to feel cool when the cool kids don’t look like you; and it’s hard to stay true to who you are when everything’s in flux. One of the best moments in this collection finds Kamala at a party that she’s snuck out to go to. The most popular girl in her school, the very white and very blonde Zoe, greets her happily and immediately says something cruel about Kamala’s family. Kamala is horrified to realize that Zoe thinks this is okay to say to her face; that Zoe thinks Kamala’s act of teenage rebellion is inherently an act of cultural rebellion so big that it divorces Kamala from a major part of herself.
Needless to say, the party does not go well, but Kamala does end up getting superpowers that reflect her predicament: shapeshifting. Specifically, initially, shapeshifting into her idol, Ms. Marvel. For a little while, Kamala gets to experience being a “real superhero… with perfect hair and big boots,” finally inhabiting a persona that checks off every item on Kamala’s subconscious list of what it is to be cool: blonde, conventionally attractive, and powerful.
But that’s not who Kamala is (nor is it really who Carol is; there’s a reason Kamala fixates on Ms. Marvel and not Captain Marvel.) The suit fits poorly and it distances hers from her family and her community; her inability to turn the doppelganger effect on and off is a source of great anxiety. As Kamala learns to control her powers, through dedicated research, she also learns that the best person she can be is herself. The Kamala that emerges at the end of this initial arc is a young woman delighted by and (mostly) in control of her powers, starting the process of interweaving everything that she is together in an affirming, wholesome way.
And a hilarious way. Did I mention that Ms. Marvel is hilarious? I laughed so hard at a page spread of Kamala’s The Avengers/My Little Pony crossover fic that I startled that little French kid. (I shouldn’t laugh so hard at someone saying “He killed Rainbow Toots!”) And then there’s Kamala’s phone telling her that it’s got a “LOL DEAD BATTERY” when she tries to call the police. (It’s okay. Kamala’s practically the police.) Kamala’s a good-natured nerd in what’s largely a good-natured, humanistic teen comedy. When her kind of sidekick Bruno (who is gaga over her) lists off the reasons she’s awesome, she pauses and then tells him that he can keep going if he wants.
It’s also really important that Kamala’s family is just as well-rounded as she is. Mr. Khan loves his daughter dearly; his rules aren’t in place because he doesn’t trust her, but because he knows what the world can do. And he does trust her, not pestering her about her superheroic abilities. Even her brother, whose religious zeal is gently played for laughs (his parents chastise him for spending more time praying than looking for a job), is well-rounded. He narcs on her like a big brother would but, when their parents gang up on her, gently tries to intervene to protect his little sister. The Khans are a warm, loving family, and their influence plays a big part in why Kamala is such an amazing young woman.
What a great start to such a great character.
I rented this book from the public library.